Saturday, February 26, 2011

4 Simple Tips For Great Outdoor Photos

How many of you have ever been disappointed with the photos of some exciting outdoor moment? I know I have. Whether it's a buck or other game animal you've tagged out on or a nice fish you just landed, you want some great photos to capture the moment. Too often the pictures we take as outdoorsmen and women end up being mediocre at best. And even if you are personally proficient with a camera, you've probably had someone else take photos of you that didn't turn out as well as you'd like.

I've had an interest in photography my entire life. I am by no means a pro, though. I might be a rank amateur on a good day. The upside to that is I've made many amateur mistakes and have used the lessons to improve my photos. I'm going to share four very simple tips that can make a dramatic difference in your pictures. They aren't secret and they aren't new. They are guaranteed to work.

1. Fill. The. Flippin'. Frame.
If there's one pet peeve I have with photos, this is it. It's disappointing to see a picture of a hunter or angler with their trophy and it looks like the photographer stood twenty feet away. Adding to the problem is the fact that most point and shoot cameras come standard with a wide angle lens. What you end up with is a lot of unnecessary background that takes away from your subject. Get up close and personal and fill the frame! 

Here's an example of not filling the frame with the subject. There's a lot of wasted space and the background is not the least bit interesting which just makes it worse. The subject is too far away to see any detail. When looking at game photos, people want to see nice close-up shots. This is a bad photo all the way around.

Here's a photo where the subject takes up most of the frame. The unnecessary background is eliminated and the subject is close enough to see details.

Filling the frame is very simple. The easiest way is to physically get close to your subject. The other way is to use the zoom. Don't make the mistake, though, of standing far away and then zooming way in. Point and shoot cameras typically rely on digital zoom past a certain point and then you start to lose sharpness. You can zoom a little bit to get the lens out of wide angle mode and then adjust your physical position until the subject is filling the frame. Before you snap the shutter, look in the viewfinder or at the display screen and really SEE how the photo is composed. If there's still unwanted space around your subject, tighten up some more until the frame is filled. And don't be afraid to turn the camera and take vertical photos. That will often fill the frame better. 

Here's another example of a bad shot. The subject is too far away and the photo is so dark you almost can't tell there's a fish in the picture. I'll talk about that in a bit. The background is nice, but that's not supposed to be the focal point of the photo. This picture would have been better if it was just a shot of the dam.

This is a properly filled frame. The subject is front and center getting all of the attention. There's no wasted space or distracting background. And you can see the details.

You say, but Brian, I want some of the nice looking scenery in my photos. There's nothing wrong with that. Just be sure to get the close-up shots as well. Filling the frame will greatly increase the interest factor of your pictures.

2. Your Focus Needs More Focus
This has been the bane of photographs since cameras were first invented. I don't care if you've shot the biggest buck on planet Earth, if the picture is out of focus you've got an unappealing photo. 

With the exception of professionals and avid amateurs, most folks rely strictly on auto-focus cameras. And, for the most part, auto-focus works pretty well, but it's not perfect. Many cameras focus and then lock when you push the shutter button halfway. Pushing it the rest of the way snaps your photo. If you push the shutter button too quickly it can prevent the camera from focusing properly. It's also possible for the camera's sensors to focus on something other than your subject. Take your time and make sure the camera is focused where you want it. Don't press the shutter button too hard because that often results in the camera moving and you getting a blurry shot. Image stabilization is not foolproof.

It's not always possible to tell by looking at a photo on the display screen if it's out of focus. It might look okay on your camera, but when you download it and view it actual size it becomes obvious. The easiest remedy is just to take several photos in case you do get one that isn't properly focused. Some cameras have settings that allow you to blur the background while keeping the subject in sharp focus. That really makes your pictures pop!

3. Flash. Flash. Flash. 
An often overlooked tool is the flash. Unless it's a low light situation, many people don't think to use it. A flash can do wonders for your photos even in broad daylight. Using the flash will eliminate pesky shadows and help brighten details. One common area that is often dark is the subject's face. This is especially true when the person is wearing a hat which is a common thing with outdoorsmen. The flash will banish the shadow caused by the hat brim and make the face stand out. 

This photo was taken without a flash. It's not so dark that you can't see, but the various shadows obscure some of the details and make for an overall darker photo. You can see the hat creates a shadow across the face.

This is the same scene, but taken with the flash. Notice how it brightens the overall photo and brings out more detail. You really notice it when looking at the turkey feathers.

The flash can sometimes create a wash-out effect so you may have to experiment with distance and angle to get the look you want. A dark photo isn't much better than a blurry one so don't forget this handy little tool even in broad daylight. 

