Shoot It! Crash Course In Nature Photography For Campers

You know how beautiful the wild is. That's why you get out there.

Taking photos not only help you remember your trips, but can also become amazing pieces of art.

So how can you get the most out of your nature photography? Read on.

In this article will teach you:

  • Camera basics
  • What to shoot
  • Fundamentals of depth of field, lighting and framing 
  • Plus helpful pointers

Next time you get out there, you'll come home with pictures you'll be proud to share and beautiful memories that will last.

What Kind Of Camera Do I Need?

Woman using a camera.

Modern photography has two things going for it:

First, digital means you can take as many pictures as you want.

Second, most people carry around a high-quality camera in their pockets every day of the week.

Is My Smartphone Enough?

In many cases, yes.

For those just starting out with nature photography, most smartphones are advanced enough and pack a good enough camera that you can get some stunning, dramatic results without having to make any extra investments.

There are tons of resources on the web to help you improve your phone photos.

And many photographers primarily deal in smartphone photos.

If You Want A Little More

Dedicated cameras can give you more options.

Image quality, advanced lenses and extra settings are the biggest differences from a smartphone’s camera.

Typically you have 2 choices in digital cameras:

  • Point and shoot
  • DSLR

Point And Shoot

These cameras are less expensive, usually starting under $100 (but ranging up near $800 for top models).

They don’t have interchangeable lenses, which makes them more portable.

They also tend to have good automatic settings, which can help you take great shots.

DSLR

DSLR camera, side view.

DSLR cameras (Digital Single Lens Reflex) are more expensive (starting around $300 and going up into the stratosphere), but tend to have larger sensors that gather higher quality images.

The ability to switch out lenses gives you more options for your photos. For example, a wide angle lens is often the preferred lens for landscape pics.

The drawback (aside from cost) is size.

​​​​These cameras, and their accessories will take up a lot of space, not necessarily what you want on a backpacking trip where weight is at a premium.

If you find you really like taking nature shots, you might think of snagging a new camera. Either way, the following tips apply to both digital cameras and smartphones.

A very good first question:

What Should I Photograph?

Keep your eyes open.

Part of the benefit of taking photos on a camp or hike is it makes you look around you.

When you search out beauty, you’re more likely to find it.

Landscapes

Landscape nature photography

If you’ve seen a big, breathtaking view as you came over a rise and snapped a shot of it, did you notice afterwards that it didn’t quite capture the awesomeness?

Amazing landscapes don’t always translate to amazing photos. (Unless you follow a few guidelines, which we’ll discuss below.)

Closeups

Take a look at the ground, the tops of rocks, the bark of passing trees.

You’ll often find bugs, small animals, flowers, leaves as well as textures and colors that are interesting to photograph.

Contrast Is Key

Keep an eye out for contrast.

Dark trees against the bright sky. A cluster of bright green leaves against a dark forest floor. The pale fallen tree amid the grasses of a meadow.

Texture contrasts are nice too, like rough against smooth, or fine small leaves against the clear expanse of the sky. Look for places where shadows interplay with light, like sunlight through trees. 

Wave photo - contrast example.

Depth Of Field

What is it? It’s a term that basically means “what is in focus.”  A shallow depth of field will have a small portion of the image in focus with the foreground and background out of focus, or blurry.

A large depth of field usually means that almost the whole image is in focus.

For landscape images, you generally want the whole thing in focus, or a large depth of field.

For close up shots, you want a shallow depth of field, so the thing you’re photographing (the flower, the branch, the moth) is in focus and the background is blurred.

Lighting

Camping offers a special advantage.

You’re out in nature when the light is best. When is that? Sunset and sunrise.

The Golden Hour

The golden hour nature photography

The softer light, lower angles of shadow and brilliantly lit up skies make for some of the most amazing photographs.

Waiting for and shooting images during these times gets you professional lighting without a dime paid or a minute spent setting it up. 

All you have to do is wait for it.

You might even take a walk around during midday and look for views or shots that might benefit from the light of the “golden hour” and come back at sunset.

Midday

Midday shots can be beautiful too.

Look for contrast and bold colors. Bright sun tends to wash things out and create shadows, so keep your eye out for ways in which this looks cool.

Don’t be afraid to include the sun in your shot. The sun shining from behind trees or above mountain tops gives midday photos bold interest and better depth. 

Overcast days can be really nice for your photography. The clouds diffuse the light and make everything softer.

Framing Basics

Rule of thirds

Rule of thirds - example.

An easy concept that will improve your photos is the rule of thirds.

Draw 2 imaginary lines across your shot (making three equal parts from top to bottom) and put the horizon on one of those imaginary lines.

Basically this means, don’t put the horizon on the midline of your shot. Frame up with two-thirds of the sky on top of the frame, or two thirds land on bottom.

This site has a good example of the rule of thirds.

Importance of foreground

The key to a good landscape shot is putting something in the foreground. This can be a rock, a tree, a bush.

Pick an interesting object that is within 6 feet of the camera.

Include this in your shot of the landscape.

This does 2 things: It gives the viewer something to look at, to lead their eye into the image. It also grounds the image, so it’s not just a floating set of mountains.

An easy trick to getting foreground in your image is to get low. This can even mean sitting or lying on the ground.

Anything for the shot!

Close up framing

In addition to using the rule of thirds (put your object on one of the lines), and shallow depth of field for closeups, you can also experiment with angles.

For something like a flower or a branch, try getting under it, using the sky as an interesting and contrasting background.

Try shooting from different angles and see which you like best.

Remember, digital means almost unlimited shots.

Negative Space

Negative space - example.

Emphasize your subject by including negative space.

Negative space just means planes of relative emptiness that make your subject stand out. Think of a blank sheet of paper with a single ink blot on it.

The ink blot is emphasized by the whiteness surrounding it.

A glassy expanse of water, an overcast sky or a large patch of sand are all examples of negative space.

A duck on the water, a flower against the sky, or a red leaf on the sand will all become more interesting if you include a good amount of negative space in the shot.

People

Nature is beautiful, but don’t forget to include people. It doesn’t have to be a selfie.

An image with a distant hiker in it can make a shot more interesting and compelling.

Snap a few pics of your campsite too, they will be fun to look at later (just pick up those socks first). A few selfies or portraits of you and your camp buddies will help you remember the fun.

Enjoy the moment

It’s not all about the camera.

Remember to enjoy yourself while you’re on your trip.

Set the camera down occasionally and just look at the world through your own eyes, unmediated by the lens.

Get Out There And Shoot!

Armed with these simple guidelines, you should be able to improve your nature photography game.

Next time you visit the wild you’ll come home with a head full of memories and a camera full of beautiful art.

About the Author

After spending 5 years testing gear, meeting people and exploring his home state of Colorado with his wife, Andrej realized something about the outdoor industry. Mostly, that it was complicated. Andrej set out to create no-nonsense gear that was just as easy to use as it was reliable. He recruited a team of wilderness professionals and educators and hit the drawing board. The result was simple gear that you could trust, with specs you understood. Now he’s inspiring others to get out there and explore, by giving them the confidence to trust both themselves and the gear they use.

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