Photo hacks for outdoors life
Outdoors life is a very satisfying motive for photography, there's plenty of natural light, motives and inspiration. If you do care to bring your camera along, the possibilities are kind of infinite. But what do you end up with? Ever snapped a gorgeous sundown, only to find something pale and lame on your screen? Are your presumed to be cosy campsite photos, messy and littered with gear? Do your paddle buddies get blurry every time? Or does your friend get sharp, black shadows in their face in the photos from your hike? Then this blogpost is for you, my friend. I can't say I'm a master when it comes to photography, but I've picked up a few things along the way that I'd like to share with you. So with some of mine and my partners photos, we'll get you through the settings and hacks to get closer to the photos you want to create.
In order to get nice and sharp photos, you basically need three things - a camera, a lens and a tripod. The third one might be skipped by leaning towards trees, rocks, supporting your camera on a tree stump etc. But there are some limits beyond which it's very hard to get shape photos, especially in weak light. We will talk more about that in the part about exposure.
Sadly, photography equipment is expensive. One way to get around this is to look for gear second hand. I got my first zoom lens, from a photo store in Gothenburg, over the internet for a third of the original price. A few months later I had to send it for repairs though, since a few contacts stoped working in the cold. But I got it back as good as new, even better than when I bought it . and it was still cheaper than buying a new one. Since my repair (February 2021) the lens has worked just rad. In other words, second hand = better for your wallet and the planet.
There are some good quiz/guides on the internet you can take to see what type of camera or lens that will work for what you want to do. To ask around among photographers on Instagram or the local photo club is also a good idea, you'll probably get more honest response from them than the sales people.
Two accessories I use regularly
UV-filter - this is a clear lens that you put onto your lens. It's like putting on progressive glasses - you reduce the sun glitter in your photo. This filter is also a life saver for your lens. It's much more pleasant to swap a UV-filter than sending your broken lens for repair. My UV-filter is always on my camera, only remove it for cleaning.
ND-filter (grey filter) - is also a filter that you put onto your lens, but this one works as sun glasses for your camera. If you're shooting in sharp sunlight - like out on the water, the ND-filter helps you to soften the highlights in your image and you get the colors more correct. It does affect the ISO and exposure though ...
Two accessories I use fromt lime to time
Backlight protection - this is a wide ring of plastic that I put on my lens when taking photos in backlight. But it also works as protection of the lens, the few occasions when I walk through the woods with my camera hanging loose on my shoulder.
Extension - this is a pipeline piece that I put between my lens and the camera to shoot tiny stuff - like mosses, lichens or insects. It gives me a very shallow depth of field, and I recommend using this together with a tripod and a timer. I've kind of lost count on the times I've gone nuts on the auto focus zooming in and out on my motive - for minutes. Did I mention that tripod and extension belongs within the same sentence?
About composing your image
Google the Golden section for starters. It's nothing sexual - in short there are certain proportions that most people find pleasant to look at. Split your image (mentally) in three or nine equally large sections. If your shooting a landscape and mighty sunsets, switch between putting your horizon below or just above the middle section of your image. And try to keep your horizons straight. In your view finder there are some dots or squares you can use them to aim. If the horizon leans anyway, you can always correct it back home in your computer. You'll normally find this function in the tool with which you crop your images.
Is there person standing in your picture? Depending on which feeling your after, try to place the person to the right or left of the middle section. Do they look into or out of the frame? Are they going somewhere? Give them some space in fornt of them, unless you want the viewer to wonder what the people in your photos are looking at. Are there more than one person in your image? The one looking towards the camera/with a visible face will turn into the main character of the photo.
Where is your motive? Split your image into nine equal sections, imagine that you have a grid of four lines and put your motive where the lines are crossing each other to give some more life to the picture. Wanna make the motive super clear? Place it int he middle.
Are you trying to get pictures of animals? Try to get on eye level with the animal. Easier said than done with wild life, much easier with your dog.
Try to find rails for the eye in your picture. Could you use the trail? Or maybe fallen tree, leading the eye into the photo? A rail pulling obliquely or wriggling is usually perceived to bring more life into the photo than a straight rail in the middle.
Come and join the manual mode! It's fun!
It might feel comfy and safe to use the automatic settings on your camera, and if you know how to use them it's very handy. But if not, the automatic settings will becomes limiting in the long run. Plus it's a magic sensation when you've done all your settings and you finally get the photo just the way you wanted it. By playing with your settings, sooner or later you'll find your own style of photography.
The first setting you wanna find is ISO. ISO tells you how sensitive your cameras sensor will be to light. If you remember back in the day when cameras had film, one roll had the same ISO. If you wanted to shoot in different light, you got to change your roll. The higher ISO, the more sensitive and noisier/more grainy the image will be. In sharp sunlight I use ISO 100-400, if I'm in the shadow or if it's cloudy I use ISO 800, indoors/dusk ISO 1600, dark ISO 3200. New and way more expensive cameras than mine do have much higher ISO, but there you've got some guide lines. I give you some examples in the photos above.
