The outdoors offers an enormous number of beautiful subjects you can photograph. From sweeping mountain ranges to lush forests, nature provides prime material for photographers at any level.
But, the vastness and unpredictability of the outdoors can make taking pictures challenging. Outdoor photographers must master shifting natural light, plan for sudden stormy weather, and even manage capricious wildlife to capture their vision. As a beginner in photography, the element of the unknown can make outdoor shoots seem daunting.
What does it take to create a unique and memorable outdoor image? In this post, we’ll provide you with practical advice for outdoor photography so you can stun your viewers with unique and memorable outdoor images.
1. Do Your Research
Research, research, research – it’s the number one tip when it comes to outdoor photography.
You stand a better chance of creating great images on location when you do research beforehand.
Nowadays you can easily find references and ideas for outdoor photography by going online. Image-based content such as Google images, tourism sites, Flickr, and Instagram are great places to start learning about potential locations.
It’s also helpful to study images taken by other photographers from the same location. View their work and consider what makes it effective. It is the positioning of their camera? Is it the angle at which they’re approaching their subject?
Studying the works of others is a great way to find inspiration and can help you prepare for a productive shoot.
If you’re going to shoot in an area that’s never been photographed before, do your research by consulting maps and images on Google Earth. These tools will give you a good idea of what to expect while on location.
2. Pack Light
Outdoor shooting locations require strategic packing. You don’t want any excess gear weighing you down, especially if you need to hike to a remote scene. That said, you’ll also want to make sure you bring the gear required to take impressive photos.
Bring along the basics for any outdoor excursion: food, water, sun protection, and a rain jacket. Organize your camera bag so that it only contains the lenses and accessories that you need. The camera gear that we recommend bringing is:
Bringing the right lens is key when you’re shooting outdoors.
To effectively photograph expansive skies and landscapes, a wide-angle lens is your best bet.
You’ll also want to carry a wide-angle lens if you want to highlight objects in your foreground, such as textured rocks or plants. In the image below, for example, I used my Nikon 14-24mm to be able to capture the sky as well as the foreground plants in one image.
If you want to hone in on a specific part of a landscape, then a telephoto will work best. Bringing a telephoto lens is also beneficial if you plan on doing some wildlife photography.
If you can, I suggest bringing both your wide-angle and telephoto lens when you go out to shoot outdoors.
Outdoor photography doesn’t always showcase magnificent scenes with a wide-angle lens. Sometimes, a more intimate perspective of a scene using a telephoto lens will work best.
Wide Angle Lenses:
Tripods can be one of the heaviest tools in your arsenal, but one you don’t want to leave behind.
Having a tripod can bring many benefits to your shoot. It can provide stability for your camera, allowing you to shoot under low-light conditions, as well as experiment with long exposures.
If you prefer not to carry a heavy and bulky tripod, go for tripods with a lighter and more compact design such as the Manfrotto 190 Go! M-Series Carbon Fiber 4-Section Tripod. It is extremely durable yet it only weighs 2.7 pounds.
Another great option especially if you are not concerned about weight is the Gitzo GK2542-82QD Series 2 Mountaineer Carbon Fiber Tripod. Although it weighs about 5.2 pounds, it is an extremely well built, quality tripod from a well-known and respected brand.
Always bring extra batteries with you on your outdoor photography trips. This is even more crucial if you’re heading out to shoot in a cold environment, where low temperatures deplete battery life faster than normal.
You don’t want to find yourself missing that shot you’ve been waiting for because your camera is dead.
I try to bring at least three or more batteries with me to ensure that I’ll never miss out on any photo opportunities.
Polarizing filters have an incredible number of uses in outdoor photography. These filters will not only enable you to eliminate light reflecting off of wet surfaces, but also help boost colors in your scene.
3. Study the Weather
Capturing amazing outdoor images hinges on your timing in coordination with the weather.
While great outdoor images can happen on any day, those that are stormy skies tend to be the best for most compositions.
A dark, cloudy sky often creates dramatic colors at sunrise or sunset.
