There are many people out there who believe that merely having a fancy digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera will make them a better photographer. This of course is complete absurdity. I mean, no one becomes a better chef because they have a fancy stove; skills come from the knowledge and experience of the person behind the equipment, not the equipment itself. You don’t necessarily need to have the top of the line camera; in most of my travels around the world, I’ve actually only used a little point-and-shoot camera — after having grown tired of lugging around a big SLR on extended trips — because I’ve found that you can still take beautiful photos if you just know how to take one (and without all the weight). In fact, every photo in my The Global Trip “Elsewhere” slideshow of images around the world was actually shot with a pocket-sized low-res Sony Cybershot.
However, I’ll admit that you definitely get a better quality image when you use an SLR with a good lens (if you have the patience to carry it with you and set up your shots, that is). A decent walkaround lens will give you options that a point-and-shoot can’t, like softer focus and greater depth of field. (That’s the photographer term for when subjects are in focus while everything else is blurred out.) Also, there’s a certain cachet when you travel with a big camera — although if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll automatically stand out as a poser (one of those frowned-upon people who think a better camera makes a better photographer).
So if you want to step up from the point-and-shoot camera and be a little pro like my photographer friend Phil Langer, here’s our round up of some tips on taking engaging photos with a Digital SLR when you’re out in the wide world.
For great outdoor shots, there are two optimal times of day that many photographers know as the “golden hour” or “magic hour”: dusk and dawn. This is the time range between half an hour before sunrise or sunset until half an hour after. Magic hour gives you the most interesting soft, warm light and shadows.
When you’re shooting in low light, use a tripod for sharper images. The lower the light, the more time the shutter needs to be open to let in light and expose the shot, and all your tiny shaking hand movements can translate into blurry images.
Always try to have a foreground, middle-ground, and background. For example, if you shoot a sunset at the beach, you have the sand, water, and sky/clouds — be conscious of them and how they relate to each other in the frame in order to add some depth. Also, if taking pictures of your friends outdoors, don’t just take a picture of them generically standing in the center; move them to the side and compose them in the shot in relation to where they are.
Don’t put the horizon in the center of your shot; it’s merely a dividing line between the sky or the Earth. Emphasize either the sky or the ground.
It’s often hard to tell how big a mountain is if there’s nothing else in the shot to compare it to. Show the size of an object by including a subject of contrasting size to show a sense of scale.
You can get richer colors and tones with the use of the right filters. Polarizers cut out reflections and add richer blues into the sky. Haze filters give you more contrast.
Outdoor photography is in a way more challenging than indoor; the atmosphere and lighting conditions are constantly changing and you don’t have any control over them. But don’t let that inhibit you; use nature’s elements — like hanging clouds, fogs, and beams of light — to your advantage and add an element of mystery.
You don’t have to stick with your basic walkaround lens. If you have the means, there are plenty of good wide-angle lenses on the market to broaden your framed landscape shots to include more of the environment, without having to crop out details.
When traveling, taking pictures of locals can really capture and enhance the character and soul of a destination. Be courteous when taking photos though — or just be really sneaky about it.
Photography is the creation of images through light and how it illuminates and reflects colors back to our eyes — and your lens. Always look for a great light source first and see if you can use it to your advantage.
Sometimes the best photographs are captured merely because of timing and circumstance. Plan ahead if possible to get those in your favor, so you can be in the most optimal place at the most ideal moment. In some cases — like when catching the sun right on the horizon — you only have mere seconds of opportunity to get that “money shot.”
These are just a few tips to follow or add to your expanding experience of outdoor photography. Remember, practice makes perfect, so grab your camera and keep on shooting photos! In fact, shoot more than you have to; you can always sort through all of them later and just use the best one — this is how most professional photographers work anyway; no one really ever gets it with just one shot.
Want to be inspired by more photos? Check out more of Phil Langer’s photography.