Outdoor photography is all about taking dynamic shots using the natural elements of the environment around you. If you think of studio photography as a static experience that can be controlled, then outdoor photography is all about the unconventional and unpredictable.
Shooting outdoors gives you the freedom to utilize abundant natural lighting and capture interesting landscapes to convey a story. But how do you control an uncontrollable environment?
Careful planning and the right gear can make the job easier, but it’s the imagination that really brings out the best outdoor photographs.
What is Outdoor Photography?
If you’ve taken photos outside, then you’ve already experienced outdoor photography. However, that title is now considered a broad term and is the proverbial umbrella for many photography subgenres.
Many other types of photography, such as portrait photography, can be done indoors or outdoors, providing a new set of rules for the photographer to learn.
The Many Faces of Outdoor Photography
There are outdoor photographers from all walks of life, and it’s not unusual to meet a travel and wedding photographer shooting in the same locales. Much like the other genres, outdoor photography lets you break the mold and express your imagination as long as you have a camera and the wits to be creative outside.
Outdoor Portrait Photography
Portrait photography is about bringing your subject to life within the frame. Outdoor portraits take that to the next level with the addition of concentrated natural light and the ability to immerse your subject in the environment.
Popular niches include engagement and family photos. Most photographers will take advantage of the golden hour when shooting these types of portraits, as the golden hue really brings skin tones to life.
Outdoor Wedding Photography
Most wedding shoots are a hybrid of indoor and outdoor photography. Inside, you’ll have the ceremony and reception, and then it’s to the outdoors for more intimate photos of the married couple and family. The “marriage” of the natural world with such a traditional ceremony is both inspiring and capable of pulling out some banger shots.
Outdoor weddings are less work when it comes to setting up lighting, but you are subject to what the weather has in store for the event. It requires a lot of innovation and plan changes to be successful in outdoor wedding photography.
Venturing to far-off lands or exploring new locales is at the core of what travel photography represents. Shooting good travel photography involves showing the location in as realistic a manner as you can. This can include local weather phenomena, wildlife, and even cultural traditions of the area you’re in.
Environmental photographers will have to travel to remote spots to capture the story in their images, and they do this regardless of the weather outside.
One of the most recognized outdoor photography genres, landscape photography is about finding a stunning vista and then capturing it with a camera. This style of photography can be difficult to pull off because you have to travel to your location and then coordinate with the weather of the area to photograph the landscape. Often you’ll find photographers up at the crack of dawn or working while others are sitting down to eat their dinners.
Another popular photographic niche that involves using timing, the environment, and natural lighting to get spectacular images of animals. Shooting wildlife photography often involves scouting locations for signs of wildlife and then waiting for long periods.
Camera Gear Considerations for Outdoor Photos
Having the right gear for outdoor photography is as important as the techniques you use to bring your composition to life. Being immersed in the environment means that your equipment will be subject to more wear and tear.
You won’t have reliable access to electricity to charge your batteries, so planning is essential. Compared to shooting in a studio, outdoor photography requires a different approach in order to get the images you want.
Mirrorless cameras offer a lot to the outdoor photographer in both convenience and capability. Since they don’t have a physical mirror in them (much like their DSLR counterparts), they are often lightweight. The costs of mirrorless cameras have come down substantially as more and more people have started to migrate over.
It is important to remember that DSLR cameras still have their place in outdoor photography. Many models from companies such as Canon or Nikon offer incredible value with powerful technology.
A lens is arguably more important than the camera body itself. A great camera with a low performing lens will give you lower quality shots than a budget camera with a high-performance lens.
Using a 50mm prime lens is perfect for outdoor portraits as they can let in more light with their wide apertures. These lenses often have a shallow depth of field which can create that dreamy background blur that is sought after in portraits. A prime lens cannot be zoomed in or out, but the optics are usually of the highest quality.
Landscape photographers can use a variety of lenses depending on the landscape. Wide angle lenses will give you more of the scene, while a telephoto lens will compress and scene, making it great for mountain photos.
If you’re in doubt about what kind of lens to buy, then it’s suggested you work with your kit lens until you can pick out the right gear for what you’re shooting. The kit lens has multiple focal lengths, allowing you to photograph at different distances.
Monopod or Tripod?
Heavier DSLR cameras are still a great choice for outdoor photography, especially when you use a monopod or tripod to help support the weight. The choice depends on what kind of photography you’re going to shoot.
