Choosing Outdoor Subjects
There is no lack of interesting outdoor subjects with which to fill your viewfinder, and there really aren't any hard and fast guidelines for choosing what to shoot. A vista that makes you sit up and take notice may not excite the next person, but if you follow your heart and find the images that speak to you, you'll never go wrong.
Although it's possible to stumble on a perfect setting that's just begging to be shot, most outdoor photographers spend a great deal of time seeking out their subjects. In the color insert, the two butterflies on one goldenrod plant are a perfect example of this. Patience is definitely a hallmark of this type of photography. Not only can it take some time to find a subject you want to shoot, it also takes time to figure out how you're going to shoot it. Getting the perfect shot often means returning to your subject more than once if you're trying to capture it in specific light or atmospheric conditions.
FIGURE 14-1 Sometimes you happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture a good shot, such as this one of a seagull cruising above the dunes.
When seeking out potential subjects, think about the different ways in which you could shoot them. Consider what the scenery will look like at various times of day and from different perspectives. If you have your camera with you, look at subjects through the viewfinder to get an idea of how you want to frame and compose your shots. Also keep a notebook with you so you can take notes on the location, the things about it that interested you, potential shooting angles, and the quality of light.
If you go location scouting without your camera, use your fingers to get a rough idea of how to frame subjects. Make Ls of your thumb and forefinger on both hands and put them together to make a rectangle — thumbs and forefingers opposite each other.
If you have a digital camera, you might want to use it to capture a visual record of the setting for future reference.
Also think about how the scenery will look at different times of year. A forest scene awash with the lush colors and deep hues of thick summer foliage might also make a great shot in the winter with slanting, low afternoon light casting deep shadows on tree limbs, bark, and snow.
How a scenic shot is lit can make the difference between a good picture and a great one. The sun's placement in the sky will light scenes in various ways and cast different shadows, depending on the angle of the light. One day, bright light might bathe your intended subject; the next an overcast sky might act as a giant diffuser, casting a softer light. It may be necessary to visit subjects more than once to get a feel for how they look at various times of the day and under different lighting conditions.
In general, outdoor photography depends a great deal on being in the right place at the right time. While composing your images well is always key to taking good pictures, getting good outdoor pictures is also heavily dependent on knowing how to work with the light and weather. The times of day most convenient for shooting are often not the best times for getting great pictures. You may not like being outdoors when it's cold and foggy, but you'll miss some great shots if you stay indoors in inclement weather. Just remember to protect your camera under adverse weather conditions, even if it is only with a plastic bag.
In most daytime scenes, the light source (the sun) is not part of the picture. The exact opposite is true in nighttime scenes, in which the light sources are often part of the story. This makes for a very large dynamic range, from the absolute black of the shadows to the brightness of street-lights and headlights.
At night, with no ambient light to fill in the background or shadows, artificial lighting outdoors will look fake. You can avoid using it by shooting with high-speed film, a wide-open lens, and a long shutter speed (1/30th, 1/15th, or 1/8th of a second), which will capture background lights if you're shooting a cityscape.
Outdoor shots can be taken from a variety of points of view — closeup, from a distance, through a frame of trees, shooting upwards, shooting downwards. All are possible, and none is necessarily better than any other.
Choosing a shooting position that shows scale and perspective can help classic landscape pictures seem less flat. Including a focal point, such as a rock, will give the viewer a sense of the landscape's scale.
Although you can't ask wildlife subjects to perform on cue, you can plan for action by knowing where to find them. Parks services, local nature clubs, and nature guides are just some of the sources for learning what kind of wildlife is in the area and where the animals tend to hang out. They also might be able to tell you when you can find your potential subjects. Animals follow fairly regular routines, especially when it comes to seasonal activities like mating, migration, and hibernation. They also eat at certain times of day, and they often come to the same place to do it unless they deplete the food supply there.
Patience pays off when shooting all types of wildlife, and this is especially true of the more elusive mammals, like otters and mice. When they do pop their little heads up from wherever they are, be ready to photograph them by having your camera in position and focused on the spot where you think they'll appear.
Always consider your safety as well as the safety of the animals you're shooting. It's never a good idea to get too close to animals in their habitat — especially during mating season — which is why you need long lenses to shoot them closeup. If you don't have a telephoto lens with you, shooting with a shorter or wide-angle lens will also let you include some of their natural surroundings.
It pays not to be too picky when photographing wildlife. If you're after a shot of a moose and all you're seeing are deer, don't ignore nature's message. It may not be a good moose day; settle for the deer and try for the moose another time.