How to find your own shooting style and approach to each kind of subject.

Photographing scenery often involves taking pictures of the creatures within it, so we’ve grouped both genres in this article. While different equipment is often required for each genre, both are primarily working with available light. Unless you’ve set up a camera trap (a special situation), artificial light sources lack sufficient reach, are an extra thing to carry and can startle living subjects.

It’s important to find your own shooting style and approach to each kind of subject. Questions like how much of the scene to include in the frame and where to position the main elements in the scene will dictate the pictures you capture.

When several photographers work from the same spot, they usually produce different images. Equipment choices and how shots are framed, the angles of view and camera settings will vary according to how they view the scene.

Two different approaches to the same scene, photographed from almost the same position. Both were taken with short telephoto zoom lenses with the focal length set at 80mm and the same, relatively small aperture (f/11) was used in both. The difference lies in each photographer’s framing, which resulted in totally different pictures.

Equipment choices

Although almost any lens can be used for photographing landscapes, most photographers prefer wide-angle lenses because they can encompass scenic panoramas. In contrast, long telephoto lenses (200mm or greater) let you ‘close-in’ on animals and birds in the landscape since it’s difficult to move physically close without scaring them away.

Travellers can often get by with a single wide-to-telephoto lens with a high zoom ratio. Fortunately, there are plenty to choose from.

Fixed-lens cameras with extended-range zoom lenses are a good choice for travellers who’d rather not be changing lenses when they’re out and about. (Source: Nikon.)

Compact, fixed-lens cameras are available with zoom range from 20x to as much as 125x zoom magnification (equivalent to 24-3000mm in 35mm format) from well-known manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sony, while Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM System, Panasonic, Sony and Tamron produce interchangeable zoom lenses to suit the main camera brands and sensor sizes.

While wide-angle lenses are often preferred by landscape photographers, there are times when a telephoto lens (in this case about 300mm in 35mm format) is preferable as it gives you a closer view of the scene and the wildlife within it. But it compresses perspective, making near objects seem closer to distant ones than they are in reality.

Wide-angle lenses work best when you need to capture a wide view but may not be able to step back far enough to photograph it. Because they ‘spread’ perspective, they can also be used creatively to emphasise differences in size between objects in a scene, to increase the perceived distance between objects in the foreground and background, or to create a sense of emptiness and distance in the scene.

A wide-angle 15-35mm zoom lens had to be used at its widest angle of view to encompass the width of this crater lake on Easter Island. The f/16 aperture setting ensured the scene was sharp from just in front of the camera to the distant crater rim.

But they have a few downsides you’ll need to deal with:
1. The wider the angle of view, the greater the angular distortion the lens creates. Tilting the camera up or down emphasises the distortion; the greater the tilt, the more obvious these effects become. You can minimise these distortions by holding the camera level to the scene.
2. It can be difficult to frame shots without stray light getting in and producing flare. Fitting a lens hood to the lens can help reduce flare – although not when the light source is inside the frame.

When shooting with wide-angle lenses it is difficult to avoid flare when the sun is within the image frame. The veiling flare in this shot is augmented by moisture in the air, causing the background to become blurred. Because the image was recorded as a JPEG, the brightest and darkest areas lack details.

On the positive side, wide-angle lenses seldom need stabilisation and can be used hand-held at slower shutter speeds than longer lenses. They are also easier to focus and often focus faster than other types of lenses.

In contrast, telephoto lenses make subjects appear closer by narrowing the camera’s field of view. This ‘compresses’ the perspective and makes subjects at different distances from the camera appear to be closer to each other than they really are. The effect increases with longer focal lengths; so does the perspective compression.

This long telephoto shot of flamingos shows the perspective compression that makes subjects at different distances from the camera appear closer together. (600mm equivalent focal length.)

When you magnify a subject you also increase the risk of blurring due to camera shake – so telephoto lenses require stabilisation, either in the lens itself or in the camera body (or both). Beyond a certain size (which varies with the photographer’s strength and experience) it can be difficult to shoot hand-held, even in normal outdoor lighting and with stabilisation in play.

Lens speed is therefore important when choosing telephoto lenses (see box on page ??). Your local camera store can advise you on the best options for your particular camera and the situations you’d like to photograph.

