Design, Photography, & Fashion

Outdoor Photography Tips for Beginners, Plus Learn How to Get the Right Shot In Outdoor Lighting Conditions

Written by MasterClass

Aug 12, 2019 • 5 min read

Shooting outdoors presents photographers with a number of technical challenges. You’ll have less control than when shooting in other environments, which may require you to adapt your procedure. On the other hand, shooting outdoors gives you access to a vast range of subjects and possibilities. To take advantage of those possibilities, you’ll need to be well prepared.

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How to Work With Outdoor Lighting Conditions

When you’re shooting outside, there’s usually only one light source: the sun. Working with natural light is going to be one of your biggest assets, but also your biggest challenge.

  • Unlike indoor or portrait photography, you’ll have little control over the intensity and direction of light.
  • Shooting during midday tends to create harsh shadows and washed-out highlights, which will cause you to lose a lot of details. If you do find yourself shooting with the sun, at least make sure that it’s behind you so that it’s illuminating your scene rather than overwhelming it.
  • The best times to shoot with natural light are in the early morning and evening when the light is softer and more diffuse. If you want to take advantage of the golden hour, you’ll need to be on-location and set up at least an hour before sunrise (or after sunset).

Learn more about working with natural light in our complete guide.

Landscape photo of Iceland mountains and water

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How Do You Get the Right Kind of Image When Shooting Outdoors?

Remember, in photography, you have three key variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Creating great outdoor photos requires you to balance and manipulate all three of these variables.

That’s why it’s important to shoot in manual mode (assuming you’re working with a DSLR). Not only will it help you learn the nuances of these different variables, but it will also allow you to capture different effects.

  • For example, an ultra-crisp landscape that picks up the texture of leaves and rocks may call for high shutter speed and smaller aperture. If you’re shooting water, though, you may want to create some artful blur to capture the feeling of motion. In this case, you’ll want to experiment with lower shutter speeds.
  • Don’t forget to pay attention to your camera’s ISO (sometimes still called film speed). Remember, a high ISO will let in more light, which can be good, but at the cost of an increasingly grainy image, which is bad. It’s nearly always better to get your ISO as low as possible (say in the 200 to 800 range) and find other ways to stabilize your image. Learn more about ISO here.

What Equipment and Accessories Are Useful for Shooting Outdoors?

As with any shoot, outdoor photography requires that you bring along the right equipment in your camera bag.

  • Make sure you bring the right lenses with you. A standard 50mm lens might work great for normal street photography, but if you’re trying to capture wildlife in motion or dramatic landscapes, you’re probably going to want to bring along some more specialized lenses.
  • At a minimum, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a good wide-angle lens for shooting landscapes. The nice thing about wide-angle lenses is the way they (subtly) exaggerate the difference between objects in the foreground and background, creating a dramatic sense of the scene. That makes them especially well-suited to compositions where there are some interesting elements in the foreground.
  • If you’re even thinking about shooting wildlife, you’ll also want to bring along a telephoto lens. This will allow you to get close-up shots from a safe distance. Check our complete guide to understanding camera lenses here.
  • Besides lenses, you’ll want to make sure you have a sturdy tripod or monopod. These will help you get suitably sharp images even when working with slower shutter speeds or lowlight environments. Remember to turn off your camera’s image stabilization setting to off.
  • When you’re working with outdoor light, it’s also good to have a lens hood to reduce glare as well as a quality set of polarizing filters. These filters only allow light in from certain angles, which can allow you to reduce glare and atmospheric haze. (That makes them especially helpful for shooting distant objects like mountains and clouds.)

In general, it’s better to pack light when shooting outdoors. That said, there are some non-camera essentials that you shouldn’t forget, such as:

  • Food and water, especially if you’re heading off to some remote or distant location.
  • Plastic bags to cover your camera, in case it rains.
  • Zippable bags for keys, wallet, and phone, especially if you’re going to be around water.

5 Quick Tips For Photographing Outdoors

Remember these five things as your work to become a better outdoor photographer.

  1. Watch the light. Working with light is going to be your biggest concern when shooting outdoors. The more you can use the light to your advantage, the better. Keep the sun behind you and look for unexpected sources of light. (Water and other reflective sources can be great for this.)
  2. Use the horizon. You’ll want to keep the horizon level (unless you’re looking to create a sense of drama or unease), but also pay attention to the way it divides your composition. A horizon line running straight through the middle of the frame may make your photo look cut in half, and you may be missing out on interesting elements in the sky or foreground.
  3. Find a focal point. Every photograph needs a focal point to anchor the composition and give the eye a natural place to rest. Especially when shooting landscapes you’ll want to be on the lookout for objects—a mountain, a cloud, a tree, a rock—that naturally draw the eye. Once you’ve settled on a focal point, compose your shot to emphasize it.
  4. Look for leading lines. Related to your focal point, leading lines are elements that help guide the eye through a photograph. They can be obvious, like a stream or a set of train tracks, or more subtle. In general, leading lines should begin in the foreground and lead to the focal point or some other element in the background.
  5. Shoot in RAW. Shooting in an uncompressed file format will take up a lot of space on your memory cards, but the results will be worth it. The RAW format gives you a lot more flexibility while editing photographs in post-production, especially if you want to adjust the white balance.

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