In most cases, you want to avoid going out on fully overcast days or cloudless days as they tend to produce lackluster skies. You’ll also generally want to avoid cloudless skies as they too typically make for dull backdrops.
4. Start in the Early Morning and Stay Up Late
The hours surrounding the sunrise can make magic in photography. When the sun is low in the sky, it creates diffused, soft light ideal for outdoor photography.
So, although getting up early enough to beat the sunrise can be difficult, doing so is certainly worth the effort. We suggest that you arrive at your location 30 minutes before sunrise to capture its soft golden hues.
Similarly, the ambient light during sunset is also excellent when shooting outdoors. For sunset shots, always aim to stay in the location well after the sunsets. Sometimes the best light happens well after the sun has already gone below the horizon.
If you can, consider waiting until the stars appear in the sky. When darkness covers your outdoor scene, it will transform and present you with new, interesting potential shots. Stars can become your subject, or you can hone in on the luminous moon.
For a spectacular nighttime shot, go on a night hike near a body of water. The reflections of light against the black sky will have you forgetting all about a full night’s sleep.
5. Avoid Midday Sun
The harsh shadows and highlights present during mid-day can easily ruin even the best outdoor compositions, so it’s best to avoid shooting at this time.
Instead, take advantage of this time to scout your location. By getting your preparation done while the natural light is unideal, you can save the soft morning and evening light for taking photographs.
6. Scout Your Location
Some of the most successful outdoor images come from a deep understanding of the shooting location. So, dive in deep to find a location that speaks to you, then learn as much as you can about that location.
Give yourself time to explore the area by getting to your location early, before the lighting is ideal. That way, you can settle on a subject and consider various angles or approaches before it’s actually time to shoot.
7. Watch the Light
Outdoor photography lighting is one of the trickiest, but most rewarding, elements of photography to get right. By mastering natural lighting in your outdoor photographs, you can create images that are compelling and pleasing to the eye.
Different aspects of light affect your subjects differently. Simple sunlight poking through the clouds can dramatically alter the mood and visual story of your composition.
Also, as the sun moves across the sky, the color palette in outdoor scenes shifts, from cool blues to warm reds.
Pay attention to lighting that will add drama to your image. Remember, great light can transform even the most mundane outdoor composition into a phenomenal one.
8. Use the Right Outdoor Photography Settings:
1. Set Your Camera to Aperture or Shutter Priority
The fast-changing light during sunrise and sunset requires you to constantly shift your exposure settings. This can make manually adjusting your aperture, shutter speed and ISO in manual mode difficult and inefficient.
To capture images more easily, switch your settings to shutter priority or aperture priority mode. Both priority modes enable your camera to choose one of the three exposure settings in accordance with the shifting light, allowing you to shoot more efficiently.
Aperture and shutter priority can both be useful at different times. Consider your subject and the overall message of your image to make the right choice.
In aperture priority, your camera chooses your shutter speed while the aperture and ISO settings are up to you.
Having full control of your aperture enables you to control the overall sharpness of the photo.
If you have a specific idea for what portion of the shot should be in clear focus, aperture priority is likely the best option for you.
For instance, in the image below, I used aperture priority to capture the mountains and the foreground in great detail.
In most cases, aperture priority is the best setting to use for landscape photography. Because your subject is not moving, having control of your shutter speed is not a concern if you mount your camera on a tripod.
If, on the other hand, your choice of subject is moving, as is often the case when photographing wildlife, then using shutter priority is a better option.
With shutter priority, you choose the shutter speed and ISO. The aperture is set automatically. This setting enables you to take photos in sharp detail with quick shutter speed.
Shooting in shutter priority allows you to control how motion is captured: frozen or blurred.
Using shutter priority allows you to take tack sharp images using fast shutter speeds.
2. Experiment with Slow Shutter Speeds
The movement of water, clouds, or trees in the wind can be softly blurred for a surreal photographic effect.
With slow shutter speeds, you can transform the movement of water, clouds, and trees in the wind into colorful, abstract textures.