White balance helps you to get the right colors. The setting for sharp sunlight lifts the blue colors in you image, while the settings for shade or clouds will give you more warmth. Sometimes I feel that the shade/cloud settings gets me closer to what I see in front of the camera and then I pick one of those. If you're not sure which one to choose and want to be able to change everything afterwards, you can shoot in RAW. Google where you find that setting on your camera unless you love scrolling through the menus.
F/7.1 Photographer: Erik Stormark
F/8 Photografer: Erik Stormark
F/10 Photographer: Erik Stormark
Now it's time to find your aperture settings, in the menu it's called F/ and a number. The lower number, the larger aperture and higher number - the smaller aperture. This means that if you want a nice and sharp close up with cozy, blurry background, pick a large aperture (F/4 or lower) and gets a shallow depth of field. If you want your mire filled with pretty bogs wool to be sharp all the way to the horizon - pick a smaller aperture like F/18.
Last but not least among your light settings you choose your exposure. This setting determines how long your aperture will be open, often measured in parts of 1 second. The photo above is shot with 1/250 s - that means 25 milliseconds. A longer exposure, gives you a brighter and potentially blurrier result. Without a tripod, I draw the line at 1/60 in daylight, 1/125 in poor light. In your view finder, you may also find a little ruler with a 0 in the middle. When the little marker hits 0, the image is normally properly exposed in relation to ISO, aperture and light conditions. But not always. My best hack is to snap one shot at 0, and then adjust the exposure to get closer to the picture I want. As an example - if I want to shot some thin smoke, I choose to over expose the picture a bit, just 1-2 steps, to make the smoke pop. If I underexpose the image, the smoke disappears.
I shot a lot with autofocus. Most since I'm lazy, and it's easier to get nice and sharp photos. Especially when taking pictures of people or animals that are moving. (Almost cried a little when I forgot to switch back from manual focus and ended up with all my pics blurry.) There are two instances when I use manual focus, when I snap macro using an extension for shorter aperture and when I snap selfies using a tripod and timer. But more about that later on.
If I'm shooting something static and uses a tripod, I put the timer on 2 seconds. Then I can let go of the camera and the image will be sharper, since I'm not there and micro-shakes the camera. For selfies I put the timer on 10 seconds. These are the options I've got with my current camera.
My partner, Erik with sharp shadows int heir face due to the sharp sunlight.
The same day, but in the shadow.
Canoeing at dawn.
Golden hour, right before sunset. Photographer: Erik Stormark
Weather, time and light
Have you by any chance arranged your friends for a groupie in full sunlight? Then life has probably punished you already. Not only have these poor fellows been peering tearfully towards the sun, but you've probably also ended up with images full of sharp black shadows in their over highlighted faces.
Try find a spot in the shade for your group pictures or portraits. Preferably with a lot of air behind the people you depict or a plain background (like a tarp or mountain wall). This way you get the people/person in focus without any background mess pulling the viewers attention away from the motive. Cloudy weather is also nice, with soft light. Try snap the group/person from eye level - and for God's sake, let the women stand up. Familiar with feminism and photography? If not, read this.
Have you ever heard of golden hour/blue hour? These expressions are referring to the hour before sunrise and sunset. These hours brings a natural soft light, sometimes even a magical golden trailing light. These light conditions helps getting the right colors, brings forth detail and sharpness in your photo. If you want to get the most of these hours, get yourself out there at least half an hour before and plan your session carefully. What you'd like to shoot, from what angles etc. Once the sun is up or disappeared these volatile moments are gone. Hopefully you're happy with what you managed to catch on camera.
Decide wether you want focus on the flames or the smoke. If you want focus on the flames, shorten your exposure as much as you can without the rest of the picture turning black (unless you like flames on black background, I won't judge you. Promise.) If you want the smoke to pop, over expose the image a bit.
It's pretty common that photographers tend to fall behind when hiking and gets more photos of their friends backpacks than their friends faces. To not annoy your hiking pals, decide one or two photo sessions at a nice part of the trail. You run ahead, do your settings and then your friends may walk towards you while you're taking photos.
Shot from the gunwale
Shot standing in the canoe
Shot standing on pier, about 1,5 m above water level.
The hardest part about taking photos from a canoe - is that everything moves. If you want to snap a few on your fellow paddlers, go ashore and take photos while they're paddling towards you/passes by, in order to get sharper images.
Do all the heads align with the horizon/shoreline? Try leaning forward, level with your gunwale when canoeing/front deck when kayaking. Or literally shot from the hip. Is it possible to go ashore? Switch between standing a few meters above water level and sitting on the shore.
My favorit photos are shot canoeing through the mists at dawn. The water smooth as glass. Except the photos, the canoeing in itself is a pure magic experience. When hosting canoe clinics, I offer the guests to join me canoeing before breakfast.
