Stunning outdoor photos are a hot ticket skill to have in your repertoire. But even with all the gadgets, filters, and tech at our disposal, there are still so many ho-hum photos out there.
For no reason.
It pains me.
Now, please understand that I’m no pro photographer—far from it (and I know it). I have a long way to go before I’d ever be printed in a magazine and I’m always looking for ways to learn from others and improve my skills. What I am saying is: If I can do my very small part in helping to improve the visual world, I am happy to do so.
This three-part guide is my little way to give back to all those who helped me in my journey so far and help (if I can) anyone that’s desperate for some free ideas.
Before we get into the super exciting stuff, though, you need to start with the basics. It might be boring for those who are into instant gratification, but just do it—you’ll be more creative with your camera in the long run if you do.
Read the manual
Your camera’s manual can feel overwhelming, but you’d be surprised how many new ideas you can pick up in just a few pages if you’re new to photographing. Take one section of the manual at a time to really master it, then move on to the next — this will help you build foundational skills on which your creativity can build on.
Take time to get to know your camera
As you continue working with your camera, you’ll understand more about things like shutter lag (the timing between pressing the button and the shutter actually releasing—which is ultra important when you’re trying to capture action!), processing speed (significant if you are trying to capture a lot of photos in a short span of time — such as with continuous shooting mode for action shots), and even battery drain (especially if you’re using your camera in the cold or going into video mode). Knowing the nuances of your camera can help you understand when you need to press the button to actually capture the shot you’ve set up for, help you manage your resources so you have enough power to capture shots later in the day, and more.
Shoot at the highest quality and resolution setting on your camera
You’ll want to shoot in the highest setting available on your camera. Yes, it’ll eat up more of your memory card, but clarity, details, and color are all important aspects of a photo—something that only gets better the more you allocate resources for. If you’re hoping other people will take notice of your shots, you need to invest in the quality, even if this means you need to grab a bigger SD card. I usually shoot with at least 32gb SD cards if it’s a short day, more if it’s a full day or overnight.
Try shooting in RAW if you’re going to work in a post-processing program. Though the difference in file size is pretty big compared to shooting in .jpg, it allows for much more adjustment, allowing you to make the shots you get even better—at least until you know how to get exactly the shot you want in the field (but even then, it’s standard practice for even seasoned pros to implement post-processing). Either way, go ultimate in quality.
Learn the rules of good composition
Rule of Thirds (& Beyond)
One of the most basic foundations of composition is using the “rule of thirds.” To start, mentally insert a tic-tac-toe grid into your frame, then line up the most important features on the rows and columns. Try to line up horizons, for instance, either on the bottom third of the photo (e.g. if you are photographing a dramatic sky) or on the top third (e.g. if the foreground has visual impact) rather than straight through the center. If there are any elements that you want to particularly stand out, line them up in any of the four points where horizontal and vertical lines meet.
While using this technique (if you haven’t already) can 10x your photos on its own, it’s really just the beginning of composition. Take it to the next level with the Fibonacci sequence, a.k.a the golden ratio, which is often seen in nature itself (the spiral of a snail shell is often used as an example). The principle is, again, to line up the most captivating parts of the image with the most powerful visual lines.
If one side of the photo seems heavy (the left third has the bulk of a mountain, for example) offset it with a very defined sun flare or a tree on the other third. The trick is to look for ways to make the “weight” of each side balanced. You can even use color to help balance (a smaller dark object can have the same visual weight as a larger white object, for example).
Look for ways to incorporate lines to draw the eye to an important element. Called “leading lines,” these help move viewers through the photo and help give a sense of depth in a photo. Train tracks, trails, a ridge line—even a well-placed sunflare can be used to point notice in the direction of the subject.
White Balance (Carry a Gray Card)
If you ever felt your photos came out with too much of a blue (cool) or yellow (warm) tone, this is the technique that will save your photos. Learning this one technique can drastically improve the color quality of your photos. You can use one of the presets in your camera or go it the manual way.
(This chart, from the School of Imaging, can help you understand those presets: http://www.schoolofimaging.ca/Tips-Perfect-White-Balance.aspx#)
While the options above can help you overcome some of the hurdles of coloring in your photos, a better choice is to get white balance on point with the specific lighting you are in. That is managed by using a neutral color, like a gray card (or even a white sheet of paper, though some argue this isn’t best practice, you’ll still probably end up with better results than not doing any white balancing) to calibrate all other colors in the session you are shooting. When the lighting or location changes, you simply set the white balance, using the card again, and the colors will be configured to be true with the new setting.
Each camera sets up white balance differently, so you’ll need to go back to tip #1, but in general: before starting your shoot, fill the frame using the white balance card in the lighting you’ll be shooting in; select that photo while in your settings under white balance; shoot using that setting until the lighting changes (different time of day, cloud cover, etc.) or you change locations; repeat.
Clean the lens!
Bring a microfiber cloth or cleaning kit to clean dust and water off the lens. If you’re shooting water or in a place where dusty trails are regularly getting stirred up (e.g. mountain biking), regularly check your lens to make sure water hasn’t splashed on it without you knowing. There’s not much that is more frustrating than shooting a ton of great photos and then realizing later (once you look at the image on a bigger screen) that there’s a persistent drop of water blurring your friend’s face.
Bring extra batteries (and a portable charger)
Even if you get to know how long it takes for your batteries to drain in varying situations, they will likely have a mind of their own at the most inopportune times. Be prepared by stocking up on some extra batteries—charged before you go into the field—and/or carrying along a USB DSLR charger along with a portable external battery. While it means a little bit more weight in your pack, the system will help keep you covered no matter what crops up, especially if you’re out in the field for a few days, you’re shooting video, or the temperatures are especially cold. (P.S. in the case of the latter, keep your batteries as close to your body as you can when they aren’t in use.)
Read on for Part II: Light and Depth in the Outdoors