To do this, mount your camera on a tripod and set your shutter to ¼ of second or slower. Doing this technique handheld will result in a camera shake and a blurry image.
You’ll also want to consider using an ND filter while using slow shutter speed during the day to filter the bright light and avoid overexposing your image.
3. Use The Lowest Possible ISO Setting
You’ll want to adjust your ISO according to your subject and the amount of natural light at the location.
Aim to use the lowest ISO setting possible. While you can increase the brightness of your image using a high ISO, doing so will also highlight the presence of noise in your image.
You should consider upping your ISO setting only if you can’t get the desired exposure using aperture or shutter speed settings.
4. Use a Large F-stop
Using large f-stop deepens depth-of-field. A deep depth-of-field keeps most of the frame in sharp focus and allows you to capture outdoor scenes in great detail.
Setting your camera to a small f-stop, on the other hand, would have the opposite effect. A small f-stop will create a shallow depth-of-field, keeping only a small area of your image in sharp focus.
Some photographers make the creative choice to use a blurred, gentle background. But, if your goal is to capture the beauty of nature in great detail, then using a large will work best.
6. Master Exposure Compensation
Exposure compensation allows you to adjust your exposure when using aperture and shutter priority.
For instance, once you’ve determined what aperture to use in aperture priority, take a look at the histogram.
If your histogram is shifted to the left, that means your image consists primarily of shadows. On the other hand, if your histogram is shifted to the right, your image consists primarily of highlights. Finally, if your histogram is bell-shaped or centralized at the midpoint your image consists mostly of mid-tones.
If the elements in your scene and your histogram do not match, adjust your exposure compensation until they do.
9. Shoot in RAW
RAW is an uncompressed type of file and, while it requires a lot of memory space, it results in superior photography.
With RAW images, you’ll have more flexibility in terms of color and brightness when editing your images. Post-processing may not be an immediate concern when shooting outdoors, but preparing for it by using RAW format will help you out when it’s time to edit.
Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story
10. Pay Attention to The Horizon
Since most outdoor compositions feature the horizon, it’s important to be vigilant as to where and how you position it in your frame.
For instance, when composing your image, make sure the horizon is straight. Although you can straighten your horizon in post-processing, it requires you to crop out the corners of your image.
This can be problematic if you’ve placed critical visual elements at the edges of your frame. So, it’s often ideal to achieve it during your shoot.
In general, you’ll also want to avoid placing your horizon in the center of your frame as it can often lead to dull compositions. Instead, place your horizon either on the upper or lower third portion of the frame.
A horizon line placed in the upper third portion of the frame will accentuate the foreground. Conversely, a horizon line placed in the lower third portion will accentuate the background or sky.
Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography
11. Choose a Focal Point
You’ll typically find a lot of elements in outdoor scenes. Thus, it’s important that your composition has a clear focal point.
Your focal point is the element that pulls your viewer’s attention and brings interest in your image. Without it, your picture will be visually confusing and dull.
Look for a unique or interesting tree, rock, wildlife or other natural subjects that can guide your image.
Once you’ve settled on a focal point, you can build your composition around it. Try out different angles at which you’re approaching the focal point until you can find the best composition.
12. Find Leading Lines
Leading lines have a similar purpose to a focal point in that they direct viewers’ eyes throughout a composition. They are a wonderful tool for creating balanced, interesting compositions.
They can take several different forms in nature. Paths, trails, and roads are clear examples, but consider a row of stones, a fence, a hedge – your leading line doesn’t necessarily have to be linear to effectively guide the viewer to your focal point.
13. Use The Rule of Thirds
If you’ve looked at any outdoor photography guides, you’ve likely read about the rule of thirds. Using this rule, you’ll divide your scene into nine squares using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines.
Then, take your focal point and position it at a point where the lines intersect. This rule can help you find a more visually striking position for the focal point than the dead center.
Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography
14. Keep the Foreground in Mind
You may find yourself feeling frustrated if your outdoor pictures are looking like everyone else’s. Working with the foreground in new and unexpected ways is one way to distinguish your work from that of other artists in your field.
