Passionate Outdoor Photography

Our lives are very “connected” these days. Computers, notebooks, tablets, and cell phones keep us in constant communication with others. Many of us get so much email that it has become a job within itself to deal with it. Our lives are hectic, with little time for self and family. When we go to work, the boss tells us what to do. When we go to school, the teacher instructs us. When can we take some time for ourselves—some time for doing what we want to do?

Photography has often been an escape mechanism. Do you yearn to get away from the frenetic activity of life and experience some quiet nature? Do you have an artistic side that needs expression? If so, outdoor photography in its many forms can provide much-needed relief to lower the blood pressure and allow oneself to relax and enjoy an artistic endeavor that satisfies an inner need and reinvigorate oneself for dealing with life in the 21st century.

What is the point of outdoor photography, whether it be nature or people oriented? In my opinion, the point is self-expression. Allowing oneself to express a viewpoint in a way that self and others can enjoy for many years. A capturing of beauty, places, people, and time that will be more valuable as the years pass.

Figure 1 – Atlantic Ocean Sunrise on Hunting Island, SC, USA

Figure 1 – Atlantic Ocean Sunrise on Hunting Island, SC, USA

 By taking weekend photography trips alone, or with a few like-minded friends or family, life can have more meaning. It can actually become a passionate endeavor for many of us. We can express ourselves in a unique way that fits our personality and desire for self-expression—enjoying a oneness with nature that satisfies the soul.

Photography Equipment

Cameras: Becoming passionate about outdoor photography can often involve itself with the joy of owning fine photography equipment. Of course, one can take good pictures with a basic point-and-shoot camera that is pocketable and easy to carry. However, most enthusiast photographers tend to own more capable equipment.

Figure 2 – Cameras: Film SLR and Digital SLR;  Pocketable and DSLR-like mirrorless ILC

Figure 2 – Cameras: Film SLR and Digital SLR; Pocketable and DSLR-like mirrorless ILC

 With today’s new mirrorless cameras, high-quality images can be made with a camera that is almost small enough to fit in a large pocket. Quite a few people are buying the smaller mirrorless cameras so they can carry it with them everywhere and experience a photographic break at any time they choose. Others want the absolute best quality they can achieve and thus use an SLR or DSLR and, often, a good, solid tripod. They’ll usually shoot film transparencies or in digital RAW mode and take the time to post-process favorite images into individual masterpieces.

Figure 3 – Photographer using a DSLR and tripod for best results

Figure 3 – Photographer using a DSLR and tripod for best results

 Tripod: What type of tripod head is best for outdoor photography? Well, I’ve been on many day-trips with other photographers and have found that most use a ball-head type of tripod head (figure 3). The ball head allows you to move the camera to almost any position with ease. The tripod provides a very stable base, allowing you to take pictures that are much sharper than handheld.

Lenses: A good range of lenses is needed when one goes outdoors to shoot their favorite subjects. You could buy a single lens with a lot of focal lengths built-in, such as an 18-300mm lens. Those lenses do fairly well for walk-around photography. However, being an enthusiast you probably already have, or are considering, several lenses covering a wide range of focal lengths, with much higher quality potential. From extreme closeups to wide-angle to telephoto, having lenses with shorter focal-length ranges can provide higher quality pictures due to less distortion, better sharpness, and higher contrast.

There is a weight penalty from having extra equipment, but that small penalty allows much flexibility in image capture and can be managed by using an appropriate backpack-type camera bag (figure 4).

Figure 4 – A small camera bag with a macro lens, three zoom lenses, a DSLR, memory cards, batteries, and a GPS

Figure 4 – A small camera bag with a macro lens, three zoom lenses, a DSLR, memory cards, batteries, and a GPS

A small camera bag can be filled with a few lenses and a camera body, along with some accessories, such as a flash for fill lighting, a GPS to mark the spot, and extra memory cards and batteries. Having a camera bag with lenses and a good solid tripod seems to be the standard for today’s outdoor-shooting enthusiasts, myself included.

Camera bag and accessories: In figure 4 is my small backpack camera bag which contains a macro lens, three zoom lenses with ranges of 10-20mm, 16-85mm, and 80-400mm. With those four lenses, I can make a picture anywhere from an extreme closeup to a picture of wildlife in a more distant meadow—with minimal weight.

I also carry a flash unit for fill flash to reduce contrast, some extra memory cards and batteries, and a hotshoe mounted GPS unit so that I can “geotag” each image I take. That way I can return to that same spot next year or for seasonal shots of the same location.

A photographer’s equipment is a personal thing. Some will want to shoot with a single camera and one lens and others may carry a camera bag that weighs as much as they do. Whatever you enjoy is what you should use. I am sure you can find a few friends that share your style. Often, including a friend with similar enthusiasm can make a photo outing much more enjoyable.

Figure 5 – The outdoor photographer’s secret, a circular polarizing filter

Figure 5 – The outdoor photographer’s secret, a circular polarizing filter

Polarizing filter: One “secret” of many photographers is their use of a polarizing filter (PL), affectionately called a polarizer (figure 5). This filter can be dialed to remove reflections from leaves and foliage and will darken the sky providing contrast for clouds. The lack of reflections tends to saturate colors. Figure 6 is a good example of what a polarizer can do.

With newer cameras be sure to get a “circular” polarizer (PL-CIR) or your camera’s autofocus may not work correctly. This one fairly inexpensive item can give your images an edge. Be sure to keep it a secret, though. J

Photographing Nature

With all the equipment taken care of, it’s time to hit the field and enjoy the quiet beauty of natural earth. Each season provides a type of beauty that invites a photographer back multiple times each year, often to the same spot.

