Outdoor Photography Tips

Capture the beauty and excitement of your hiking, fishing, camping, and boating trips with these tips for taking pictures in the great outdoors.
By C. Boyd Pfeiffer
June/July 1992
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To get a good action shot of fishing, have the angler reenact landing a fish, splashing water to create the excitement of the moment.
C. BOYD PFEIFFER
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The versatility and variety of sports provides an endless opportunity for outdoor photography. Unfortunately, most of us get out our cameras only after the action is over to record a fisherman with his catch, a tired hiker with his pack, a camper in front of his tent. All these pictures are good, but they tell only a small part of the story of the outdoor sports of fishing, hiking, and camping. By following the outdoor photography tips offered here, your pictures can capture some of the excitement and beauty that draws you to your favorite outdoor sport.

The best photographs will include all aspects of each sport, from start to finish. Outdoor sports involve people, so be sure to involve your family, friends, and even casual acquaintances in all your photos. Catch people in candid shots, doing something involved with the sport—they will make for far more interesting photographs than record shots of a family group or friends staring at the camera. Each photograph should have a reason for being taken and should show a part of the sport that will be immediately obvious and interesting to a viewer. Although "people shots" will comprise a large part of an outdoor sports album or slide show, take care to include other types of shots as well.

Once I viewed a long, professionally taken slide show of an outdoor sport. The geography and people were exotic, the shots were properly exposed, and well taken and composed. But almost every one of them was of people or scenery. The camera was rarely, if ever, focused closer than 15 to 20 feet. It lacked detailed shots of the equipment, hands rigging equipment, how the equipment was used, setting up camp, close-ups of small details of equipment, and techniques and details of the faces of the participants. In short, the photographer did not use the camera to its full range of capability. As a result the show was stilted and stale.

In many other cases, photographers will stick to details and to people, but leave out the long-range scenics of the countryside, geography, and terrain. Try to include many different types of shots, from many angles and viewpoints.

There are different ways to treat any outdoor sport. You can concentrate on one trip, especially if it is an extensive one. Plan to use your camera before the trip begins by photographing the planning stages—packing, checking maps, and buying supplies. Continue using your camera throughout the trip to record the important people and those detail and scenic shots that will present a complete story of the trip to any viewer.

Tips for Fishing Photography

1. Backs and bellies look alike on all fish, so have your subject hold the fish with its side clearly visible. Make the catch an important part of the subject by having the fisherman hold the fish out in front of him, or to one side. Don't have the fish held at arm's length, particularly if using a wide-angle lens, because the fish will become too large in proportion to the angler and will look unnatural. Also, as pointed out by my friend Cliff Shelby, the fingers holding the fish will look as big as ballpark franks, so keep hands out of the photo. Avoid cluttered backgrounds. In black-and-white photography, avoid backgrounds that will hide or disguise details of the fish. Fish held to the side against the sky or a dark fish against a white background will make the best print. In color slides or color prints, look for a background that will have a strong color contrast with the shade and color of the fish for the same dramatic effect.

2. You don't always have to photograph the whole fish, particularly if it is a big one. Often the head of the fish with the lure (or bait) in its mouth, and an angler unhooking it, will make for a different and very effective picture.

3. Fish hooked and photographed in the water are almost always attractive if the water is clear, the fish right at the surface, and the lure visible. A few shots like this are a welcome break from the typical fishing shots.

4. All fishing involves rods, and many fishing pictures are taken with anglers holding their tackle. Make sure that your photos do not show the fishing rod across the angler's face, that it does not cast a shadow on the angler, and that the tip of a rod behind the angler does not appear to be "growing" from the angler's head or shoulders.

5. Take some close shots of the fish and the tackle. This tells a story, too, of the type of tackle used to capture the fish, and the types of lures used. For the best shot, wet down the fish before taking the photograph. A good rustic setting is an old wood dock. Wet down the dock to bring out the wood grain and to provide contrast with the light-colored fish.

6. Photos of fish jumping as an angler fights them are difficult to get but worth the effort when they work. To do this, have your camera ready at all times. Make sure that the shutter is cocked, the aperture/shutter speed set properly for the light and film (automatic cameras will do this for you), and the distance set for the distance you expect the fish to be from the boat or shore when it jumps.

Try to get the angler to force the fish so that it will be fresh or "green" when near the boat, so that it will jump more readily. If possible, for more excitement and for a perspective of the fishing, try to frame the fish with the angler or get the angler and his tackle in the picture. You can do this by backing off and shooting the back of the angler when fishing from a boat. When shore fishing, you might be able to wade out in front of the fish and shoot back at both the angler and the jumping, thrashing fish. If possible, try to shoot from a low angle, since this will make the jump of the fish more dramatic.

