The challenge of taking great outdoor images

As the more frequent readers of this blog might be aware, since joining my Scottish university’s mountaineering club I have become a bit of an outdoor enthusiast. The evening before a hike I pull all the stuff I need from the shelfs and drawers of my room and pile it up next to my backpack – socks, waterproof trousers, gloves, Swiss officer knife, compass, torch … and camera. Yes, of course. I love hiking, I love hill walking, I love standing on the summit of a mountain and looking out far to the horizon, over lochs and glens, forests and pastures, sometimes all the way to the ocean. But above all, I love photography. And so my camera accompanies me on every walk.

And after I come home from a walk, take a shower and boil the kettle, I take the SD card out of the camera, sit down at my desk and go through the images of the day. More often than not, it is a bit of a sobering experience. When you have been out the entire day marvelling at the magnificence of the world around you, you hope to bring home some great images afterwards. Unfortunately, that does not happen as often as I would like. I get good images, but they are hardly ever great. Maybe once in a while, but usually not. In order to find out why we need to have a look at what makes a great outdoor image.

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So what makes a great outdoor photograph? Surely, the scene matters. People will always find an image from the Scottish Highlands or the Atlas mountains more fascinating than one from their own backyard (unless that backyard happens to open into the Scottish Highlands), and towering mountains, roaring rivers and vast plains are a good place to start. But there is more to take into consideration. One factor is time. The composition can make or break an image, and finding the right angle is as vitally important as it is time-consuming. In the best case you might jump around on the spot for five minutes until you have found it, in the worst case you may have to hike another hour, go waist deep into a river or lie down in the deep snow. And then you may have to get your tripod out and steady, get the filters ready, plug in the cable release, do a long exposure, realise it is too dark, take another … All in all the whole process can be rather time-consuming. The problem (and fun) in my case is that I usually hike others. Worst case they do not want to spend half an hour waiting for me to take an image, best case they are friends and would do it, but I do not want to be a burden and consequently abstain.

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The same applies to shooting outdoor activities. You know these shots from the glossy pages of an outdoor magazine that show attractive young guys and girls scrambling up a ridge, or running close past the camera on a trail, or ski down the mountain? There is a 95% chance these people are either professional athletes or models (or both), and the shots are all carefully planned and executed on a day out that is not primarily about the outdoor pursuit in question, but about photography. They involve preparation, scouting, good timing, loads of equipment (you won’t believe the kind of strobes and battery packs outdoor photographers and their assistants often haul up a mountain to illuminate e.g. jumping snowboarders) and, above all, willing and cooperative subjects. As you might have guessed, my friends are more interested in walking and climbing that actively modelling for me, so any shot I get of them scrambling or walking is actually just a snapshot of them actually doing this for their own amusement – they won’t walk back 50 m and do the entire thing again just because my camera’s AF couldn’t keep up with them or I did not manage to put that sunstar just above their shoulder. Another problem is that a bunch of people run around in brown hiking boots, black walking trousers and a grey jacket, variously combined with black gloves and maybe a yellow beanie. These kind of dull colour combinations are usually to be avoided, and professional outdoor photographers make sure that all their subjects were bright, colourful outfits that make them stand out against the often simple backgrounds.

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Then, finally, there is the light. One of the fundamental laws governing the world of photography is that the quality of the light has a huge impact on any image, and the early morning (just after sunrise) and late evening (just before sunset) are the best times to shoot. Unfortunately this, again, is difficult in the outdoors, at least for me. In summer the sun rises around 4 am and sets around 10 pm, so to drive over from Dundee and catch the sunrise on a mountain you have to get up around midnight, or might as well don’t go to bed at all. And if you want to catch the sunset you’re back in Dundee after midnight. In winter the sun rises around 9 am and sets before 4 pm, which makes it way more manageable, but you are left with the problem that getting up or down a mountain in the dark is a bit of a risky endeavour, even with a proper torch. In winter there is the added ice and snow which creates the danger of walking over a cornice or getting lost, and navigation is pretty difficult in the dark anyway, be it winter or summer. So how do you get the good light on the mountains without the need for nighttime navigation? Camp on a summit. I have never done that (actually, the last time I have camped at all was as a child) and do not have the necessary equipment.

Walking in Glenmore, Scottish Highlands.

As you see there are a bunch of practical obstacles that can stand between a good and a great outdoor image. Of course it is possible to get one in less than perfect light, without much preparation and cooperative subjects, but the chances are just slimmer.

If you want to give yourself a really good chance of capturing great outdoor images, get out by yourself or with someone who is willing to make the trip at least partly about photography, ideally with your own vehicle, go to the places you want to go to, take all the time you need to scout and find compositions and then take your image when the light is perfect. That way when you come home you do not need to make all the excuses I keep making.

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