How to Shoot Outdoor Photos Like a Pro

Upgrade your photos with tips from professional outdoor photographer Adam Barker.
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Upgrade your photos with tips from professional outdoor photographer Adam Barker.

Stop being envious of other people’s great shots and create some of your own. Backpacker’s Outdoor Photo School brings pro photographer Adam Barker into your home in an 8-week, self-paced online course that will take your photography skills to the next level. Enroll today!

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Once upon a time, the pros had pro cameras and the rest of us bought their calendars. Nowadays, sophisticated photo gear is affordable for the masses and light enough to take backpacking. But buying a fancy camera doesn’t automatically make your photos better. Master these techniques, and you’ll be well on your way to creating calendar-worthy images—no matter what you’re shooting with.

shoot like a pro

SPOT: Wasatch Mountains, Utah; specs: f/18, 1/6 sec, ISO 320, 23mm focal length To create a sun star, try using a high aperture (small opening). Photos by Adam Barker

Composition

You can get everything else right, but if you don’t start with good composition, it’s all for naught. What you include (and exclude), and how you arrange subject matter, is the glue that holds your images together.

Think of your composition in terms of background and foreground, giving viewers a similar perspective to what they’d see in real life. Use a secondary background subject like mountain peaks, puffy clouds, a sun star, or rolling waves to prompt the viewer to explore all parts of the image, including what lies in between the foreground and background.

Make sure your image is not “crowded” in one area, in order to create proper balance. Example: If you’ve placed your primary foreground subject, or anchor, in the lower right corner of your frame, try placing something else of less importance in the upper left corner.

Use color, light, subject matter, or tone to establish separate foreground, middleground, and background areas. In the example above, colorful flowers stand off from a monochromatic middleground.

Be aware of what’s included at the edges of your photo. After shooting, review the image and make sure nothing is cut off in an abrupt way. Such partial objects make the viewer think about what is outside the frame rather than concentrating on what you’ve decided to include.

shoot like a pro

SPOT: Factory Butte, UT; specs: f/18, 1/3 sec, ISO 100, 19mm focal length Pair warm and cool colors to create dynamic contrast.

Light

The right light gives images depth, allowing people to momentarily forget that they are staring at a flat surface.

Light is best when the sun is low on the horizon because it enhances the feeling of three dimensionality. Research your location beforehand. Know where and when the sun will rise and fall each morning and evening.

Changing cloud cover can produce good light before sunrise and after sunset. Allow 45 minutes before and after predicted times.

Scout ideal compositions so you know exactly where to be.

Choose locations that give you shooting options both into and away from the sun.

Subject

You may set out to shoot a golden aspen grove, and upon arrival, think, perfect and set up to shoot. But while it might be a beautiful scene, is it really the best photograph? A certain section of that aspen grove—with just the right convergence of branches, leaves, spacing, and light—might make for a better image.

Don’t “decide” what your subject is before you even get there. If the light for a wide sunset landscape isn’t right, switch to a close-up detail shot where the light is good.

Allow time to explore; find the unexpected.

Practice

Your skills will develop faster if you think like a photographer more frequently. Your goal is to make analyzing scenes and light become second nature.

Study light and how the sun’s position affects the landscapes you see every day.

Look through the wide and long ends of your adjustable lens frequently to understand how each enhances or detracts from a capture. Learn how to “see” as if you were using different focal lengths.

Shoot frequently to familiarize yourself with your camera’s controls and functions. You don’t want to fumble with the buttons when the moment is right.

shoot like a pro

SPOT: Grand Teton National Park, WY; specs : F/8, 8 sec, ISO 320, 40mm focal length Compose so your subject is looking into the frame.

Ready to take your photo skills to the next level? Take our new online class, Outdoor Photo School. The eight-week course covers every aspect of outdoor photography, from exposure to post-processing.

Self-paced: Learn when and where you want—you just need an internet connection.

Instructor: Adam Barker has taught photo workshops around the world and his photos have appeared in BACKPACKER, SKI, Skiing, USA Today, and more.

Price: $199. Special offer: Use promo code OctPhotoSchool for $50 off.