Decades ago, photography gear was expensive, heavy, and difficult to use. Today, it’s readily accessible and high quality, allowing just about anyone to make images and share their work. Free from the usual barriers of gear, technical knowledge, and the internet, the only distinguishing factors that separate today’s photographers is vision and skill. Vision and skill are also the most subjective of considerations.
In today’s photography, the key skills that separate the casual from the great outdoor photographers have changed. Being an outdoor photographer is easy. Being a great one is not. But there are a few things that all great outdoor photographers have in common. So, I’ve compiled some industry secrets that can’t hurt.
Whether you’re shooting with a $50,000 Epic Red Dragon or a smartphone, light remains (and always will remain) the raw element of photography. And digital sensors, despite the fancy algorithms that get fancier by the day, are not nearly as capable as your eye and don’t see in the same way. “Good light” is almost always pushing the ability of a digital sensor to capture it. Learn how light works, and how to make strong images in rich and challenging light. Nerding out on color, Rayleigh scattering, and the zone system will make creating a good image in challenging light second nature.
Be Cold, Wet, and Sore
One of the most basic skills that separate great from less-than-great outdoor photographers is a simple willingness to be uncomfortable. Waiting for light on a frigid morning, kneeling for hours on a slippery river rock to shoot kayakers, waking up absurdly early to chase light that may or may not appear, and hauling gear up and down ridges while your friends flit about with light packs, are all part of the game.
Balance the Artist and the Nerd
Great photos must have two things. The first is a compelling subject and the artistic vision to tell a story. The second is the mastery of craft, the ability to make and refine quality images. Photographers must straddle two worlds: that of the free-thinking, creative artist given to abstract, non-linear thinking, and the technical thinker who can meticulously manage color, exposure, digital post-processing, and printing. It’s hard to balance the two. Most photographers come more from one world or the other, and enter the other grudgingly, with a slow learning process. But learn both, we must.
The best images leave questions unanswered. What happened next? Who was that person? What is happening just off the edge of the frame? A sense of mystery lets the viewer use their imagination. Unless you’re shooting video, forget about telling a story in a linear fashion with a beginning, middle, and end. Still, photography’s storytelling is more metaphor; a subtle use of visual language than action. Think of stills as poetry to video’s prose. Google gives us answers to whatever we want in the information age. It’s the questions, not the answers, that are interesting.
The best outdoor images tap into fundamental human emotions that cross cultures and time. Think of Galen Rowell’s image of climbers celebrating the first sight of green grass after weeks above the snow line. While the image was shot of a particular set of climbers in the Karakorum Himalaya, it captures a sense of relief and joy that all outdoor adventurers feel at some point, regardless of the sport or setting. Or Steve McCurry’s image of Sharbat Gula, a portrayal of the haunting impact of trauma on the human spirit. Both of these images convey meaning well beyond the time or place they were shot or the particular stories of those individuals. They’re symbols of a larger shared human experience.
Be Part of A Community
Being a photographer is often a lonely experience: most of the work is done solo, with long hours in the digital darkroom. This kind of isolation, as well as wearing on the spirit, can also short-circuit learning. Find a community of photographers who shoot differently, share ideas, keep each other updated on the latest techniques, and inspire each other with different approaches. If there isn’t a photographic community like this near you, start one.