Outdoor Photography 101

The great photographer Dorothea Lange once said, “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”  She was right.

Whatever your reason for heading out into the outdoors, carrying a camera will enrich your experience.  Hiking with a camera encourages you to look a little harder at the world around you; to see and appreciate more.  And while mastering the craft of photography does take years of apprenticeship, even beginners- by considering a few helpful hints- can improve their work.

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In that spirit, here are a few basic conventional, as well as several more personal thoughts, on becoming a better outdoor photographer.

Take a Class

The basics of photography are outside the scope of this piece.  However, suffice it to say that the single best thing you can do to improve your enjoyment of photography is to master the basics. Get the lay of the land by reading books and looking at tutorials on the internet, but find a good teacher. Having someone show you, hands on, how to use a camera is the very best way to learn

Ultimately, being a good photographer isn’t about owning expensive gear, but, rather, is about learning the basic principles of photography and then matching those principals with your own unique vision.  Once you learn the basics, you’ll be on your way to using your camera as a craftsman uses a tool, rather than being limited by the automatic features of your camera.

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Think Before Shooting

Once you’ve mastered the basics and are ready to head out, stop and think.  Before leaving, research your destination.  What time are you going to shoot?   What will be the quality and strength of light at that place at that time?  What time is sunrise and sunset?  Do the research.

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Avoid shooting in the middle of the day under bright sunlight when the sun is high overhead and bathing everything equally in bright, flat and unhelpful light.  Photograph instead just before and after sunrise and in the hours before sunset. The light during these so called golden hours can often possess a special intensity, clarity and color.

Think also in terms of geography and about what interests you aesthetically.  Do you want to capture the sun rise lighting up the front of that mountain range, capture birds in flight, or shoot the sky catching fire as the sun sinks into the bay? Each outing will involve a unique set of challenges. A little prior preparation could save a lot of disappointment once you’re out in the field.

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For instance, depending upon when and where you’re shooting, your day could be limited by the availability of sunlight. Yosemite Valley in November, for instance, might only provide five good hours of sunlight during the day.  Plan accordingly.

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Walk Away

In many parks these days, herds of deer are now outnumbered by herds of photographers. I’ve witnessed photographers in National Parks lined up elbow to elbow jousting for trip pod real estate.

Given the proliferation of affordable cameras, large crowds- and occasionally unctuous behavior- is, unfortunately, not uncommon.  If you find yourself in such a situation, walk away.  Hiking to a quiet place away from the crowds will pay endless psychic dividends.

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Go Light

Good gear is your friend.  Buy the best you can afford, but only what you need.  Research and experience will teach you what gear you need.  Do not buy the latest model SLR simply because it is the latest model; rather, find the camera that you need and learn it through and through. Carry as few lenses as possible.

Going light will enable to cover more ground and capture more great photos.  Think of John Muir who was want to “roll up some bread and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off.” Just don’t forget that you’re not John Muir and that even while traveling light, you need to carry your emergency gear (consult the list of field essentials below).

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Composition, or Think Again

Once you find your way to a quiet place and locate a worthy subject- think again before shooting- this time about composition- which is an important element in creating a good photograph.

Good composition means answering the question: “what’s this photograph about?”   Once you have the answer to this question, put the subject of your interest inside the photo, and everything else outside the frame.

Think also about lines and geometry. There are always lines and the suggestion of geometric shapes in any photograph.  Ask yourself how you can accentuate these lines and shapes to emphasize the subject of your photograph.

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 Funky weather is your friend

Blue skies are boring- at least in photos.  If you awake and find that it’s snowing, sleeting, raining or foggy, do not go back to bed. While most normal mortals eschew such climatic conditions, true photographers realize that such conditions provide for great photography.

Get up, dress right and gather the gear you need to protect your camera and lenses. Then head gleefully out to the mess.  Look for the last colorful fall leaves standing out against winters first blanket of snow; go out and search for fog shrouded mountains;  or rain dappled rivers. Seek out storm clouds reflected in puddles.

Enjoy having the world to yourself while everyone else sleeps in or hides out.

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 Take a walk- again

One of the best pieces of photography advice I’ve received recently is to literally walk around a subject before shooting- or at least try and view a subject from as many perspectives as possible. You’re obviously not going to circumambulate a mountain before shooting- but scouting 100 yards to the left and to the left before shooting might just cause you to be aware of options you would not have appreciated had you simply shot from the first place you set up.

Gear You Need in the Field

If you want to start a good discussion which has a pretty good chance of morphing into a brawl, ask several different photographers to come up with a definitive list of necessary gear for any photography expedition.

In a nutshell, what where and when you shoot dictates what you will carry, and even then, opinions vary wildly.  Furthermore, the gear requirements for a landscape photographer will vary widely from those of a landscape photographer.  As always, rely on research and experience and the wisdom of those who come before you. Experienced photographers are always willing to share.

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Most importantly, don’t forget about yourself.  Pack for a wide range of weather conditions.  With a good rain and windproof shell, a down vest and synthetic underwear, you’ll stay warm and dry in just about any conditions without getting bogged down.  Remember that carrying too much can hurt as much as not carrying enough. Great boots are worth every dime.  For my landscape work, I make it a point to travel light: one camera body and (usually) two lenses and maybe an extra battery, memory card and a bottle of water.

Other essentials which will fit in a small pack include- but are not limited to:  a map, a lighter, energy bars; water purification tablets; cell phone ,space blanket;  microfiber lens cloth;  a lightweight roll up dry bag large enough to cover your camera and lens; and a good knife and/or Leatherman multitool.

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If you’re of the less minimalist school, you might think about a tripod (an essential according to many outdoor photographers); additional lenses, remote shutter release, lens filters (especially a polarizing filter) and/or a digital viewer for backing up your images in the field.

Happy hunting and have a great time.