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December 2014 Issue
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7 tips for better outdoor photos

Timing is everything. A keen photographer is up at dawn to catch the first rays of sun kissing Mt Robert. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Want to improve your photography? Ray Salisbury shares his advice for taking winning outdoor shots

1 Timing

Contrary to popular practice, shooting under the midday summer sun is unlikely to produce inspiring results; the overhead sun creates short shadows, which are harsh. The resulting photos lack three-dimensional form and appear flat and lacklustre.

For quality light, try shooting in the ‘golden hour’ – that magical time of day before sunset (or after dawn) when the light is soft and diffused, bathing the hills in a golden glow. Also try shooting in the ‘blue hour’; half an hour after sundown the sky’s colours can become brilliantly intense.

Alternatively, brave the elements and shoot immediately after a storm, waiting for the moment when a shaft of light penetrates the moody sky. Amongst professionals, there is a mantra that goes: ‘Hurry up and wait … then wait some more.’

2 Less is more (more or less)

Try filling the frame with your subject. Don’t be afraid to crop off the top of a person’s head to get an intimate portrait of their facial expression. Beginners often try hard to get everything into a single exposure, attempting in vain to combine both landscape and portrait genres. Less is more.

Ask yourself: ‘what are the key elements in this scene that make it work?’ Stick to a single subject; eliminate everything else. Landscape photographer Colin Prior suggests you ask yourself: “What can I subtract from this scene to make it more powerful?”

This drab scene was transformed by the rule of thirds and converting to black and white. Photo: Ray Salisbury

This drab scene was transformed by the rule of thirds and converting to black and white. Photo: Ray Salisbury

3 Keep composed

Rules are made to be broken, but they’re an important starting point.

The most common mistake is to place your subject in the centre of the frame. Try applying the Rule of Thirds, instead: divide your camera’s LCD screen into a 3×3 grid, then place key elements of your scene on the intersecting lines. For instance, if the sky is uninteresting, put the horizon one third of the way down the photo, and feature the landscape. Conversely, if you are looking at a stunning cloudscape, make this fill two thirds of the photograph.

The exception to the Rule of Thirds is when shooting a symmetrical scene such as a mirror-calm lake with reflections.

A lesser-known rule is the Rule of Odds. If you have two competing subjects in your shot, they can cancel each other out. The viewer won’t know which to look at. So, having an odd number of subjects will help achieve a better balance and be more aesthetically pleasing.

Finally, try to include some foreground interest to give the viewer’s eye something to lock onto. Leading lines such as fences, tracks or rivers can help the viewer’s eye to navigate through your composition.

4 Sharp shooting

With landscape photography, you will usually want everything pin sharp, from foreground to background. If your camera has manual functions, dare to turn the dial from ‘Auto’ to Aperture Priority (A, or AV on some models). You can then take control of the depth of field (how much of the scene is in focus) by setting the camera to a small aperture between f/11 to f/22. Deliberately choose to focus the camera about one third of the distance into the scene. This is called the hyper-focal length and will ensure all elements in your photograph have optimum sharpness.

If your camera has an ISO rating, set this to 100 to kill sensor noise, an issue with digital cameras. Choose the largest image size available to get the maximum number of pixels.

Another issue affecting image sharpness is camera shake. I always use a tripod. Failing that, rest the camera on a trekking pole, a rock – whatever is available. Use the camera’s Live View mode and, looking at the LCD screen, zoom in close to check for accurate focus.

Get above the bushline for better light and compositions. Photo: Ray Salisbury

Get above the bushline for better light and compositions. Photo: Ray Salisbury

5 Location, location, location

Most people take photos from where they happen to be standing, from eye level. Merely moving a few metres away, or lying down on the ground can instantly improve your camera angle. It is especially important when photographing children or wildlife to get down to their level. For variety, shoot in portrait orientation (vertical) not just in landscape (horizontal).

You will find better light and more simple compositions above the treeline, especially when the rocks are coated in virgin snow. And there are better views from high up in the mountains.

6 Plan ahead

It wasn’t raining when Noah built his ark. Likewise, professional landscape shutterbugs plan their shots with military precision, striking when the conditions are favourable. I keep a photography kit bag on hand so I can race out at a moment’s notice. Besides my camera, it has a first aid kit, survival kit, map, torches, Thermos, snacks, cell phone, iPod, spare batteries, cleaning cloth and warm clothes.

If it’s an evening photo shoot, get to your chosen location an hour before dusk and scout for the best possible composition.

Tools such as tide charts and the weather forecast are invaluable, as is the Photographer’s Ephemeris ( which will calculate the exact time (and compass bearing) that the sun or moon will set and rise from any given location on Earth.

A torch is used to paint French Ridge Hut in light. Photo: Ray Salisbury

A torch is used to paint French Ridge Hut in light. Photo: Ray Salisbury

7 Paint with light

The literal definition of the Greek words photo and graph means to ‘draw with light’.

At night you can illuminate your subject with a powerful head-torch. If it’s a backcountry hut, a couple of candles can light up the interior while you paint the exterior with light.

It’s best to place your camera on a stable tripod at dusk and pre-focus on your subject before auto-focussing becomes impossible. A cable release or remote timing device is essential to avoid accidentally bumping the camera.

Another idea is to shoot the stars with a long exposure to effectively blur them into circular trails. This is a challenging genre of photography with many inherent difficulties to overcome, but the rewards are there for the patient photographer who enjoys a challenge.