Use a PFD. No matter what type of boat. If you don't want the PFD for artistic reasons, spell that out in any caption if you choose to publish. I just need to have a small rant here. I'm sick of photos of people not wearing a PFD while paddling, canoeing, kayak, SUP you name it. One may think "it's only one picture", but the norm of not using a PFD on pictures spills over in reality and it's fatal. I was at the east coast of Sweden, kayaking last autumn. The whole group was out on the water in their kayaks, wearing drysuits and PFD when three people on SUPboards passed by. They wore no PFDs, but merinos and down jackets. This was November, at sea and water temperature 14° C. Do the math.
- Be at least three persons and for obvious reasons - never snap photos while belaying.
- Try to get a shot when all limbs are visible, especially hands and feet (if they exists).
- Get away from those boring pics of your friends buts, shot from the ground - by walking away from the crag, zooming out will give you both the wall and your friend will function as reference to the hight.
- If it's possible to shot from a shelf, try to get up there, but fasten yourself.
- Cut off the ground and lower bushes if you're shooting from ground level. All of a sudden you're climbing friend seems much higher up. To get more hight, sit down.
- Shoot from the top. Secure yourself in the anchor and snap your friends from above. If you manage to get some rock in the foreground and the belayer, you'll get some nice hight.
Cozy camp photos
There are three ways of getting Instagram friendly camp photos:
- Pick an angle from where you can't see the mess
- Shoot when it's dark.
- Clear off all gear cluttering the image.
- Was there a fourth way? No. This is the amazing and messy truth of a expedition. Just bring it on.
If you're outside the tent and shooting someone who's inside the tent, make your light settings based on the light conditions inside the tent.
Putting up a light strand or turning a headlamp towards the inner canvas of the tent might help getting more light to the photo.
Is your friend still blue, red, green etc. from the light filtered through the canvas? Ask them to place themselves "spontaneously and relaxed" in the apse with their head outside.
Outdoor food photos
Even though food is claimed to taste better outdoors, doesn't mean it looks appealing in a photo.
Food photography is an art in itself. We humans tend to like to see what we're eating, so give the image some more exposure. Topping the dish with nuts, green leaves - in other words something more recognisable than the veggie-noodle-mush below, will work in your favour. Is there any snow? Put your Luisa in the snow, it will reflect light and even out the shadows a bit. And hurry up, before the food gets cold.
Snaping a pic of food in a pot? Lower the temperature on your trangia/raise the pot over the fire until you see the food underneath the steam. If your only catch is a medeival smoke machine, wait until food is ready or shorten your exposure.
Now you'll need a tripod, or a rock or tree stump on proper level. Place your camera and find something to focus on, like a tree, in level where you want to be in the picture. As soon as you find this focus point, do your light settings accordingly and snap a few shots until you're happy with the result. Then switch to manual focus, turn your camera in position and find your timer. Using my camera I can choose between 2 seconds and 10. I prefer 10. Make yourself ready, tap the trigger and run! It's good interval training, shooting selfies with timer. During the 10 seconds before the peaceful photo above, I've been running, throwing myself in to the tree tent, rolling through, kicked off my boots and shoulders down. And repeated the same procedure like 8 times before I was happy with the result.
Before I started taking selfies, I didn't like being on camera. I stared myself blind on my body-complex, did (okay still do) weird faces, closed my eyes, looked miserable etc. I felt exposed in photos. When I started taking selfies, it was mostly since I was outdoors alone and wanted a human in the picture as variation to "plain" landscape or my dog. Like a way to invite the viewer to the photo. In time I found poses and angles that I was comfortable with. Like I was finally owning my image. There are still times when I'm blinded by toxic body-complexes, and there are times when I don't give a fudge about my looks.
When you're out of ideas
You can always take a photo of a coffee pot. It's obviously possible to snap it zoomed in and out, with a dark vignette, blurry and sharp. It doesn't even have to be coffee in the pot. All coffee lovers on the Internet will think of coffee in nature and hit the likes anyways. If I'm also guilty of a coffee pot or two? - Yup.
Photos I'd like to see more of in my feed
I'd like to see more photos of women being active without posing. Women and queers climbing, chopping fire wood and igniting fires. I'd love to see my outdoor sisters sitting by the fire, mouth full of food. When they have styled their hair by sleeping in a beanie not changing their braid for three days, wearing ill-matched and worn clothes. I wish to see women being in nature and owning their outdoors as the Queens they truly are. I'd love to see men smiling on photos. More nice guys admiring a gorgeuos view, are cooking or playing with kids. And less brooding, posing, bearded people in brand new outdoor clothes with a hatchet and a few pieces of fire wood in their hand. I wish to see messy campsites and days with gloomy weather. Could we please, try to show more dimensions of outdoors life, than the ones most easy to digest? Could we please, normalise challenging gender stereotypes in outdoors life in photos, as well as reality?
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I did at least get a reminder to start experimenting with other apertures than f/4. This will be my private photo-challenge of the year. Hehe. Did you get a boost to take more photos when outdoors? Please, share this post to your friends and ...
Photograph in peace!