Mother nature can be a lovely muse. But outdoor photography, with its constantly changing conditions, can also be challenging—especially for amateur photographers. And while photography courses and ample practice will allow you to get the hang of it in time, there are a few steps you can take to immediately level up your outdoor photography. Here, we’ll share eight helpful tips that will help anyone, from novice to pro, to better capture the true majesty of the great outdoors.
1. Know Your Location
Planning ahead sounds like an obvious first step, but far too many photographers neglect it. It can feel like busywork, especially when you’re itching to get outside and shoot. But failing to plan can sabotage the final product in many different ways.
First, consider the time of day and the weather—sunrise and sunset are two of the best times of day to capture dazzling natural light. Before you head to your location, research the exact time that the sun is due to rise or set and the cloud to blue sky ratio, in addition to more location-specific information like tide schedules for beach photography or traffic and crowd flow patterns for urban landscape photography.
Mobile applications make it easier than ever to cover your bases before heading outdoors. There are apps for reporting tide levels, getting up-to-the-second weather for a chosen location, or even finding the perfect dark sky for doing some starscape photography. There’s just no excuse anymore for getting caught in the rain.
But technology can only do so much. When possible, you’ll also want to scout out your location in person before arrival. Look for scenes, objects, and compositions that might work for you when you are ready to shoot. Failing to do your homework can waste your time—and hurt your business. After all, outdoor portraiture clients may lose confidence in a photographer who leads them on a rambling walkabout.
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2. Get The Gear
If you’re pursuing photography professionally, you probably already have a camera—likely a DSLR—and some basic tools. But regardless of what’s in your camera bag, you can step outside and shoot beautiful photos. “You could have just bought your first camera or you could have already done a hundred photo shoots,” says Jessica Kobeissi, the photographer and YouTuber behind the Skillshare Original Portrait Photography: Shoot & Edit Instagram-Worthy Shots. “It’s all about your creativity as a photographer. Don’t worry if you don’t have the most brand new, expensive camera gear. Trust me, when I first started, I had none of that.”
But the right gear does offer certain advantages to photographers, especially when shooting in nature. Consider the following purchases as you assemble your gear bag: While they’re not mandatory, they can make a major difference in your capabilities.
Wide Angle Lens: Nature scenes can be vast and expansive, and often a regular lens just can’t do a view justice. Give yourself a leg up by using a wide-angle (35-24mm) lens. You can angle the lens up to emphasize the sky in interesting ways or angle it down to focus on details or patterns on the ground. Be aware though, that a wide-angle lens usually distorts the edges of the frame, causing straight lines to appear to lean inward. And because a wide-angle lens can capture so much more of the scene, you’ll need to put extra effort into emphasizing your main subject in the photograph so that you don’t end up with distractions or a cluttered composition.
Tripod: Tripods eliminate camera shake, allowing you to use wide-angle lenses or shoot with longer exposure settings without coming away with a blurry photo. Tripods can also allow for more creative shots: Adjust the height for low- or high-angle shots, or set up your camera in mud or water and use a cable release (which we’ll cover next) to capture an especially rustic view.
Cable Release: This handy little device, which generally costs about $30, plugs into your camera and allows you to operate it from a distance, safeguarding the shot against the jolt of your finger pushing the shutter release.
3. Mind Your Composition
Finding the right composition can be the trickiest part of outdoor photography. Adjusting shutter speed, aperture, and ISO can feel like a science, but using the elements of composition in harmony is truly an art. Fortunately, there are some basic principles of composition that generations of artists have turned to for centuries. We’ll touch on two in this segment, and delve deeper into others as we move through more tips for outdoor photography. For a more complete overview of composition, consider taking a full class on the topic or doing additional research before your next shoot.
Visual Weight: Any time our eyes are open, our brains are busy assigning varying degrees of importance to every detail we see. In art, this is referred to as visual hierarchy. The more pull an element has on the viewer’s focus, the higher it is in that hierarchy, and the more visual weight it has. All great works of art, including photography, use visual hierarchies strategically to move the viewer’s eye through the composition pleasingly or effectively. Just becoming aware of visual hierarchies is half the battle: You can develop this skill by looking at photographs, works of art, or any visual composition. Consider what draws your eye first and how your eye moves through the composition from there. Then, think about how you can apply those elements to your own work.
Simplification: Like any other kind of art, photography is a form of communication. It may seem like you’re just capturing what you see and passing it along to a viewer, but a truly artful photograph should also capture an emotion. Simple compositions, like an endless field of rolling wheat at sunset, make that goal more achievable. When there’s no uncertainty about what the subject is, a viewer can consider their feelings around the image. Meanwhile, a photograph that has a lot going on might be more confusing: The viewer will have to figure out what the important details are before considering how they should feel about them. When in doubt, keep it simple by focusing on a single subject or finding a simple but sweeping landscape.
4. Choose a Focal Point
The focal point of a photograph is the object or element that most powerfully attracts the eye. The focal point might be lighter, brighter, more detailed, or more emotionally weighted than any other element in the picture. Darker elements are often perceived as shadows or negative space and are thus usually consigned to the bottom of the hierarchy, but it can work the other way if something dark is starkly contrasted against lighter elements.