4. Change It Up! 
They say variety is the spice of life. It applies to your pictures, too. Break the habit of taking half a dozen photos of the same pose from the same angle and calling it a day. If you mix it up a bit, you'll be amazed at some of the great shots you'll get. 

A common scene is the hunter posing next to his or her animal either sitting or kneeling behind it. The person taking the photos usually stands and snaps all the pictures from that one position. Learn to move. Kneel down and get on the same plane as the subject. Move to one side or the other and take some photos. Get shots of the subject holding the gun or bow and shots without it. Have the subject kneel or sit on both sides of the animal. Move the animal itself. Just use your imagination. Try to get a variety of poses and angles. This greatly reduces the chance of being disappointed because you took all the photos from the same spot and when viewed later at full size they weren't as good as you thought. 

Here's a typical game photo. It was shot straight on. It's a good close-up photo, but if you took all your pictures from this one angle you might be missing out.

Here's the same scene, but with one big difference - the buck's head is turned to offer a different angle. Notice how the tine length is more apparent in this picture than the first. You're getting a slightly different perspective and it works. As a side note, the buck's tongue is hanging out in the first picture as is often the case. For the second photo, it was put back in the mouth and I think that makes for a better shot. Hunters sometimes debate this among themselves and I'm not getting into it here. I pointed it out for the purpose of illustrating how minor changes can make a difference in your photos. Overall, this picture is better than the first, but you wouldn't know unless you changed it up.

The great thing about digital cameras is you can take numerous pictures, see the results instantly, and delete the ones you don't like. There's really no reason not to take lots of photos. One common exception would be in a fishing situation where you are releasing the fish. Obviously, you don't want to spend ten minutes shooting photos while the fish is suffocating. Even in a case like that you can still get great shots - you just have to be quicker. 

I applied these tips primarily to game photos for this post, but they will work in any situation - even at your next family reunion with cheek-squeezing Aunt Bertha and crass Uncle Bart. So to recap....

Fill. The. Flippin'. Frame.
Your Focus Needs More Focus
Flash. Flash. Flash.
Change It Up!

If you will pay attention to these four simple tips, I promise you will see great results. 


texwisgirl said...

Great job on the photo tips. You make an equally talented writer, hunter, and model! :)

Nancy@A Rural Journal said...

Awesome post and very good information, Brian. I just love your articles -- they are useful not only to seasoned experts but to newbies as well.

One other thing to consider -- I've rescued many a bad shot by post editing with an online photo editor, like Flickr. It's amazing what you can do with a marginal photo to make it a professional-looking image.

DeanO said...

Good information

Anonymous said...

I appreciate these tips immensely. It is often easy to just point and shoot in the excitement of it all, but, by making picture taking a process with thought, results are much better. I plan on applying some of these techniques if I can get some fish to cooperate.

Bill said...

Great tips! Seems I always take more pictures than I'm ever going to need and use the best of the group.

Chris said...

Great tips Brian. I would add this as well -> Don't take pictures of you buck in the back of a pick-up truck. He'll look a lot better in the woods or in a field.

Chaplain for the Outdoor Community said...

Great insights Brian... I can improve on every one of your tips.

I need to invest in a compact digital camera that carry's well and is light weight.

Albert Quackenbush said...

Good tips, Brian. As a pro-photog you hit the nail on the head with most of these. A few point to consider. First, a flash can also be a BAD idea in photos if used too much or if you don't know what you are doing. A flash can also make people shut their eyes if not used carefully. If you are doing self-portraits in the field you can plan for it, but if you are photographing a buddy let them know to keep their eyes open. Trust me, it helps! Also, a flash can cause more harsh shadow around the focal point of the photo, too.

Another point to hit on is whether you should shoot from above the subject or below the subject. If you shoot below the subject, the animal will look larger and give some good perspective to the photo.

These tips are only for shooting photos of people and their animals. I use a totally different approach when photographing people or families. Another excellent post, Brian. Thanks!

LB @ BulletsandBiscuits said...

In college I had to take a photography class and for the first half of the semster you were NOT allowed to take any pictures straight on. They had to be from the side, above, or below, sometimes even from the back. Talk about making you think outside the box!

These are awesome tips and great reminders. Keep on flippin' us great posts, man...just don't flip us the bird ;)

Coyote Assassin said...

Excellent article, thanks for the tips. Excellent blog site!


Joe said...

Thanks Brian. One of my pet peeves is the tongue hanging out of a dead deer's mouth.

heyBJK said...

I really appreciate all of the input and additional suggestions! Definitely some things I didn't think to include.

Thank you for the feedback!

Anonymous said...

Great tips and post Brian! I'm always looking to take better pics and this should help allot. Thanks!