Having been stuck on auto for as long as I’ve had my DSLR camera, I’ve recently had the urge to find out more about outdoor photography. Having a camera with this many settings scares me a little, if I’m honest. Particularly when I don’t understand what things like ‘exposure’ or ‘aperture’ are. Don’t get me wrong, occasionally I’m happy with some of the photos that I take of our family adventures. However, nagging at the back of my mind is the fact that a little knowledge would go a long way to improving our family snaps.
I knew that if I was ever going to improve my outdoor photography skills I needed help and guidance. Luckily, I have professional photographer and family friend, Tanya Davies, to call on. So, armed with our cameras and a flask of coffee, we headed into the North Wales hills. But would a photographic dunce like me be able to improve my photography over the course of just one hike? We’ll see…
Firstly, I can’t state enough how much of a novice I am. I point and shoot. That’s it. I’ve sort of worked out that the head-like icon on the round dial thing must mean portrait, and I’m guessing that the mountain-like triangles are for landscape shots. Apart from that, however, I haven’t touched anything else. Explaining this to Tanya, it suddenly dawns on her that she’s starting from scratch with me.
The first thing that she explains is that in auto or landscape or portrait mode, the camera is making a million and one assumptions about what you’re trying to capture. It’s basically a sophisticated computer. The problem with a sophisticated computer is that it lacks a human brain and a human eye. What we might see, and what we might want to focus on, might not be what these automatic modes want to focus on. I’d learned something about already.
With this on my mind, I asked about instances where Jesse and Amelie are exploring the great outdoors and one is nearer to me than the other. Sometimes I’m trying to actually focus on whichever one of them is further away but my camera always seems to focus on the one nearest to me and I end up getting that funky blur (completely accidently and by virtue of the fact that the camera has decided to add it) effect the wrong way round.
To make the point Tanya puts her very expensive Nikon down and pulls out her iPhone. In camera mode, the focus square in the centre is already locked onto its target. ‘It’ being the phone’s target, not mine. Out on our walk this is the nearest tree. By using her finger to drag it around the screen, Tanya was able to change to focus point. She moved it into the background of the frame, focusing on the hills, rather than the tree that was right in front of us. My mind was blown! Something so simple that I had no idea about. Now I could play around with depth of field. Tanya explained that my camera has 39 focus points and showed me how to change them manually in my settings.
Next we talked lighting. I’ve always quite liked to get some of the rare British sunshine into my photos. However, as I mostly shoot our family adventures, it seems that I’ve been doing it all wrong. Shooting towards the sun, when people are present in the frame, leaves their faces and expressions in the dark. Now that I think about it, I’m like yeah, of course it does. But, having never had it pointed out to me before, it’s something that I’ve continued to struggle with.
Tanya’s advice when shooting the kids was for the photographer to have their back to the sun and the children to be at least partially facing it. She added ‘partially’ because if they’re directly facing the sun, particularly at this time of year when it’s pretty low in the sky, they ruin your now beautifully lit composition with an ugly, screwed up squint.
Tanya also said not to be afraid of using your camera’s flash during the day either. Sometimes it can really enhance an image. Again, this is something that I’d completely overlooked. I think mine may have popped up occasionally (and automatically) when we’ve been walking through particularly dark forest sections, but I wasn’t aware that I could select to use it whenever I liked.
Now we get into the even more technical stuff. According to Tanya, exposure has three main elements:
1. ISO – a measurement of how sensitive your camera is to light.
2. Aperture – how wide your lens opens when taking a photo and therefore how much light it lets in.
3. Shutter Speed – how long the shutter on your lens is open for.
All of these are accessible through your camera’s menu.
ISO is something that we can turn to if there’s not enough available light, either in daylight or flash form. As such, it’s something that can be played with on cloudy days in the mountains. The lower the ISO number the less sensitive the camera is to light and vice versa. So, if there’s less available light on your outdoor adventures an option is to raise the ISO.
Now, this is where Tanya found a glaring error in my setup. For a reason that I can’t explain, because I don’t remember doing it, my ISO was set to 1200. This would be fine, if it was dark and the things I’m trying to photograph are moving quickly, but the vast majority of our family adventures are daytime adventures. Helpfully, she reduced this right back down to 200 and showed me how to alter it for specific environments.
Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘well, I’ll just put my flash on if it’s dark’. In lot of scenarios this would, of course, be fine. But, let’s say you want to take a photo of your child blowing out their birthday candles or sitting around a campfire. A flash, in this scenario, would ruin the atmosphere of the photo, illuminating everything else in the frame. However, not using one with a low ISO will result in a picture too dark to make out. The answer? Keep the flash off and raise the ISO. It picks up the light of the fire (or candle) without drowning the rest of the image in surrounding white light. This was amazing information for me, given that we go camping as a family so regularly and enjoy nothing more than a campfire.
However, you just need to be aware that a high ISO with lots of sensitivity to light does come at a compromise. Basically, it’ll result in what Tanya called ‘noise’, which essentially means it can make images appear quite grainy. Tanya also mentioned that while increasing ISO is good in many instances if there isn’t enough daylight, when shooting landscapes she prefers to use a tripod and a longer shutter speed (see below) to expose the photo correctly.
As mentioned above, aperture is essentially how wide your camera lens opens when you press the shutter release button to take a photo. This obviously impacts greatly upon how much light is let in. The bigger the opening, the more light can hit your camera’s sensor. The smaller the hole…well, you get the picture. This is all controlled by the iris of the lens, which is called a ‘diaphragm’.
Tanya explained to me that whenever I look through my viewfinder to take a photo, the f-stops or f/numbers are visible in the bottom right-hand corner. One thing that did confuse me was that smaller numbers equalled a bigger opening and vice versa. So, just be aware of that.
One of things most affected by aperture is depth of field. Generally, depth of field just refers to how much of your shot will be in focus. If, for example, I’m wanting to take photos of the many landscapes that we explore as a family, I’ll want most or even all of those shots to be in focus. Consequently, Tanya told me that these types of photos need quite small aperture numbers (remember: these are actually the larger f numbers – I told you it was confusing!). This is because, regardless of how close to the camera or far away the subject or object is, they’ll remain in focus.
However, if one of the kids has picked a shell up on the beach and I want to get a close up of them holding it in their hand, then I might want to opt for a higher aperture. This would focus in on the small area of the hand holding the shell, but would blur out everything else.
The last outdoor photography topic that I discussed with Tanya was shutter speed. This refers to how long the shutter remains open when you’re snapping away. For most shots this can be measured in fractions of a second. However, in certain circumstances you may want the shutter to react far more slowly, particularly if you want to create an effect called ‘motion blur’.
The first thing to consider is whether or not you have access to a tripod. A tripod will enable you to use much slower shutter speeds by providing a stable base. Trust me, I’ve tried slow shutter speeds without one and all I ended up with was a completely blurred mess of an image. So, for low light conditions (come on, we’ve all seen those awesome lit tents at night shots on Instagram), where you might require a shutter speed of 30 seconds or more, a tripod is essential.
Another example of where a slow shutter speed may come in useful for outdoor photography is waterfalls. Again, I’ve seen images where the motion of the cascading water has been beautifully smoothed out. That’s slow shutter speed. This is what I referred to above as the ‘motion blur’ effect. Now, the photo below is a million miles from being perfect; however, bearing in mind I’d been stuck on auto for four years, I was pretty happy with my first go at a ‘motion blur’ photo after Tanya had explained shutter speed to me…
For the vast majority of my outdoor photography shots, however, I’ll want a much faster shutter speed (1/60 second or faster). This will enable me to catch all of the movements and detail in the kids when they’re out and about exploring at speed. If they jump in a puddle, it’ll enable me to catch the droplets of water that rise up and splash out.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Thanks to Tanya, I now understand enough basics to get me out of auto mode. Hopefully my outdoor photography will improve as a result. You’ll soon be able to tell by my Instagram account haha. My major problem now is working on combining these three elements above. As she says, you can’t really just use or change one of them in isolation. If, for example, you change shutter speed, you’ll probably want to change aperture too. However, now that I at least know what they do, I feel like I can play around with some sort of knowledge. Hopefully, I’ll see the difference in my photos in the near future. As you can see, Tanya is also a whizz at editing her photos. As such, I’m also hoping to get some insights into how to perfect my images after I’ve taken them too.
If you’ve found this post on outdoor photography useful, check out Tanya’s website. I’m hoping to get back out with her again in the near future for another lesson. She wants to climb Snowdon, which is something that she’s never done, and I want to learn more and more. So, with any luck, I’ll have some more tips to share with you soon.