The month of October is peak time for viewing fall colors and the sounds of uncounted camera shutters clicking will fill the Hoosier outdoors during the next few weeks. Later, a million sighs of disappointment will fill the land as novice shutterbugs open their picture files and realize that they probably won’t be working for National Geographic anytime soon.
While picture taking is a year-around activity, fall is the peak season for outdoor-oriented photos. The breathtaking colors this time of year virtually demand a photographic record of the encounter but the pictures usually end up being a poor facsimile of the actual experience. So how do the pros do it?
First and foremost, amateur shutterbugs should begin to realize that the ability to take really outstanding photos is specialized skill that requires training, technical proficiency, years of experience and a good creative bent. Instead, camera companies have done a good job of convincing the public that you only need to press the shutter button on their latest offering and then wait for the Nobel Prize in fine arts.
Obviously, equipment isn’t the answer. You must certainly understand how to operate your particular camera for the lighting conditions at hand but the real key to a good photograph is composition.
Stepping up to the gorgeous vista at the local state park and snapping away madly is a virtual guarantee to end up with a bunch of boring photos that will quickly be forgotten. While the panorama might be so breathtaking that you weep openly, there is only the slightest chance that the landscape will be half as interesting when captured on screen or paper.
One reason for this is the selectivity of the human eye and brain. Looking at the scene, you unconsciously focus on small details such as a particularly beautiful tree, an interesting barn or the train tracks in the distance. Thus, remedy for this unconscious selectivity is to put something, anything, interesting in the foreground to attract viewer attention.
A small waterfall, an interesting dead tree or your hiking companion can transform an otherwise lackluster shot into something more interesting. Maneuver around until you can frame the object perfectly to help create a mood and don’t be afraid to try unusual camera angles such as lying on the ground.
Try to focus on a single subject rather than groups. For instance, a lone tree against a meadow is infinitely more interesting than a shot of a palate of colorful trees that stretch to the horizon.
People are a big part of good outdoor pictures. While it seems counterintuitive when trying to capture a dramatic landscape, putting a person in the picture will make it infinitely more appealing. However, make sure your subject is engaged in some activity such as hiking or fighting a fish because a stiffly posed shot is nearly as tedious as the standard pretty tree picture.
Another trick for making interesting photos is to capture the mundane. A picture of a beautiful vista is very forgettable but a shot of your friend eating a trailside lunch against the same background will bring back a flood of memories and prove infinitely more attention-grabbing.
While it would seem that a perfect sunny day would be the best time to shoot outdoor pictures, it is actually the worse. The bright sun washes out colors and causes exposure problems due to the great difference in brightness between the sky and deep shadows.
An overcast day is great for outdoor photography and a rainy day is even better. The diffused light and damp leaves of an otherwise ugly day make colors more intense and the whole photograph much better exposed. To make a subject “pop” on a dull day, try using your flash to illuminate objects or people in the foreground.
The final critical “secret” is to shoot early and late on sunny days when the light takes on a golden hue coming from a dramatic low angle. Professionals call the 60 minutes after sunrise and before sunset the “golden hour” because of the gorgeous light and unique angle.
However, above all else, just keep snapping pictures. Digital photography makes the images themselves virtually cost-free so fire away. Then, at home after you finish admiring the good shots, look at the bad ones and learn from the mistakes. Understand what went wrong and how you can correct it in the future. This is how the pros really learn their trade and you can too.