Six Skills For Being a Great Outdoor Photographer

©istockphoto/standretDecades 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.

Know Light
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.©istockphoto/Simon Bradfield

Embrace Mys­tery
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.