Tips & Tricks: Photographing the Great Outdoors

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff and have received their feedback on technique, method, and equipment.

With the weather getting warmer and all the little (and larger) critters starting to emerge from hibernation and return from their winter migrations, we wanted to give you some tips and tricks from Sonnie, our resident wildlife and landscape photographer, for taking photos of the beautiful sights the natural world has to offer.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones
Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

Scout your locations ahead of time. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend an entire day hiking through the woods before you take your photos. It just means that you should know where you want to take photos, which will help you better prepare for what will be an unpredictable, challenging shoot. The internet is an amazing tool for outdoorsy photographers. If you have a general idea of the area where you want to snap landscapes, hop on 500px and do an image search for that area. Not only will other photographers (probably) have taken amazing images that can inspire you, but they can also tip you off to where some of the more majestic landscapes in an area can be found. For wildlife photography, knowing the behavioral tendencies of the animals whose images you are trying to capture will let you know where you should be and when, which will be crucial in getting the best pictures possible. Resources like the Ohio Ornithological Society, for example, can be irreplaceable in letting you know where certain species’ habitats are located.

Likewise, when it comes to wildlife photography, get there early. In general, you want to get to the right location before the animal gets there. Otherwise, stumbling into the woods late is a good way to scare away your animal subjects. Sonnie recommends going to where they eat their breakfasts. Most animals are like us: they wake up and want breakfast at the same time and same place every day. So make sure you’re where they’ll be eating breakfast before they get there. Usually this means waking up obscenely early and driving out to your location before the sun rises. The early bird catches the worm, and the early photographer catches the bird. Oh yeah, and don’t wear bright clothes. You don’t want to scare away the critters, do you? Keep that neon orange neckerchief at home. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t go where hunting is in open season.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones
Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

For landscapes, not only will you want to scope out your location ahead of time, but you’ll also want to plan for the weather. This doesn’t just apply to precipitation; atmospheric pressure can affect visibility. If the relative humidity of an area is fairly high, you can expect to see some fog, and that would have a major effect on your photos.

Landscape photographers will also want to visualize the shot beforehand. This will determine whether you want to be on location during sunrise, which generally produces a much brighter white light, or sunset, which will give your photos a warmer color temperature. Plus, you’ll want to know what you want your shot to be since sunrise and sunset only give you a roughly 15-minute window of prime shooting time.

Make a checklist of the gear you will need. You’ll be much better prepared if you write down everything you need ahead of time. In terms of what to bring, you’ll want to pack guidebooks, a cell phone (ideally one with 4G, which will allow you to hop on the internet and ID animals, and you’ll have access to some pretty useful apps), water, and a light snack such as a protein bar or trail mix.

Photo gear obviously depends on why you’re venturing into the wilderness. Wildlife photographers should take the longest lens they have (a 70-300mm would work, but ideally you’d want something in the 400-500 range) and a teleconverter, a tripod (lower weight is OK for wildlife) or monopod, a gimbal head for longer lenses, and a flash extender like Better Beamers, which can project your light like nobody’s business. Landscape photographers will want to use wider lenses, between 10mm and 200mm in focal length (aperture doesn’t really matter considering you’ll be shooting at higher f-numbers for a wide depth of field), a remote shutter release, a really good tripod (Sonnie uses a Gitzo 2531), and especially a neutral density filter. Seriously, don’t underestimate how much you need an ND filter.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones
Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

Now that you’ve got your gear packed, your site scouted, and your shot visualized, you’re finally ready to take a photo.

First off, shoot in RAW. There are many times when you can pretty much get away with shooting in JPEG, but for these kinds of photos you will want to shoot in RAW. There will certainly be areas in your photo where you’ll wish you could retrieve some of the detail from a highlight or a shadow. Usually RAW vs. JPEG is a thoroughly exhilarating debate (jk). Here it’s not debatable. Just shoot RAW. End of discussion.

For wildlife and landscape photos, you will want the photo to look intense. In other words, you want to be drawn into the scene, especially since chances are there will be no people in your photos.

Wildlife photos can achieve “intensity” by simply having the eyes of the animal in focus. You can pretty much get away with anything else not being in focus as long as the eyes are in focus. If the eyes are out of focus, everything else will look out of focus (seriously, it’s weird!). We are naturally drawn to the eyes when we look at photos with living subjects, and an animal’s gaze can be one of the most intense aspects of a good wildlife photo.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones
Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

Landscapes can use depth to draw viewers into the photo. You can achieve depth in landscapes by having an interesting foreground in addition to an interesting background. The viewer will be introduced to the image by the foreground and will be motivated to move further into the photo with an interesting background.

Another trick that can apply to both landscape and wildlife photographers is pulling a subject out of the background. You can accomplish this by using a long focal length (say, 300mm) at a good distance with a wide aperture. This will blur the background and create a greater sense of distance between the subject and the background. You know the Vertigo effect? It’s kind of like that.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones
Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

The great thing about landscape and wildlife photography is that, if you’ve done everything else right, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time with your editing software. However, you can always check light temperature and sharpness. Some people like HDR, and if that’s the case Sonnie recommends HDR EFEX (even though we don’t sell it anymore, that’s how much we want to get you the right stuff). Landscape photographers  should also feel compelled to try converting their images into B&W, which can often add depth and contrast to your landscapes in surprising and abstract ways.

Photo courtesy of Sonnie Jones

Have questions about which gear you should buy for your wildlife or landscape photo-capturing arsenal? Call the store at 866-940-3686 and receive individualized feedback from our knowledgeable sales staff.

Midwest Photo

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