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Take Great Outdoor Photos

This image takes advantage of a long exposure and the rule of thirds. Processing brought out contrast and colors.

Almost anyone can take good – sometimes great – outdoor photos. Use the right tools, concepts and techniques, and your reward will be pictures that look like they belong in a magazine instead of in the trash.

Get the gear. Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras are the best choice. Buy the best you can afford, new or used. Get a real flash, too. Buy one wide-angle zoom and one telephoto zoom lens.

Know your camera. Environmental photographer and photo workshop instructor Ian Adams estimates, “95 percent of problems in the field for beginners are due to not understanding their cameras.” Since the number of functions and buttons on a camera can be overwhelming at first, Ian recommends to “at least read the ‘quick start’ manual. Otherwise, you don’t have a clue what’s going on.”

Control aperture and shutter speed. Aperture (or F-stop) controls “depth of field,” or how much is in focus. A low F-stop number (f/2.8) achieves a shallow depth of field, which means the main subject is in focus and the rest of the photo is blurry or diffuse. Most portrait, action and wildlife photos have a shallow depth of field. It’s easier to get a shallow depth of field with a telephoto lens. A high F-stop number (f/22) achieves a deep depth of field. Everything is in focus. Most landscape photos have deep depth of field.

Shutter speeds that are fast (1/500 or 1/1000 of a second) freeze action. Slower speeds will blur action, which is sometimes desirable. For example, by panning – moving the camera along with the subject as the picture is taken at, say, 1/30 of a second – you get a sense of speed while keeping the subject sharp. When shooting waterfalls, Ian often uses shutter speeds up to several seconds so the water has a soft, silky look. Use of a tripod is a must for shutter speeds below about 1/60 of a second, but Ian recommends using a tripod in general for scenic and close up photography. “It allows you to concentrate on composition instead of holding the camera.”

Compose well. A dominant subject is a must; it can be the largest thing in the frame, the most colorful, the brightest or something that breaks a pattern. It’s where the viewer’s eyes are drawn. The rule of thirds helps you capture off-center subjects that feel more dynamic and natural. Mentally divide your scene into horizontal and vertical thirds, making nine boxes. Placing the subject where these lines come together usually improves composition. Avoid clutter - fewer objects in a picture often make the subject more dominant and the overall arrangement more striking. Choose clean backgrounds or zoom in to ignore distracting details. Finally, experiment with perspective. Get up high. Get down low. Don’t be afraid to get wet or dirty. The perfect example is shooting rock climbers. The photographer typically needs to hang from a cliff above to avoid just getting a shot of somebody’s butt.

Use light to your advantage. Overcast days produce an even, soft light ideal for portraits but not good for landscapes. Sunny days are great for shooting in the morning and evening, when the light is warm in color and at low angles (often referred to as “the golden hours”). Mid-day sun is too harsh for landscapes, which Ian calls “the sunny kiss of death,” but can be useful for action because it’s so bright you can easily freeze action with high shutter speeds.

Use your flash outside as well as inside. “Fill flash” is adding a modest amount of flash during the daytime to lighten the harsh shadows hiding a subject’s eyes, for example. Ian recommends turning your flash 1 or 2 levels down from the auto setting.

Shoot action. Save yourself a lot of frustration and energy by letting the action come to you. If you’re photographing your backpacking buddies moving down the trail, don’t run all over the woods trying to shoot them. Get ahead of them and find a spot with a clean background and an interesting perspective and shoot them as they go by.

Processing your digital photos
1. Edit. That means hitting delete when it’s clear the photo isn’t good. Don’t waste time processing a bunch of crappy photos.
2. Crop. Eliminate the unnecessary and distracting to improve your composition.
3. Adjust. The most important adjustments to make are usually brightness, contrast and color. Most photo programs offer one-click automatic adjustments which are pretty good, but a little more time to make finer adjustments often yields better results.