Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

So you been spending quality time with your camera, getting to know it, understanding its quirks and nuances, giving it the respect a good camera deserves…right? If not, time to revisit part one in this three-part series:

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Foundations!

Seriously, go.

For all the rest of you camera lovers out there (and adorers of the fine photographs you admire and so long to take), let’s jump into a more advanced section of skill learning: understanding how light and creating depth really bring your photographs to the next level.

This is where your perseverance in learning the foundations of photography pays off and gets fun.

But first of all:

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Don’t try to capture everything. Focus.

Sure, everything in nature is pretty, but not in a single photo. Cluttering the frame with too much means the photo has no focus or defined subject. Make sure you look for the strongest point and play it up. You can do this by moving yourself to a different angle or moving closer to your subject.

In addition, pay attention to what is distracting. Is your thumb in the viewfinder? Is a part of someone’s jacket peeping over the edge of the photo? What about a rogue blade of grass? Look for those things that don’t belong or add to the strength of the subject; either move them or yourself.


If you have a really strong subject, tie in negative space

Cloudless skies, open water, blank white landscapes covered in snow: these are all examples of negative space. If used correctly, they can become powerful backdrops for landscape photographers. Think of silhouetting a gnarled tree, capturing a single person in the bow of a canoe on open water, or an aerial photo of a ski path cutting through snow.

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Think about depth

Those mountains in the distance might look pretty cool, but your in-person experience won’t translate to a photo unless there’s depth to it. Use something close to you (a mound of alpine flowers, a person, a cliff, etc.) to help frame the subject and make the photo feel like there are layers within it and provide visual interest.


Demonstrate scale

Building on depth (above), when you’re standing in the midst of a massive setting, you view that landscape relative to yourself. But when you take a photo, unless you provide a way for the viewer to understand the scale of the landscape, they won’t get a good understanding of it. That’s why it’s best to provide something relatable, like a person, to help them gauge the scale of surroundings from. Not only does this help with giving a point of reference,  it pulls double duty by adding depth to the photo.

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Shoot in the Morning or Evening

You may have heard of the magic and/or golden hours. Sunrise, sunset, and—if you’re ready to take on manual mode—twilight can produce spectacular shots if you’re set up and in place. During these times, the sky is beautifully colored, as is the landscape, without being overexposed.  

This takes some prep work, of course. Make sure you are in place at least fifteen to thirty minutes before any of these events so you can be set up with a tripod and focused on your subject—more if you aren’t familiar with the area. In the case of twilight, the long exposure necessary for shooting at this time can produce spectacular moods, but getting there early enough so you have your focus on lockdown (since getting that right is trickier as you lose light) is imperative.


Don’t shoot into the sun if you want both sky and ground exposed (without post-processing)

While shooting into the brightest part of the sky works for creating silhouettes, it’s not effective when you’d like to show the details of a great landscape or the faces of your hiking crew. If you’re shooting in RAW mode and there’s enough light captured by your camera, adjustments  can  be made on your computer to recapture some of those details—but don’t count on it.

Trying to adjust the lighting after the fact is not only time-consuming, but can cause “noise” in your photos (think: grainy looking images). Aim for taking photos correctly in-camera so that you get the details you are looking for. Look for ways to use light to your advantage, or, if you’re set on getting a particular scene, use  reflectors  or wait until a different part of the day.

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Try a flash during the day or grab a lightweight reflector

If your subject is shaded, but the rest of the day is bright, flash can even this out — just make sure you are close enough if you’re using an in-camera flash (a few feet at most). Bouncing light via  reflectors  also works. These come in all sizes, including 6” and under if you like focusing your outdoor photography on things like alpine flowers and other tiny details.


Try filters

I don’t mean the kind Instagram has built in; I mean the kind of  filters  you attach to the front of your lens and use in the field. It’s not often that I see people using these, but they can create some great results—and help correct some issues that might crop up with lighting or reflections that can’t be adjusted for after you get back home. For instance, graduated filters help balance the exposure differences between a bright sky and a dark landscape. Polarizing filters can help reduce the glare on water, allowing you to see through the surface. It also helps deepen color. Colored filters can make certain elements of your photo pop.


Shoot with a tripod at low light — don’t rely on “steady hands”

You want to grab the stars or the blues of the sky that come out in the evenings? You’re gonna need a  tripod—or some way to replicate one. Without some way to hold the camera absolutely still during the exposure, you’re in great danger (to be dramatic) of motion blur—even the tiniest tremble or your breathing can (and likely will) kill a great low-light shot.

If you’re out of luck with the tripod situation, you can improvise with a large rock or tree stump, but keep in mind that it’s not adjustable. Instead of getting just the right shot, you’ll be forced to frame the photo according to what nature provides. And if you’re lacking anything steady—though this is in no way a guarantee of a crisp shot—plant your elbows firmly into yourself and hold your breath until the picture is taken. (P.S. Good luck!)

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Clouds are your friend

Bluebird skies are great for silhouettes and high-contrast photos, but to really make your photos pop, don’t be afraid of clouds. Billowing or striated clouds can add drama to an otherwise boring, blank sky and can provide dappled light on landscapes. If it’s an even cloud layer that you’re shooting under, the clouds become a “softbox,” making it a great time to shoot in close-up photos of plants, animals and people outdoors; the clouds diffuse the light over a large area so harsh shadows are removed. (Just remember to set your white balance—see  part 1. : )


Bonus Tip:

Try a post-processing program.

If you’re wanting to take your photos to the next level and you’ve maxed out all you can do on this list, it’s time to invest in some training in post-processing. Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard, but there are other options out there, including the free, open-source GIMP program.

One of my favorite aspects of having a post-processing program on hand (I use Photoshop) is the ability to pretty dang accurately line up a batch of photos I’ve shot in succession and then create (called stitching) a panorama out of it. I also love how I can create my own version of filters using its “Actions” function and then apply those looks, with the press of a button, to any photo I import. There are so many additional benefits to having one of these programs on hand, but learning them will take some time.

I suggest  or  CreativeLive  for some great courses on photography and post-processing.

And oh yeah:

Please don’t over-HDR, over-saturate, and/or over-contrast the heck out of your photos and think it’ll pass off as realistic. Please. You’ll make Instagram a much better place.

(PSA: Said with love.)

Improve Your Outdoor Photography: Light & Depth (Pt 2)

Read on for the third and final part of this outdoor photography series: People & Action

About the Author


Gina Begin

Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Over the years, she has been consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.