AMC Outdoors, October 2001
By Michael Lanza
I’ve rolled over in my sleeping bag to see an orange oval of fire peeking over the eastern horizon, and leapt from my bag to mount my camera on tripod and start firing off frames. I’ve slammed on my car brakes to shoot the morning sun igniting trees peaking with fall color as a still pond reflected them as sharply as a mirror. I’ve leaned backward off cliffs (anchored with a rope, of course), scrambled atop boulders, crawled, crouched, and cramponed into position for just the right angle for a photo.
I’ve also stood atop an open summit before dawn as a sea of clouds filled the valleys below, cranked through most of a roll of film… and not gotten a single good exposure. Like anyone who’s ever depressed a camera’s shutter outdoors, I know the depression of getting back photos that failed to capture the beauty of a scene. Too often, though, amateur shutterbugs write off the bad shots to bad luck, when a basic understanding of photography can improve anyone’s trip photos.
Photography is an inherently abstract medium in that it attempts to capture a borderless scene that we see in three dimensions and reduce it to the two dimensions of a photo. Proper composition, or framing, of the scene forms the foundation of a good image, whether it’s taken with a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera or a simple point-and-shoot.
That may seem obvious, but before clicking away, think about your subject. Is it a person? Is it a landscape? Are you shooting a person and using the landscape as a backdrop, or shooting the landscape with people in it for scale? How you answer these questions will help you compose your picture, keeping in mind the following tips.
- Don’t look only at the center of the viewfinder; look at everything within it. Don’t include anything that detracts from the subject or constitutes “dead,” uninteresting space.
- Keep in mind the “rule of thirds”: Mentally divide your image in thirds along its length (whether vertical or horizontal), and then place the elements of your image within those thirds. For example, instead of placing a person smack dab in the frame’s center, move him to the left or right side of a horizontal image, and make use of a scenic background in the other two-thirds.
- When shooting a person, get close enough to have him fill or dominate the frame. Don’t stand so far back that the subject appears small and distant.
- In close-ups of people, crop the body in places that appear natural, such as from the waist or shoulders up. Cropping at a joint like the ankle or knee creates an “amputated” look.
- Photographers talk about “capturing the moment” — pressing the shutter at the right instant to catch a candid facial expression, or just as a moose lifts its head and looks directly at you. Be ready, and don’t hesitate to trip that shutter over and over to grab the “moment.”
- When shooting landscapes, use a wide-angle lens and look for a compelling nearby feature, like a stream or rock, to anchor the foreground without obstructing the background. A foreground element gives the scene a better sense of depth than if you shoot only a row of distant mountains.
- In landscapes, a person in the middle distance lends scale, helping to convey the immensity of the place. The person should be readily visible but relatively small, not in the foreground.
- Move around — carefully — for an unusual perspective on your subject. Sit on the ground, clamber onto a boulder, climb a slope to overlook a campsite or hikers on a trail. Photographing from above shows height when your image has trees, a lake, a horizon, or something else that orients it, while shooting from below — like looking up a cliff at a climber — flattens the landscape.
- Watch the horizon through the viewfinder to make sure it is level.
- If the subject is vertical, orient the camera vertically. Try shooting the same subject vertically and horizontally — you might get equally interesting, if very different, images.
Think of photography as the manipulation of light as it passes through a lens and exposes film. Start looking at scenes in those terms and you begin to see not just the scene as it is, but how to shoot it for the result you want.
Outdoor scenes — especially around dawn and sunset — often contain a tremendous range of brightness and darkness. Again, identify your subject and figure out the correct exposure for that subject: Is it the sun on clouds? The reflection in water? The person entering a shaft of sunlight amid heavy shadows?
This is where an SLR camera in manual mode carries great advantage over point-and-shoot cameras. Experiment with the following techniques:
- Meter for the bright and dark areas of your scene; many newer SLRs have spot meters that allow you to meter small, distant points. Expose the image for the most important elements. For instance, you might sacrifice detail in shadowy forest in order to prevent the sunlit clouds from washing out to white.
- Some situations, like bright snow or dark forest, can deceive a camera’s light meter, resulting in overexposed or underexposed pictures. Try to meter off something with a middle tone, like a jacket that’s neither bright nor dark. I’ll often meter directly off the snow, and then open up two stops if the snow is shadowed, three stops if it’s sunlit. To be safe, bracket exposures: Take shots at different exposures to ensure one good image.
- F-stops of 5.6 and lower will blur the background when you focus on the foreground, an effective technique when shooting a portrait or, for instance, a close-up of a kayaker. The amount of blur depends on the lens focal length and your distance from the subject; practice will teach you how to completely blur the background, or only slightly blur it to allow the viewer to see the foaming water while bringing his eye to the sharpest part of the image, the kayaker.
- Manipulate the shutter speed for different effects. Faster shutter speeds (usually 1/250 or faster) will freeze motion. Slower shutter speeds (1/30 or slower) blur motion. Panning—moving the camera with the subject while shooting at a slow speed—creates a powerful sense of activity.
- Avoid blur caused by camera shake by using a shutter speed equal to or faster than your lens focal length. For example, when shooting with a 200mm lens, you need a speed of 1/250 or faster.
- Two tools can immediately improve many of your photos: Use a fill flash on a foreground subject, like a person, in daylight or dim light; and for scenics, use a tripod and shoot at a very slow speed, with an aperture of f/16 or smaller.
- Shadows and contrast give a photo depth; flat, shadowless light makes the scene appear to melt together. The best times to shoot are when the sun is low, around dawn and sunset.
Remember: No camera or photographer can create a great photo from a scene with flat light or poor opportunities for composing natural elements in an interesting way. Often, in harsh midday light, I’ll put my camera away until the light improves. (Read additional tips to help you take great shots.)
Lastly, to take good photos, you have to take a lot of them. Scrutinize them, and keep notes on your settings to figure out what you did right with the good ones and what you did wrong with the bad ones. Do the same with photos you see in magazines, calendars, etc. Carry plenty of film — if you’re going to sit before a mind-blowing sunset thinking, “Well, I just have one shot left, I want to save it for the right moment,” you’re going to miss a lot of great shots.
—Michael Lanza is an outdoor writer/photographer who has a B.S. in photojournalism. His images have appeared in several publications, including AMC Outdoors.