If using an automatic camera, be sure to set it to a fast shutter speed. You can do this easily with a shutter-preferred automatic camera, or with a manual camera. You can force an aperture-preferred camera to "pick" a fast shutter by using a moderate or open f-stop. Be careful of programmed-mode cameras because some of these may not have a shutter speed which is fast enough to stop this action. Some new cameras also have a "fast-programmed" mode for action photography; pick this if it is available.

7. To get a good action shot, get an angler to reenact landing a fish. Do this immediately after the fish is landed so that it will still be wet and fresh looking. If using a net, have the angler place the whole net in the water and bring it up sharply on command to splash water and create the excitement of the moment.

8. If landing a fish by hand, have the angler place his hand and the whole fish under water and bring it up sharply to create splashing water. Have him pull the fish out of the water, rather than pulling it up straight like a straw out of soda. An alternative to this is to have him hold the fish by the belly and lift the fish straight up. For best results, use a fast shutter speed in all shots like these.

9. Include shots of the angler casting, launching boats, and running to the fishing grounds in other fishing boats, and of fishermen on streams.

10. You do not need photos of a dock full of fish to show that you are a good fisherman. In most cases, pictures like this are poor and of little interest to anyone. Better are photos of you or a friend or family member with a prized trophy fish, or representative example of a fish taken on a trip. Stick to photos of individual fish and release those fish you do not need.

11. For a different type of shot of boat fishermen, preset your camera to the correct shutter speed, f-stop, and distance, and hold it out over the water to shoot back toward the boat as a fellow angler casts or lands a fish. Take several shots to be sure of getting one good one, and protect the camera by wrapping the neck strap around your wrist. This works best with a wide-angle lens.

12. Shore fishing from lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams offers many opportunities for good photos by using a range of close-ups and long-range scenic shots. With the long-range shots, try to find a frame (of tree branches, for example) to give the picture depth.

13. If you do almost all of your fishing by wading and wish to take a lot of photos when actually fishing, consider a waterproof or weather-resistant camera. There are several models, ranging from the Nikons down through the less-expensive 35mm and 110 models.

14. When taking fishing pictures from a boat, you will almost always benefit by using a wide-angle lens, because this will allow you to incorporate the boat, angler, and fish in the photo.

Tips for Hiking Photos

1. To emphasize hiking, try some shots from a low angle that will draw attention to the legs and hiking boots of the subjects as they walk along a trail.

2. Don't forget camp-chore shots and close-ups of the small tricks and techniques that hikers use to add camp comfort while minimizing weight and bulk.

3. Hikers often wear unusual hats, kerchiefs, scarfs, and hiking shoes. Emphasize these items in some of your photographs.

4. Don't forget campfire scenes. Set your camera on a rock and use the self-timer to get in the picture yourself or use a sturdy support to take a slow exposure of a campfire surrounded by hikers.

5. The woods are full of "frames" for photographs, including tree limbs, tents, foliage, and rock outcroppings. Use them frequently for effective medium- to long-range photographs.

6. Mealtime is an important event in most camps and most hiking trips. Be sure to get some pictures of meal preparation and consumption, including the facial expression of campers/hikers enjoying the meal.

7. A good photograph when tent camping is to utilize the tent opening as a frame for some shots. You can do this from the inside of the tent looking out or from the outside looking in.

Taking Boating Photographs

1. For maximum dramatic effect of a fast boat, shoot at a low angle at a boat passing you to emphasize the waves and the prow of the boat. Do this on a calm day and even then be careful to protect the camera from waves if taking a waterline shot.

2. Boating pictures usually involve a lot of sky and water, so use filters effectively for more dramatic results. Yellow, red, and orange filters are best for black-and-white films, and a polarizer and 85B (to brighten up the water) is best for color film. If the sky is flat, try to exclude it and emphasize the water.

3. Low light levels in the early morning and late afternoon are great for photographing boats, since they reproduce the texture and color of the hull, and show interesting modeling effects from the reflection of light from the water.

4. When shooting a lot of white water, as in white-water canoeing or canoe or slalom races, try to underexpose by about half a stop when shooting color to reproduce the water better. The slight underexposure will keep the white-water foam from bleaching out in the photo.

5. When shooting on a small boat, use a wide-angle lens to include as much boating activity as possible in your photos.

6. Include sunset and sunrise photos, since they are among the most beautiful on the water with many reflections of red, orange, and yellow. A light yellow filter can spruce up a color slide or print of a sunset or sunrise.

7. For two completely different photographs of a sailboat, take one shot with a low sun behind you and full on the boat, and then move to the opposite side of the boat to take a second shot with the sun coming through the sails of the boat and the water backlit. This second type of shot is particularly effective and appealing in color.


C. Boyd Pfeiffer is an accomplished outdoor photographer and writer. He's the author of  Tackle Craft and The Orvis Guide to Outdoor Photography, in which this material appears.  


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