Monopods are portable, lightweight, and can easily act as a hiking pole when needed. Setting one up takes little time; you can reposition them without effort. The downside is that they can still be subject to camera shake if your shutter speed is too low. A monopod will be useful for someone doing outdoor portrait photography, wedding photos, and even some landscape.
Using a tripod gives you three legs instead of one, creating more stability for pin sharp photos. Many of them have adjustable legs, making setting up on an angle surface a lot easier. The downside is that they aren’t portable unless packed down, and moving them to change your composition takes longer than a monopod would.
Check out our in-depth comparison of monopods and tripods.
There are some other items you will want to consider to make your life easier when shooting outdoors. The primary concerns you should consider are controlling the amount of natural light and mitigating camera shake at lower shutter speeds.
Neutral Density Filters
ND filters are in every landscape photographers kit and are vital for techniques such as long exposures. Essentially these darkened pieces of glass help lower the exposure in any given lighting conditions. They come in various “stops” that help reduce the amount of light coming into the lens. If you put one of these over your lens, you can decrease the shutter speed without worrying about blowing out the brighter spots in your shot.
A lens hood is great if you’re taking a photograph with bright sunlight. If you’ve ever taken a photo without a lens hood on a bright day, you may notice some sun spots appearing in the shot, known as a sun flare or lens glare.
A lens hood prevents light from shining in from different angles as the lens glass is recessed with the dark tube. Additionally, wildlife photographers can use a lens hood to help prevent reflections of the lens, scaring away any potential critters.
Remote Shutter Release
Remote shutter releases are designed to initiate the shutter button without you physically touching the camera. In low light photography, this is useful as it prevents camera shake caused by you pushing the shutter button.
For fast action photography, it can help you keep an eye on the scene while shooting continuously. You can get them in wired or Bluetooth models, with the wired models being sought after since there is minimal lag after pressing the button.
Outdoor Photography Tips For All Experience Levels
The best photographers are the ones that are always learning new things. Even if you consider yourself an expert, there is still much to learn about creating the best images. To help you along in your journey, here are some handy photography tips you can practice the next time you go outside with your camera.
1. Avoid Harsh Sunlight
Really sunny days create harsh shadows that tend to blow out many of the shots’ highlights. The dynamic range between the highlights and shadows will cause clipping, resulting in a loss of detail. You’ll notice that when the sun is high in the sky, you’ll start to get chromatic aberration and glare in your images.
2. Shoot in RAW
Getting away from JPEGS and into an uncompressed file format like RAW is ideal for outdoor photography. This is because photographing in RAW captures all of the information from a scene with no compression added. Simply put, you’ll be able to manipulate more data in the photo while editing in something like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop than you would if you just shot JPEG images.
3. Shoot During the Golden and Blue Hours
Golden hour is an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. The lighting is soft and has a warmer color temperature. It’s the perfect outdoor lighting for portraits and wedding shots, as skin tones are given this radiant, almost creamy effect. Ensure that you adjust your white balance for the existing color temperature of the scene, or just leave it in auto for an easy fix.
Blue hour is the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. Landscape photographers love this time of day as a blue hue is present in their shots, causing a relaxing, almost dreamy effect. It’s also another great time if you’re looking to take long exposure photos which utilize a slower shutter speed.
4. Use the Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines
Our eyes are naturally drawn to subjects positioned in various parts of the frame. The rule of thirds divides your frame into a grid pattern where the four intersecting middle points are where your focal point should be placed.
Leading lines are another way to draw the eyes of the viewer deeper into your shot toward your focal point. Using shorelines, walkways, and roads are great examples since our eyes are naturally drawn to following those paths.
5. Try Using a Polarizing Filter
Polarizing filters are screwed onto the end of your lens and can be rotated depending on whether you want the sky or water darkened. It differs from a graduated neutral density filter in that it doesn’t reduce the exposure, just the amount of reflection.
A high-quality polarizing filter can reduce the glare from a bright sky or darken the water so you don’t get any reflections.
6. Place Your Horizon Correctly
Having your horizon in the correct spot can change your photo from being average and turning it into an incredible work of art. For example, placing your horizon smack in the middle of your scene will divide the photo in half. This can potentially confuse the viewer as there is no point of focus. Having the horizon too low or too high can cut out elements of the composition that you wanted in the frame.
Inspect your frame and see how much empty space you have. Position the horizon so that it shows just enough space to add some context to the image while still highlighting the subject.
Outdoor photography encompasses different niches, but the general idea still stays the same. You want to balance the exposure with the available natural lighting while taking interesting compositions using gear that is both rugged and functional for the environment you’re working in.