Get Good Photos in the Great Outdoors

Follow these digital photography tips to make the most of what Mother Nature throws at you -- or fake it with Photoshop when you get home.

  • Photoshop to the Rescue

    Here's a photo in which I photographed someone in front of a brightly lit window. As you can see, the subject is underexposed. The solution for such problems? You can selectively improve the underexposed part of the photo to brighten the subject's face without increasing the brightness in other portions of the photo. The easiest way to accomplish this is to do some dodging.

    Dodging is an old darkroom term that refers to lightening part of a photo by reducing the amount of time you expose a print. In film processing, it's a selective technique that you apply to certain sections of your photo — and it's no different in digital photography.

    In Adobe Photoshop Elements, for example, open the photo and choose the Dodge tool, which you can find second from the bottom in the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Click on the underexposed part of the photo. You can "dab" it by clicking several times, or you can click and drag the tool around the screen to lighten a larger area.
  • Shoot a Silhouette

    What if the shot you really want is between you and the sun? Go ahead and take the shot, but consider an artistic variation designed to make the most of this kind of situation: the silhouette. For this photo, for example, I spied a bird that would not wait for me to walk around the tree for better lighting.

    Position yourself so that the subject is between you and the bright background. Now turn off the flash and lock your camera's exposure on the background. Usually you can do this by pressing the shutter down halfway, to set the exposure on the bright sky.

    If your camera doesn't have an exposure lock feature, you can use exposure compensation instead. Take the picture normally, but with the camera's exposure compensation (usually abbreviated as EV) set to -2 or -3. That should underexpose the photo, rendering the subject a deep black in the process.
  • Fine-Tune the Fix

    Here is what my photo looks like after a little dodging in Photoshop Elements.

    As always with image editing, if you think you're overdoing it, you can use the Undo command to revert to a previous state and start again. You can tweak the tool's settings in the toolbar at the top of the screen, too; depending on the resolution of the photo and the size of the underexposed region, you might want to modify the size of the Dodge tool.

    And rather than dodging the original photo, it's a good idea to work in a layer on top of the original photo. To do that, duplicate the layer before you get started by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer and clicking OK. Now you can modify the top layer and use the opacity control (in the Layers palette on the right side of the screen) to fine-tune the effect. The original photo is still underneath, preserved in case you need it. For more tips, read "[[xref:|Layers 101: Improve Your Photos by Editing With Layers.|Layers 101: Improve Your Photos by Editing With Layers.]]"
  • Avoid bright light and shadows

    In essence, photography is all about painting with light. And getting just the right amount of light is critical to capturing a great photo. Most of the time, your digital camera does an admirable job on its own, but occasionally it needs some help. Factors such as the time of day, where the sun is positioned in the sky, and how much light and shadow appear in the viewfinder all contribute to the quality of your photos.

    Consider this photo, for example. At first glance it looks fine. If you inspect it more closely, though, you'll see that the harsh midday sun has caused the subject's face, arms, and legs to be badly overexposed.

    But that's okay, because you can fix such problems (or avoid them in the first place). I have an assortment of tips to help you make the most of your lighting when you take the photo, as well as to help you correct bad lighting situations with your image editing program after you get home.
  • Replace the Sky

    If you have no choice but to shoot in harsh lighting or overcast conditions, you have yet another way to cheat Mother Nature: Replace a washed-out sky with a better one in your image editing program afterward.

    For starters, you'll need to have a great photo of the sky handy. When you see a pretty blue sky, swirling clouds, an afternoon storm, or a beautiful sunset, grab your camera and start shooting. Save the best images in a special folder for occasions when you want to perform sky surgery.

    When you're ready to replace the sky in a photo, start by opening both photos — the good sky and the image you want to make over — in Photoshop Elements (or your favorite photo editor). With the original photo selected, press Ctrl-A and then choose Edit, Copy. Switch to the sky photo and choose Edit, Paste. The photo to be altered will appear as a new layer on top of the sky photo.