An effective foreground creates depth in the image, making viewers feel like they’re really there. The foreground acts as a door through which viewers can enter your image and explore all of its elements.
You can also use foreground elements to lead the viewer through your composition. To do this add compositional elements such as leading lines, s-curves or secondary frames.
To enhance your foreground, use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses highlight objects in the foreground by making them appear larger and closer to the viewer.
Resource: How to Use Leading Lines in Photography
15. Use Side Light and Backlight For Color and Texture
Sidelight and backlight are two natural lighting options in outdoor photography. Each has different strengths and are better suited to certain situations.
For example, sidelight can highlight the texture and detail remarkably well. Backlighting can make forest scenes glow as light passes through the vibrant tree leaves.
If you opt for backlight, bring a lens hood to cover the lens and prevent lens flares.
16. Add a Sense of Scale
In outdoor portrait photography, it can be difficult to portray the scale to the viewer. Natural subjects such as vast mountains, tall trees, and large bodies of water can make it hard to tell the size of objects in the frame.
To provide a sense of scale, consider including a reference point to your composition. Plants, rocks, and wildlife are all great examples to depict depth and scale in a scene.
But one of my favorite ways to demonstrate scale in outdoor scenes is by including people in it.
Placing a person in the middle of a natural scene will not only provide the viewer with a sense of scale but also a way to resonate more deeply with the image.
Getting a person into your image can be as easy as bringing along a friend or getting into the frame yourself using the camera timer. You could also include an object that implies a human presence, such as a tent, kayak, or pair of hiking boots, to evoke similar emotions from your audience.
17. Look For Reflections and Water
Water adds an incomparable quality to outdoor compositions. Still, water evokes serenity, while turbulent waves are dramatic and unpredictable.
Finding reflections in still, smooth water can add depth and beauty to an image. Or, you can use a slow shutter speed on moving water to produce colorful, textured reflections.
When using slow shutter speeds, remember to attach an ND Filter to your lens. These filters make it possible to use long exposures during the day without overexposing your image. You’ll also want to mount your camera on a tripod to avoid camera shake.
18. Look For Wildlife
When people think of outdoor photography, they think of looming forests or expansive mountain ranges. But, outdoor photography involves wildlife too.
Wildlife images are often dynamic and exciting – they’ll contribute an element of movement to your outdoor photography portfolio. A telephoto lens (specifically around 100mm to 300mm) is the optimal lens choice for most wildlife photography, as well as a small aperture of about f/16. This lens choice will enable you to get a closer view without scaring the animals off, while the small aperture creates a sharp, detailed image.
From photographing wildlife to water, sweeping landscapes to up-close shots, outdoor photography has much to offer. With so many photographic opportunities out there in nature, don’t shy away from taking chances or trying something new. By following your instincts and allowing yourself to be curious, you can create a striking, original depiction of an outdoor scene.
19. Never Pass Up An Opportunity
Outdoor photography trips often mean planning and commitment. So, while you’re out on a shoot, never pass up an opportunity.
Even if you think you’ll have a chance to take a photo later, or if you’re eager to keep moving, it’s best to take every shot available to you at the moment. You never know: natural lighting could change or the weather could take a turn for the worst.
Also, aim to map out your route in a way that will create the most interesting shooting opportunities. Allow yourself to deviate from the path if you become curious about an area or if your instincts lead you elsewhere. You will find that some of the most exciting, striking photos you take were entirely spontaneous.
You can be ready-to-go as an outdoor photographer at all times with a belt system like the Think Tank Waist Belt. It keeps your camera ready-to-go and hands-free at your waist without inhibiting your balance or mobility. This belt system is even padded for hip comfort and features Velcro fasteners to keep essential gear readily available, such as extra lenses, and cleaning tissue.
While there are known guidelines and techniques to create effective outdoor photography, much of your success will be determined by your curiosity and willingness to take risks. So, get out and start wandering through the stunning outdoor locations that our world has to offer. From there, you can use your artistic and technical skills to create a unique composition.