Here’s a tip: Good wilderness photography is counter intuitive.
What you photograph in the wilderness is not what you get.
There are so many areas that a landscape photographer has to learn before they can start taking great photographs. Before going out into the wide and possibly dangerous landscapes that Planet Earth has to offer, it might be best to practice with urban landscape photography first. Even with just a mobile camera, you can learn the basics of composition and framing by taking photos of famous landmarks in your city.
Learning how to compose a picture using the shadow and highlights, as well as learning how relationships of color affect a photograph will all help you see the big picture more clearly.
It's happened to all of us.
When the film comes out of the developer it looks nothing like what you saw through your camera lens.
As you explore the physical world through the art of wilderness photography, it is important to understand the difference between what your eyes see and what the film sees. Once you understand the science behind taking pictures you will have a creative tool to help you take powerful photographs.
Before you go off to the wilderness, it pays to stop and consider what story you'd like to tell with your wilderness photography:
- Pick a subject or a topic and come up with a plan to capture it with your camera
- Don’t overlook the manual. Sometimes a quick review of the basics will help you understand the capabilities (and limitations) of your tools. Then plan accordingly.
- Check the weather and have the appropriate gear to “weather” any turbulent climatic conditions. Wear rain covers if it’s going to be wet. Have sunglasses and sun block in sunny weather.
- Bring a pair of binoculars. It’s helpful to have a powerful tool to scan and survey your surroundings to help you find that magic spot or angle.
- Bring a tripod or something to keep your camera steady. You don’t want shaky hands to mess up a million dollar shot! Be a pro and ensure a steady shot.
- Bring the appropriate lenses – depending on your theme and what you’re shooting, you’ll need to have the appropriate lenses (i.e. wide, telephoto)
- Have filters – you can try putting sunglasses in front of your iPhone, Samsung or compact camera on a very bright day and see if it helps your photographs
- Have patience – the wilderness is untamed. It’s a fickle topic and you’ll need to have the patience to wait for that perfect shot. Hence, have appropriate gear for long wait times (see #3 tip above)
Dealing with the different types of landscapes
What makes wilderness photography exhilarating is the endless possibilities. The world is a big place with many beautiful places. It’s helpful to know how to shoot and how to deal with all the different types of landscapes out there in the wilderness.
If you’re looking to shoot a river or a stream, study its movement and pattern and determine how you want to frame that in your photograph.
A slow, steady stream is vastly different from the swift and dangerous waves of the Colorado River, running through the Grand Canyon.
The water can be the focal point of your photograph, or it could serve as a backdrop to other compositional elements in your chosen frame.
Search studiously for reflections. You can utilize a few reflections on the water to improve the photograph-the colors of colorful lilies for example-but other elements, like a bright sun, could be too distracting.
Move around in the area to find the right spot to minimize sun glare. Utilize a polarizing filter to take out a portion of the reflection. Ramp up the contrast and turn it until you have what you’re looking for.
Shooting in forested areas exhibits an alternate arrangement of difficulties. To start with, consider the character of the timberland you need to shoot and the theme you want to express in your photograph.
Are you looking for that David Lynch, horror mood setting? Are you looking for an autumn, hopeful feeling for your forest shots. These are things you’ll want to consider for your landscape photography in the wooded wilderness.
Similarly, as with any photo, identify a focal point of interest. It may be one marginally extraordinary tree trunk, a way twisting through, or a sprinkle of shading on a blooming vine. Whatever it is, frame it in a way so that a viewer will instantly be attracted to it.
Regardless of whether you are shooting inside the forest or outside of it, search for interesting patterns, lines and other compositional components that you can utilize. Utilize both wide and telephoto lens. Each type of lens will have a different impact. Lie down on the forest floor, climb a tree or crouch down – use different angles to get the perfect shot.
Open fields and prairies
Huge expanses, for example, fields and prairies are among the most challenging scenes for wilderness photography. Because of the wide open space, there is a lack of an obvious focal point of interest. Much of the time, the enormous extent of the scene is something you're attempting to impart.
All things being equal, recall that watchers require something on which to center. Search for a component particular to that place and utilize it as a state of intrigue that says something in regards to the scene and confers a feeling of scale.
You don't need the watcher's eyes to meander heedlessly around the edge, so utilize whatever may be accessible to lead the viewer into the picture—a winding street, a windmill or a fence line, for instance.
Like each wooded area, each open field has its own identity, so move around until you have found an angle and a particular point of interest. What is the most critical component of this specific place? Consider the sky.
Do you need a great deal or a tad bit of it? An unmistakable blue sky may best mirror the character of one plain, a brewing tempest another. Be mindful of the rule of thirds. In the event that the sky is vital, put the skyline along the base third division of the edge. On the off chance that it is not, put it along the upper third.
Search for approaches to demonstrate the rough nature and the magnificence of deserts. During the day, discover waves brought about by warmth. Utilize a long lens to get dramatic shots to express the appropriate feeling: Boy, it’s HOT down here!
Deserts are additionally extraordinary spots for pictures of stars. There’s a lack of humidity, and more often than not no earthbound lights to meddle, so stars appear to be progressively various and are wonderfully splendid. Watch the way the shade of the sand changes for the duration of the day in relation to the sun.
Be creative in how you can capture all this desert beauty. A wide shot may best express the emptiness and desolate nature of the desert, while a close-up of a dying plant could symbolize another theme.
If you’re aim is to show the hot and unrelenting climate, consider highlighting the sun as a focal point of your desert photography. However, photographing the sun is not an easy task. On a clear day, the brightness of the sun will ensure you’ll underexpose everything in your photo.
