Six suggestions for better outdoor photos
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

Using the crisp morning light with the sun at by back allowed me to catch the colors of this scene in the Marble Mountain Wilderness of Northern California.

Want to shoot like a National Geographic photographer? Here’s a few steps you can take to get better outdoor pictures.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

As a young man, Chris Johns loved to hike into Southern Oregon’s wilderness with a pack on his back and a camera slung across his shoulder.

The Central Point boy who eventually became editor in chief of National Geographic magazine — the first West Coast native to achieve that honor — honed his photographic skill by capturing images of the Sky Lakes Wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail.

“It’s where I first tasted the magic of two loves, a backpack and a camera,” Johns wrote. “I can remember rolling out of a tent to photograph a small lake as fingers of light poked through a scrim of mist and the rising sun burnished the landscape with the intense gold of late summer.”

Though Johns’ prodigious talent would eventually lead to a globe trotting career in journalism, the vast majority of us snap pictures of the natural world as an enjoyable hobby ... something to show our friends and family upon returning from vacation.

But that doesn’t mean those pictures can’t look good. The proliferation of high quality digital cameras has made it easier than ever for amateur photographers to channel their inner Ansel Adams.

I’ve worked as a photographer for four years at publications in Minnesota, Montana and Oregon. My first job in journalism, oddly enough, held the title of “photographer” ... despite the fact that the most complex camera I’d used was a simple point-and-click. Terms such as ISO, F-stop and even the correct usage of shutter speed were an utter and complete mystery.

I’ve learned photography almost exclusively through trial and error, and while I’m nowhere near Johns’ level, I have picked up a few tricks along the way, especially in the area of outdoor photography.

Below, I’ve put together a few simple suggestions for people heading into the Southern Oregon wilderness with a pack on their back and a camera slung over their shoulder. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve omitted any mention of settings — ISO (ASA), F-stop and shutter speed — for the simple fact that the vast majority of people use the automatic settings provided by their camera.

Get closer!

When you take a picture, you want your subject to fill up as much of the viewfinder as possible. This leads to much stronger photos with greater detail. Whether it’s a mountain, wildflower or person, be sure to fill up the frame.

Take advantage of the blue

By and large, your outdoor photos will look best set against a blue sky rather than a cloudy one. From my experience, a white or gray sky has a tendency to wash out the details. Clouds and rainbows can help create a stunning picture no doubt — and a gray day is actually a good thing for a portrait of a person — but for an outdoor scene I like having the solid palette to work with.

Mastering the daytime sun

When it comes to outdoor photography, there is nothing more important than understanding the angles and different light provided by the sun.

The basic rule of thumb is this: If you’re shooting a vista — such as a range of mountains — it’s best to have the sun at your back and shining upon the subject from a lower angle rather than above. This illuminates detail and provides a crispness far better than any flash.

Shooting into the rays of the sun, even a little bit, will often wash the photo in haze.

I plan most of my days in the backcountry by scouting my scene, looking at the arc of the sun, and deciding what time of day it will fall into the best position. Meaning, if the sun rises above a cliff face you want to shoot, wait until later in the day before you fire away.

One situation when shooting directly into the sun can work is within the canopy of trees — think of the classic redwood forest picture — where you can focus on those great, pencil-thin rays of gold penetrating down through the leaves and branches.

Early morning and evening light

The best times of day that I’ve found for shooting an outdoor scene are — not unlike fishing — the morning and evening. The early morning sun can provide the most crisp, detailed light for shooting bright colors. The late afternoon/early evening — usually an hour or so before sunset — can bring a picture to life with an orange-tinted glow that works magic on a cliff face or body of water.

The best outdoor picture I’ve ever taken was at Death Valley National Park’s Mesquite Flat Dunes. Sunset was at about 7 o’clock that night, so I made sure to have climbed up a high point in the sand by 5:30 p.m. As the sun began its descent, the dunes began to glow with this creamy, brownish-orange light that was a perfect contrast to the still-blue sky.

Unique angles

One of the best ways to make a picture stand out is to shoot from an original angle, which gives the subject a new life by presenting it in a way people don’t expect.

Lay down on the ground and shoot a wildflower from its underside, using the sky rather than the forest as background. Focus on the ground in front of a mountain to provide scale and complexity.

You can also do a “hail mary” by holding your camera way over your head and pointing it down toward your subject.

Get dirty trying different ideas.

Put in the work

Like most things in life, getting good pictures is a product of hard work.

Wake up before sunrise to get in position so that when the fireworks begin, you’re ready. Climb to the top of a peak, search for a good opening or stalk a grizzly bear through the woods (do NOT try this!).

There’s no secret to taking pictures like Chris Johns, just trial and error, knowledge of your camera, and, from time to time, just pure dumb luck.


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