Capturing Nature: Tips for making the most of your Outdoor Photos

By Laura Woten

Imagine the SCENE: trout fishing in the Driftless Region of Northeastern Iowa in the spring. The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding, and the water is flowing fast and clear. A mother doe and her new twin fawns wander up to the stream. It’s an amazing sight and one that would be worthy of the pages of any magazine.

As outdoorsmen and women, we know how breathtaking nature can be. Scenic vistas, gorgeous sunrises and sunsets and amazing wildlife all begging to be captured by your camera. But is what you see on your camera what you witnessed in reality? You don’t need a fancy expensive camera to capture all that nature has to offer. So how do you get the most out of your shots? How do you create an image that you want to share with your friends and family on social media? Here are some tips to help you make the most of your outdoor photography.

Know your camera
Are you using your smart phone to capture a selfie with your latest catch? Or are you going on a photo safari with the intent to capture nature with a digital camera? Either way, understanding what capabilities your equipment has can help you make the most of it. Your smart phone will have some limitations in adjustment for lighting and in zoom capability. Lower end digital cameras, like sport models, will give you more capabilities but will still have some limitations. Full functional DSLRs will offer more flexibility and capability, but are larger and if you are also fishing or hunting, may not be practical. Whatever your choice for camera, for starters, read the instruction manual. I know, these things weren’t written to be nail-biters, but they can be the difference between knowing if your iPhone is capable of varying your exposure or if your digital camera will shoot in aperture priority. If you want to get serious about your photography, I do recommend taking a class through your local college or continuing education outlet because approximately 1500 words is only the tip of the iceberg.

Composition can be key to telling a story
Anyone who has studied photography knows about the rule of thirds. But if you haven’t studied composition in photography, what does that mean? For starters, don’t put your subject in the center of the frame. Imagine dividing your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Moving the camera so that your subject is off center, allowing for more of the surrounding scenery and not letting the horizon divide your frame in half, gives your photo more perspective. The caveat to that is making sure that the surrounding area isn’t more of a distraction to your subject (think: photo bomb). Knowing that the deer that you are taking a photo of is in a field of wild flowers gives perspective and adds interest. Subjects that are dead center are less interesting and lack the energy of photos that demonstrate the rule of thirds.

Know your light
Probably the most important element in photography is light. Too much light, like at high noon, can make your images look severe and cast unflattering shadows. Too little light and you can’t make out your subject or any motion looks blurred (which CAN be a good thing if you want to demonstrate motion, but not a good thing if everything in the photo is a blurry mess). Most photographers recognize that early morning and early evening, when the sun is closer to the horizon than it is to its highest peak is optimum for lighting. Often called the golden hours, the lighting is softer and less severe and provides warmth in light. But just because the sun is obscured by clouds, don’t count out a cloudy day to take pictures.

What is white balance and should I care?
White balance is the process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. Proper camera white balance has to take into account the “color temperature” of a light source, which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light.
Along with lighting and knowing your light, comes white balance. Most smart phones try to read the lighting and adjust accordingly, but you have more control with your basic DSLR. Your camera may have options to allow you to adjust the appearance of neutral colors to make them look more natural in any given light.

Is your subject stationary or moving?
Have you ever been frustrated while trying to take a picture of a running deer or flying eagle and had the picture end up blurry and out of focus? Trying to freeze motion is all about shutter speed (with a component of balancing that with available light). Most smart phones don’t give you the ability to adjust your shutter speed, so trying to freeze motion on something moving very fast may not be completely possible, especially in low light conditions. Why the component of lighting? Your shutter has to stay open long enough to pick up enough light to even capture an image, and in low light situations, where the shutter may have to stay open longer, all motion may end up blurry. But in good light, you will want to speed up your shutter speed if you can to stop motion. There’s a lot that can be said about aperture that would take up an entire article all to itself, so I recommend reading some articles on the internet (I recommend or going to your local library to read more.

You really can take great photographs with most any camera just by following some simple tips and knowing how to use your camera and what its capabilities are. By understanding some simple photographic principals, you can avoid frustration at not being able to capture all of the beauty that nature has to offer.