The viewer’s eye will always search for a focal point within a photograph, so skilled photographers control the eye’s movement through the composition by choosing the subject strategically.
5. Heed The Rule of Thirds
The brain has certain spots in a composition where it’s more likely to find a focal point. When you divide an image into thirds horizontally and vertically, there are four points where vertical and horizontal lines intersect. Those intersections are the sweet spots, and using them to your advantage is called the “rule of thirds.” Once you’ve chosen a focal point, consider placing it at one of those intersections for a fool-proof composition.
“It’s always important to keep the thirds in mind when you’re shooting landscape,” says photographer Tim Landis in the Skillshare Original Smartphone Photography: Capturing Landscapes. Most cameras—even the one on your iPhone—allow you to place a grid of thirds over your viewfinder. “You’re going to want to place the subject in one of those intersecting lines,” says Landis. “It’s very important. The human eye is just trained to work that way.”
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6. Guide Your Viewer’s Eye with Lines and Patterns
Nature might look a bit messy at first glance. But if you look a little closer, you’ll find that lines and patterns are everywhere, and they can be used in your photography to guide the viewer’s eye in the direction you want it to go.
“Leading lines are things that go horizontally or vertically that lead the eye,” explains Landis. “They call them leading lines because they lead the eye up to your subject or your point of focus or your point of interest.”
Whether it’s the snaking lines of a river or the pattern of the treetops in a forest, the mind finds lines and patterns interesting and pleasant, so be on the lookout for the beautiful geometry of nature.
7. Create Texture with Long Exposure
Learning to use long exposure photography is a key way to elevate your outdoor photography—both in this tip, to create texture, and in the next one, to shoot at night. Long exposure photography is when you increase the length of time that the camera lens is open and receiving information, such as light and motion, from the scene. To do this, you adjust the shutter speed—a factor that can vary hugely depending on what you are trying to capture.
Long exposure is useful in capturing motion to create interesting textures. If you’ve ever seen a photograph of a stream where there was a lovely, almost fantastical creaminess to the water as it slipped over rocks, the photographer used a long exposure to create that creamy texture. Water moves fast, so to capture its motion, you might only want a shutter speed of six seconds. Meanwhile, clouds move more slowly, so you may use a shutter speed of thirty seconds or more.
Long exposure can be impressive, but the technique brings with it some complications.
Avoiding Washed-Out Photos Using Lens Filters: The first challenge of using long exposure during the day is that your lens collects light in addition to motion. During the day that can produce washed-out photos when you’re using long exposure. This is where lens filters come in handy: Filters absorb light, but not color, allowing your camera to collect motion without being deluged with light during those long exposures. Learn more about lens filters in photographer Indeana Underhill’s course Lens Filters: An Introduction to Pushing Your Still Images.
Photo Retouching for Unwanted Motion: The second challenge of using long-exposure photography is that you can’t pick and choose what motion you capture as you shoot. You capture all of it indiscriminately, which means that you’re bound to capture unwanted motion from time to time. Fortunately, you can easily solve this problem with photo retouching. Perhaps you want to capture the motion of the clouds and surf in a beach scene, but not the bobbing of a buoy: Start by taking one short exposure photograph capturing everything still, then taking the long exposure photograph to capture the motion of the scene. Later, you’ll simply layer the two images in your editing software and substitute the motionless buoy from the short exposure into the long exposure photograph. Voila! You’ve got the gorgeous long-exposure texture of the clouds and surf, and a crisp, in-focus buoy.
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8. Shoot at Night
Night photography is notoriously challenging. While an amateur might get lucky and take a great day landscape photo, the odds of stumbling into an artful photo go out the window once the sun is down. But night photography can be uniquely arresting and evocative, and learning just a few simple tricks can free you from having to pack up your camera at nightfall. Fortunately, our discussion of long exposure photography is the perfect segue into the world of night photography.
For night shooting, it becomes crucial to get your exposure triangle—the balance of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture—just right. Shutter speed is arguably the most important corner of that triangle. Long exposure photography, which slows the shutter way down, can be helpful during the day for capturing motion, but at night it’s the secret weapon that allows you adequate light without a flash or other disruptive artificial source. Whether you are shooting bustling nightlife and cityscapes or desert landscapes with the stars as your only light source, giving your lens plenty of time to soak up all available light is key.
Start with an ISO that’s as low as possible—typically around 100—and set the aperture wide open to provide the large depth of field necessary for low-light photography. Then, play with shutter speed. Between six and 10 seconds should provide the light you need. But for certain effects, like the motion of stars in the night sky or the light trails of cars moving along a road, you might use a shutter speed of 30 minutes or more. Play around with different combinations of settings and see what works for you. Your desired effect might be different from another photographer’s—and that’s okay. Finding your own style is part of growing as an artist and creative professional.
There is almost nothing more magnificent to behold than the wonder of nature. Allow these eight tips for perfecting your outdoor photography to empower you as you capture that wonder and share it with others. For a more detailed look at some of the concepts we’ve covered here, consider enrolling in a class on low-light photography, brushing up on the basics of outdoor portraiture, or applying the elements of great nature photography to your smartphone shots. Then lace up those hiking boots, grab your gear, and get outdoors.