Sunny days: The best times to shoot outdoors is early in the morning and late in the day. At those time periods the low-angle of the sun causes shadows to be long and the color temperature of the light to be very warm and inviting. When you are shooting nature try focusing on those time periods for the best looking images.

Figure 6 – Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains with warm golden hour light

Figure 6 – Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains with warm golden hour light

In figure 6, see how the golden-hour light wraps itself around the mountain and trees? Notice the long shadows. How does that make you feel? The higher contrast and warmth appeals to our eyes.

Just by not making the mistake of shooting landscapes between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., your photographs can improve immediately. In the middle of the day, the light is overhead, shadows are short, and colors are not the best due to the glaring light.

Again, in figure 6, notice how I captured a distant mountain with a close up tree to provide some depth in the image. Since a picture is 2D, it is your job to provide something in the foreground of a beautiful scene that will provide an anchor for the eye. The image in figure 6 is especially good at showing depth because it has foreground, mid-range, and distant trees. If you do this correctly you can almost make an image appear 3D to the viewer. At the very least the image will not look as flat if you include foreground objects in a deep image.

Be sure to use an aperture that will give you enough depth of field to fully cover your subject. Most outdoor images do pretty well at apertures around f/8, which allows enough depth of focus to cover the scene well and has the added benefit of being the sharpest aperture on most lenses.

Figure 7 – Beautiful early morning autumn sunrise light with mist still on the ground

Figure 7 – Beautiful early morning autumn sunrise light with mist still on the ground

 If you will simply get up early and get some shots before the morning mist has gone away, or wait until the evening for the warm late sunlight, your images will please you and others even more (figure 7). When you are taking pictures, be sensitive to the direction of the light. If it is from overhead, it will produce a flat often uninteresting picture, often with cooler overtones. If the light is from the side, the natural shadows will enhance image contrast and the light will have a warmer appearance that soothes the eyes. Humans are attracted to warmth and warm pictures!

Overcast day: What if you desire to shoot outdoors and it is an overcast day? Don’t give up, just go find some moving water. Most of us have a few streams or rivers nearby. It’s a good idea to shoot moving water in low-contrast light so the camera can capture a full range of light without blowing out highlights and losing shadow detail.

Figure 8 – Little Pigeon River in Great Smoky Mountains at Tremont

Figure 8 – Little Pigeon River in Great Smoky Mountains at Tremont

Using slower shutter speeds and small apertures can give you some wispy water shots that make other people’s mouths drop open. This is the domain of the enthusiast and is one of the mysterious types of shooting that make others wonder at your amazing skill.

To make an image like the one shown in figure 8, you should shoot on an overcast day, use a tripod for stability, a small aperture for deep depth of field, and a slow shutter speed to blur the water. The shutter speed of ½ second in figure 8 allows the water to blur in an appealing way, while you set a small enough aperture, in this case f/16, to provide plenty of depth of field for an overall sharply defined picture.

End of the day: If you hang around outdoors until the day ends you can often get some beautiful sunset shots such as the one in figure 9. As mentioned earlier, using foreground objects, such as trees, provides an interesting 3D effect, which draws your viewer into the image (figure 9).

Figure 9 – A sunset with pretty color and a 3D feel due to foreground trees

Figure 9 – A sunset with pretty color and a 3D feel due to foreground trees

Sunsets are some of the more satisfying types of outdoor images. The light is warm, the colors bright, and the feeling restful. Having an ILC or small DSLR camera with you all the time will allow you to capture beautiful sunset images any time you see one.

You will usually point the camera’s lens to a bright part of the sky and let the light meter take care of getting a good exposure, maybe even using the AE-lock button (AE-L) to lock the exposure for the best colors, while you recompose for the best composition. Foreground objects will naturally be silhouetted and dark, providing the needed depth to make the image feel right.

Author’s Conclusions

Few things in life can satisfy an enthusiast photographer like a beautiful image. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t enjoy seeing lovely nature pictures of this awesome earth we live on. Make it your goal to capture some beauty in a difficult world. You may want to do this alone or with a few friends. However, how about including your family in a photo outing several times per year?

Teach your children to respect nature and value natural things by taking them with you on family photo weekend trips. A child’s self-confidence will soar when they come home with images of beauty they can post on Facebook and show their friends. Families can be more cohesive when they spend time doing a shared activity like photography. Help your kids (and yourself) disconnect from the internet for a while by putting a camera in their hands and taking them to beautiful places.

You are an enthusiast photographer. You enjoy fine camera equipment and beautiful, well-composed images. Disconnect from everyday life and connect directly to nature by enjoying your days outdoors, with your camera in hand.

Keep on capturing time…

Darrell Young

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Darrell Young is an active member of the Nikonians organization and author of several Nikon manuals through Rocky Nook, including Mastering the Nikon D600 (coming March 2013), Mastering the Nikon D800, and Mastering the Nikon D7000, to name a few. He’s been an avid photographer since 1968 when his mother gave him a Brownie Hawkeye camera.

Darrell has used Nikon cameras and Nikkor lenses since 1980. He has an incurable case of Nikon Acquisition Syndrome (NAS) and delights in working with Nikon’s newest digital cameras. Living near Great Smoky Mountains National Park has given him a real concern for, and interest in, nature photography.

His website, www.pictureandpen.com, was created to support “the readers of my educational books, photography students, and clients.” Visitors to his website “will find articles and reviews designed to inform, teach, and help you enjoy your photographic journey.”

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