Five Tips for Taking Great Outdoor Pictures

By | November 15, 2011

Photography is a great excuse to get outside. The kids can be the subject of your photos, or you can let them run around with the camera collecting pictures of stuff they find. Or maybe you create a natural scavenger hunt. At some point however, it’s nice to let the kids play while you snap away. Whether you’re taking pictures of your kids, landscapes, or the intricacies of nature, here are a few tips for great outdoor photography.

#1 – GET UP EARLY
I read an interview once with John Fielder, one of Colorado’s most prolific landscape photographers. He said something to the effect that great photography is mostly about hard work. In particular, he was talking about the hard work of being at the right place at the right time. For photographing the Rockies, this might mean getting up at 3 am to climb four or five hours to the perfect spot before the sun rises over the horizon. Most of us don’t want to work for the perfect shot. Then again, most of us aren’t getting paid to take photographs either. But if you want more professional looking photographs, you need to be intentional about it.

#2 – FIND THE LIGHT
The previous post hinted at this one. You have the best light in the early morning and in the evening. When the sun is low on the horizon it picks up more color from the atmosphere, hits landscapes and trees at interesting angles, and generally provides the best light you’ll find all day. I’ve also found great light right after a thunderstorm. When dark clouds part, especially in the fall, the sun hits the gold and reds of the trees and the rain soaked fields gleam in the light. Because of this, when it’s raining, we’re always keeping an eye out for the break in the clouds.

As someone who has to take a lot of photos for work (travel writing), I’ve found bright sunny days to be the absolute worst for taking pictures. The sun creates stark shadows, so all your shots will be at the extremes of black and white. If it’s at all warm, the sun evaporates moisture on the ground making landscape shots hazy and uninteresting. Much better to go out when the sky is a bit overcast for lighting you can work with.

#3 – TRY ANOTHER ANGLE
We like to take a lot of pictures of our kids. Too many. I think we have 20,000 of Grace alone (I am being conservative). This is the curse of digital photography. There’s no holding back in the field—you just keep snapping away, making little adjustments as you go. The real problem is, however, that the pictures all start to look the same; it’s just the clothes that change.

One cure for routine photos is to try and find a better angle. I discovered this one day while trying to get a good photo of a deck I had just refinished. Standing on a step ladder in the backyard, the picture turned out way better than the ones the real estate agent had taken just a year earlier. So now, I stand on chairs, fences, and ladders whenever I can. I also take it the other way and lay down in the grass or on the sidewalk. With a small display on the back of your camera, you can go even lower or higher. As long as you can see the screen, you know what’s being framed.

#4 – FRAME THE SHOT
You will read about this in every photo guide, but it’s critical. Learn how to frame a shot. The rule of thirds is a great place to start. It’s okay to simply center and shoot, but you will be much happier with the outcome (no matter what you choose) if your shots are framed on purpose.

#5 – SHOOT THE HAND
For this website, we didn’t want a lot of pictures of our kids plastered around. On the other hand, stock photography is boring and impersonal. So, necessity being the mother it is, I started taking pictures of my kids from behind, or close-ups at weird angles that showed what they were doing without showing their faces. I found that many of the pictures are more interesting because of this. Of course, there’s nothing a parent wants to remember more than a child’s smiling laughing face, but to capture what’s unique about a moment, it sometimes helps to focus on just that thing and see where it takes you. Another added benefit of shots like these is how much they help when putting together scrapbook pages. A page of the same face smiling at you is boring. Adding action shots and interesting close-ups add a lot.

A final thought: Do something with all those photos. If you’re like me, you have thousands of photos stored up on your computer. Cull the best, delete the rest. Then you can then create custom photo books with all your wonderful pictures to share them with your friends and family.

Resources: As an added bonus, I want to share with you a book that’s been a real gold mine of information on photographing landscapes: The Landscape Photography Field Guide by Carl Heilman II. I’ve learned a ton from this book, and it’s small enough to fit in my camera bag.

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