    Next, switch to the Magic Wand tool and click anywhere in the anaemic sky. If the sky is uniformly pale, you'll probably get the whole thing with just one click; if not, choose the 'Add to Selection' option (in the toolbar at the top of the screen) and click around the photo until you grab the whole sky.
  • Use Your flash

    I'll admit that you have to be dedicated to carry a reflector around. A more convenient solution might be to use your [[xref:|digital camera's fill flash|Digital Focus: Master Your Camera's Flash Modes]]. If you're photographing a subject that's fairly close to you — say, within about 10 feet (3 metres) — make sure that your camera's flash is enabled, and allow it to "fill in" the shadows.

    Using the fill flash is a great way to fix high-contrast scenes, but remember that it works only with nearby subjects. The flash units built into most digital cameras have a short range, so they can't do anything to a sun-dappled field 15 feet (4.5 metres) away. For that sort of muscle, consider adding an external flash.
  • Get a Sharp Silhouette

    Of course, you want the subject in sharp focus, even if it's in silhouette. If your subject is far enough away, that isn't a problem: When you lock the exposure on the bright background, the camera will set the focus to infinity, and you'll get good results. If the subject is too close, however, it will be in a different focal range than the background, and the silhouette will turn out fuzzy.

    To avoid the problem, check your camera to see if it has a way to lock the exposure and focus separately. If it does, use that mode to prevent the focus from locking in on the background when you set the exposure. If it doesn't, switch your camera to manual focus, and focus on the subject by hand; be sure you've locked the exposure, and then recompose your picture and shoot.

    If all goes well, you'll get an inky-black subject. If your subject isn't quite silhouetted, try again, underexposing the image even more by using the exposure compensation control on your camera.
  • Shoot in the shade

    When you shoot outdoors in daylight, you might have to contend with a dynamic range — the amount of light and darkness in a photo — that far exceeds what your camera can handle, which produces bright white highlights and deep black shadows in your images. Digital cameras exaggerate the difference between light and shadow, too: If a shadow is partly covering the subject in your photo, the distinction between light and shadow will be as stark as the line formed by the bright and dark portions of a half moon.

    To combat the effect, look for alternating patterns of sun and shade. If you see them, recompose the shot to eliminate direct sunlight. If you're shooting at midday, indirect light — such as in the shade — makes for much better pictures. If you can, move your subject under a tree, beside a building, or anywhere you can get away from the harsh sunlight.
  • Get a good angle on the scene

    Stay aware of the sun's position in the sky, and try to put yourself between it and your subject. Sometimes that will mean walking around and shooting your subject from a different angle. It's easy to forget this bit of common sense when you're on vacation and you approach a historic attraction — your first instinct will be to shoot it as you approach and not consider other angles. Restrain yourself, though, and take a few minutes to look for better vantage points.

    If you can't get a good angle, and you can't move the subject into the shade, you might be able to block the light. In my backpack I sometimes carry a flexible reflector, such as a Photoflex LiteDisc, sold in most camera shops; [[xref:||LiteDisc Reflector Soft Gold 22-inch]] sells them for about US$15 to US$100, depending on the size. The LiteDisc unfurls in seconds, and you can use it to shade people in front of a tourist attraction, eliminating the squinting you often get from subjects who are facing the sun.
  • Blend Old and New Skies

    This is the part where the process gets a little tricky. Choose Select, Inverse from the menu so that everything except the sky is selected, and choose Edit, Copy. You've now preserved the foreground in the clipboard. Next, choose Edit, Paste to add that foreground as a new layer on top of the other two. You won't see anything change in the photo, but the third layer should appear in the Layers palette on the right side of the screen.

    Finally, you can introduce the better sky into the photo. In the Layers palette, select the middle layer and then reduce its opacity; the underlying good sky will start to peek through. Adjust the setting until the results look about right to you — it's an art, not a science, so pick a level that looks natural. That's all there is to it.
  • Wait for the 'magic hour'

    Photographers call the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset, respectively, the "magic hour" because the light is especially flattering then. At those times of day, the light is soft and warm; and because the sun is so low in the sky, it won't generate harsh, contrasting light and shadow in your photos.

    If you can't get up with the chickens or wait until dinnertime to take your photos, at least you can avoid high noon. When the sun is directly overhead, unflattering light and ugly contrasts are virtually unavoidable. Instead, try to shoot in the morning and midafternoon, when the sun is lower in the sky.
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