Try shooting manual, or take a reading without the glaring sun in the composition, lowering the shutter button midway to hold the exposure. Then adjust the frame before you take the photography. If you’re using film, bracket to make sure you get your desired exposure. With a digital camera, glance at the images as you photograph the landscape.
Wide-angle lenses could work best because the blown-out sun uses less of the photograph, but are susceptible to lens flare. SLRs have the advantage because you can see the flare as you frame the composition.
Seacoasts present a variety of scenery. On one hand, you can have a peaceful tropic isle with pristine water lapping at white sandy beaches.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can have a rocky Maine shoreline with thunderous waves punishing the rocks that dot the coastline.
These two types of scenery present differing themes and elements. Things to consider:
- Time of day
- Type of climate
- Season (summer versus winter)
This is a short list to consider when exploring ways to shoot a coastline.
Once you’ve planned out your themes and type of seacoast, search for compositional elements that will convey the theme you’re after. Palm trees portray a sense of calm; powerful waves punishing the rocks of a coastline present a feeling of thunderous emotion. Like with the desert landscape, be mindful of the sand so have the appropriate footwear. If there’s strong wind, have a sturdy and comfortable cloak to cover you. Finally, open the camera when you are in a sheltered area and not exposed to the elements.
Like with the other elements we’ve covered, consider what is your theme with the mountains? Are you looking for something threatening, like Macbeth climbing the mountain top to meet the fabled three witches?
Or are you looking for something enchanting and mystical, like something you’d find in a Lord of the Rings novel?
Once you’ve identified your themes, pack accordingly for the weather. Scout the area. Look for interesting angles and take lots and lots of photographs!
Landscape photographers like to talk about the “golden hour” when shooting photographs in the wilderness. They claim that this is the only time to take the best images.
The golden hour is the time around dawn and nightfall when the light has more open space to go through, giving it a more "golden" hue. It additionally lights subjects from the side, making pleasant shadows and texture to the photographs.
Attempt to stay away from mid-day as your camera will struggle to cope with glare and dark shadows. Additionally, the fauna and flora of the wilderness will be lit from above, which isn’t a pleasant look for your wilderness photography.
All hope is not lost if there is no sun. In fact, an overcast day can be your ally as it can be one large natural diffuser, and certain types of fauna and flora in the wilderness benefit from this delicate and uniform light.
Attempting macro photos of wildflowers, or long exposures of forest streams are often better with a cloudy sky as it mitigates the impact of bright areas and dark shadows.
Summary of taking amazing wilderness photography
When you understand the technical science of why you see what you are seeing, you will start taking better pictures. Most people do not realize shadows create a solid mass in photographs.
If you are standing in a shadow you may not necessarily see it, but the camera will. Sometimes this affect can be mastered by standing in a cave and taking a picture of the outside world. The highlights will become more exposed revealing color and contrast.
Most people take pretty pictures that aren't powerful. In order to get brilliant photographs you need to bring together elements that take the breath away.
Try combining color with dark shadows and sharp edges. Capture the reds and oranges of sunset against a snowy pasture. When you are able to capture the unexpected you will achieve stunning photographs.
Contrary to popular thought, landscape or wilderness photography is not sedentary. Most people think it is crouching and hiding in the woods and mountains, just you and your camera, but wilderness photography is far from this idea.
Landscape photography is very participatory and requires you to get emotionally involved. Whether you are running, climbing a tree, or looking for animals you are participating. Get into what you are doing and when you see something worth capturing it will be much easier to photograph because you are in the moment. Don't be afraid to find the essential nature you are trying to capture.
There are millions of visual cues in nature all you have to do is use them. By exploiting the visual cues nature gives us we are able to create striking photographs. Try capturing the rich green color of the grass or the contrast of the bright blue sky against a dark mountain. Wildlife and vegetation are also great subjects to photograph in the wild.
When it is cloudy or overcast, like before rain, it is ideal for taking photographs of vegetation. The clouds create soft shadows and a cool light. If you want to capture something magnificent try capturing the obscure. Take pictures of tribal life, flowers, trees, and water. These are all great extreme visual attention getters. Try to use diagonals because horizontal and vertical lines are not very stimulating to the brain.
We see in color, but color is not real. Color is created by our brains and the system is very flexible. We can see many colors that a camera will never see. Film has a fixed response to colors and light so it is important to understand the physiological aspects of what is happening in a picture. Shadows create solid masses and highlights that are overexposed create bright whites that distort photographs.
Colors we see are actually reflections of colors repeated in nature. Once you understand where the color is coming from you will instantly be able to take better pictures. Like in winter, at night out eyes may think we are seeing white snow beneath the moon, but realistically it is reflecting the blue color of the sky. Some people hate to see blue snow in their photographs, but it is in fact the true color at that moment and time, just as it can become crimson red at dusk.
The difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that professionals take more bad pictures. We are not afraid to get involved to find our subject. We spend a lot of time working situations that have potential. An amateur is like a collector; they want to collect the national parks and all the animals and once they have them it's on to the next, and the next. Once you have a saturation of the focus you have awareness for the subject that only develops with time spent.
Sometimes we return for days and weeks at a time to capture the image we are looking for. Don't be afraid to get up close and personal; try it bolder and be powerful.
The most important tip:
To take great wilderness photography is to make the elements sing.
This doesn't usually happen the first time. Don't be afraid to make mistakes because always taking a perfect picture is boring and won’t make you a better landscape photographer.