Tuesday, August 24, 2010

10 Tips on Improving your Outdoor Photography Without Spending Money

If you know the basics of composition, you know how to operate your camera, but are looking for that little extra something to improve your photos this is the guide to do that. It's tough to take photos that are both technically sound and bring them to that next level. The little things make all the difference. They say it's not the gear, it's the photographer. So with that in mind, this guide applies to any equipment package.

1. Reduce Camera Shake

The best way to reduce camera shake is by mounting it on top of a stable tripod. This however is a guide for improving your photography without buying anything so we'll need to improvise. Combining several tricks is the best way to reduce shake down to 1/40 or 1/50. Firstly if you are hand holding the camera take a deep breath before snapping the shutter. If your camera has a burst mode, shoot two photos in rapid succession and delete the first which will have more shake from depressing the shutter.


1" exposure at f/10, shot by steadying the camera on a rock near the falls.

Alternatively try and find something stable to rest the camera on. If you're on a long hike, a trekking pole will often to the job. Simply rest the camera on its center of gravity (either the body, or on part of the lens with a heavy lens) and shoot away. Holding your breath while you shoot on the trekking pole is a good idea. For very slow shutter speeds you can sometimes rest the camera on a rock or pile up rocks to rest the camera on. Chances are though you won't be able to get the camera more than a couple inches off the ground.

2. Look up Sunrise/Sunset times in advance

Sunrise and Sunset are the best times to shoot photographs. Lighting conditions are idea for bringing depth and texture to photos. By knowing the time exactly that the sun will rise and set you can be ready and set up rather than scrambling to catch up to it. You can also set an alarm to off for sunrise.

3. Keep your camera out of the bag

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take" -Wayne Gretzke. That which applies to Hockey, applies to Photography. "Shoot first and ask questions later" might be another applicable quote. This is not to say shoot mindlessly, but you're far more likely to pass up photos which will at least present themselves as learning opportunities if not outstanding photos.

4. Carefully compose each photo

Speaking of not shooting mindlessly, carefully compose each photo. This guide assumes you know the basics of composition like the rule of thirds, etc. Something I have noticed though in both my own work, and the work of others is orphan branches that creep their way into the photograph. A lone branch sticking out only detracts from an image and while cropping around it in post production is an option it's not ideal. Don't focus in too much on your subject and scan your eyes around the entire frame while composing a photograph.


The branch in the top left corner ruins a good 1/3rd of this photo.

5. Don't stop at 1 shot

When I see in my minds eye, and what I compose sometimes don't line up. Mastering the mechanics of a camera help bridge this gap but it still sometimes takes a few attempts. Shooting variations on a theme, moving the subject(s) around slightly in the frame, trying slightly different angles will make sure you don't get home, look at your photos, and cry because you missed a great shot. If blur from camera shake is even a concern, make sure to increase the number of photos two fold.

It took a few attempts to get the shot I wanted

6. Include people for scale

A prominent peak miles away might not look like much on a 2D photograph. Especially when you're viewing it on a computer monitor it's going to be 2-3 inches tall at most. Using something recognizable for scale is important. Trees can be good but have a tendency to blend into the scene. People however can add both a sense of scale and context to the photo. The enormity of a mountain pass, peak, or valley is apparent when compared to a tiny human being. Just make sure they are large enough to be recognizable as a human forum.

7. Get down and dirty

Related to careful composition is the idea of being willing to get down and dirty. One of the best angles for filling both the foreground and the background is the "worms eye view". Get down on the ground and get your lens under that wildflower an catch the sun backlighting its pedals don't settle for the easy standup shot. Getting down and dirty brings variety to a photo set, it adds something different from the way we ordinarily see the world.

8. Get above your subject

If you're not having any luck with a worms eye view, try a bird's eye view. Get to a highpoint above what you want to photograph and start firing away. Lakes and Meadows look great when you can fill the frame with them and it's difficult to do that from the shoreline of a lake or standing in the middle of a meadow. Only a thin strip is going to show because of your angle. It can take some work to climb up to a high point but in the end it's usually worth the extra effort.

9. Think about the scene

There is thinking about your photo, and then there is really thinking about your photo. Often, especially when I am weary from a day of backpacking, I'll see something I want to photograph and just shoot without thinking. Sometimes it works out, but usually not. A better method is to approach a scene and think about what makes it unique, what drives your interest towards it, and what emotions it evokes. Then pick out the elements that support that feeling and use them to compose your photograph.


The dark clouds, the dead tree, the desolate peak all evoke all support the same emotions and allow the viewer to connect with the photo.

Often when you deeply reflect on a scene you may find that what initially struck you is not what holds your interest. The interaction between multiple subjects might be what draws your attention. Sometimes this process happens quickly for me and on other occasions it takes awhile. This technique is truly what separates out artistry from snapshots.

10. Shoot at moderate apertures

Each lens has a sweet spot, and aperture range where the subject is going to be at its absolute sharpest. Shooting at f/22 won't be as sharp as f/16 on most lenses. When you approach a landscape and want to capture the full scene in sharp detail, f/16 is probably going to do the trick anyway. I personally only go above f/18 if I'm trying to slow down the shutter speed and take a long exposure. f/11-f/16 will approximatley capture big landscapes in good detail. f/6 - f/9 are good for moderate depth, like under a forest canopy. f/2.8-f/5.6 are good for close ups. Shooting one stop above the minimum aperture is good rule of thumb for most lenses to get maximum sharpness.


Shot at f/14, both the foreground and background are sharp.


For more tips, information, and guides visit the how-to center.


1 comment:

  1. You forgot one thing: when you give your camera to your girlfriend who is tired from a day of backpacking, remind her that it is set for manual focus. Otherwise, potentially awesome pictures will come out blurry. :)

    Great post BTW!

    ReplyDelete