Rules for Great Outdoor Photography, And When to Break Them

The sun­rise is break­ing over a gor­geous moun­tain peak. You whip out your cam­era, ready to cap­ture the moment…and end up with a dull pho­to that doesn’t come close to what you saw. Sound famil­iar? You can make bet­ter images by fol­low­ing a short set of cre­ative rules—and by know­ing when to break them for cre­ative effect.

Shoot at the Edges
What It Means: Above every­thing, pho­tog­ra­phy is about light­ing. To achieve good light, shoot at the edges. Knowl­edge­able pho­tog­ra­phers shoot dur­ing “gold­en hour” at the edges of the day: sun­rise and sun­set. Also, you can find “edges” when rays of light bend around objects like branch­es or stormy clouds.

When to Break the Rules: If you can’t avoid shoot­ing in the mid­dle of the day when the sun is high, cast­ing harsh shad­ows across sub­jects, cre­ate your own good light. Shoot toward the sun to cre­ate back­lit sil­hou­ettes and sun stars.

outdoor photography

Expose for the Highlights
What it Means: The human eye sees a broad­er range of light than cam­eras, so ensure you expose for the high­lights. Even with many basic point-and-shoot cam­eras, you can expose prop­er­ly for high­lights. To achieve this trick, point the cam­era at high­lights, like a bright sky, hold the but­ton part­way down, then recom­pose to frame your shot.

When To Break the Rules: Some­times you want bril­liant or lumi­nes­cent high­lights; snow and water both achieve this look.

Process for the Shadows
What it Means: Know that shad­ows are eas­i­er than high­lights to adjust in post-pro­cess­ing. When shoot­ing in a high-con­trast set­ting, expos­ing for the shad­ows can give you dark, inky shad­ows, giv­ing images a dra­mat­ic look. You can light­en up shad­ows to restore detail and tex­ture using imag­ing soft­ware like Pho­to­shop or even just Insta­gram filters.

When to Break the Rules: Too much manip­u­la­tion makes your images look fake, so be sure to light­en shad­ows with intent.

outdoor photography

Don’t Shoot from Eye Level
What it Means: Shots tak­en from eye lev­el can be bor­ing. Move your body and the cam­era to get a new perspective.

When to Break the Rules: Shoot­ing from eye lev­el can work when the cam­era makes direct eye con­tact with your sub­ject and want a con­fronta­tion­al, raw energy.

Lead the Eye Into the Frame
What it Means: Achieve this fram­ing tech­nique using lines, curves, and col­ors that draw the eye toward your subject.

When to Break the Rules: To cre­ate ten­sion or ener­gy, frame your sub­ject so it appears they are going to move out of the image.

outdoor photography

Make the Eye Work
What it Means: To make an image more dynam­ic, frame sev­er­al elements–subjects, curv­ing lines, areas of con­trast, col­ors, textures—into a care­ful­ly com­posed image that keeps the eye dancing.

When to Break the Rules: When you have a strong sub­ject, con­sid­er iso­lat­ing it—remove visu­al dis­trac­tions like col­ors or com­plex backgrounds.