Lens speed

Photographers often talk about ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ lenses; both terms being defined by the size of the maximum aperture setting and how much light it allows to reach the sensor. Fast lenses have large maximum apertures that let in the maximum amount of light, while slow lenses have smaller (but not tiny) maximum apertures.

Cheaper zoom lenses have variable maximum apertures that become smaller as the focal length is increased. They are popular because they’re generally smaller and lighter for their range. Most will provide adequate light transmission for normal lighting conditions.

Low tide on the island of Miyajima in Japan, enabled us to capture this unusual shot of the iconic Great Torii for which the area is renowned. This photograph, produced from an ORF.RAW original, was taken at around 8 p.m. using available light with ISO 1600 sensitivity and a 1/15 second exposure at f/8 plus a 100mm focal length. Effective in-camera stabilisation prevented blurring due to camera shake.

You’ll pay more for a fast zoom lens with a constant maximum aperture that spans the entire focal length range – but it’ll be heavier due to larger and heavier glass elements. If you work a lot in low light levels, it’s probably worth the investment.

Faster lenses make it easier to isolate subjects from their backgrounds (differential focusing). However, this should be possible at longer focal lengths with lenses with f/3.5 to f/4 maximum apertures, so it’s not a good reason to avoid lighter, cheaper lenses. Fast telephoto lenses with very long (‘super-telephoto’) reaches can also have such narrow planes of focus they produce unrealistic images.

Lens speed is largely irrelevant when you’re using a wide-angle lens, even in relatively low light levels. This shot was taken at f/8 to provide a wide depth of focus and the camera was hand-held with a shutter speed of 1/20 second at ISO 100.

Lens speed is less important with wide-angle lenses as they’re seldom used for close-up work requiring differential focusing. Focusing is also easier, even with manual focusing.  If you close the aperture by a couple of stops, the depth of field will be so wide that the entire scene should be acceptably sharp.

Read the light

Learning to ‘read’ the light is crucial, whatever the conditions you’re shooting in and whether you’re capturing JPEGs or raw files (or both) or recording movie clips. Under optimal conditions, available light should always record the subject with a realistic tonal balance.

However, brightly-lit areas often have greater brightness ranges than the tonal range your camera’s sensor and processor can fit into a JPEG file, so some tones will be ‘clipped’ (lost). Cameras that can record raw (often designated ‘RAW’) files capture a wider range of tones and often take in tones that would be clipped in JPEGs. It’s worth shooting raw files and learning how to edit them.

Ambient lighting changes with the time of day. Weather conditions can affect the kinds of photos you take and, even in sunny weather, shadows will move, creating different modelling and patterns.

A brief change in the lighting turned this otherwise drab lily pond into a picture with a real ‘glow’. A minute later the warm lighting was gone.

Ambient conditions can also have an impact on how viewers respond when your pictures are shared. A sunny scene creates a warm and relaxed feeling – but such shots can often lack drama or excitement.

Even when it’s relatively fine, always take your time when composing shots. A scene that looks ordinary might really glow minutes later when the sun’s angle has changed and the strength and/or direction of the light shifts. Subjects shifting can also change the potential for a worthwhile shot.

Clouds contribute to shot composition, whether they are heavy clouds that cover large parts of the sky or thin, wispy trails. Bland blue skies may appear cheerful, but they seldom make dramatic pictures.

Without the clouds, this shot would lose a lot of its impact because of the softer tonality that brings out the colours in the surfboards in the foreground.

Stormy weather has long been a magnet for many creative photographers, generating a band of global ‘storm chasers’ who keep a close watch on developing cyclones and weather fronts. Such events are associated with dramatic clouds and wind that can twist trees and other structural elements into interesting shapes – but danger is always present when you’re out in the worst conditions.

The low sun angle and dust in the air make the silhouetted trees stand out in this angled shot to the main light source.

Avoid pointing your camera directly into the light because the intensity of direct sunlight can permanently damage the sensor. It’s usually safe when the sun is low in the sky or an intervening object obscures the direct rays. You can obtain some interesting shots in these situations – and also when the sun is low but your camera is slightly angled away from the direct light (as shown in the illustration above).

Watch out for specular highlights on water and any other shiny surface. There’s a good chance no details will be recorded in areas that are so bright – even if you capture raw files.

Polarising and neutral density filters are often recommended for outdoor photography. Polarisers are good for penetrating reflections on water and making white clouds stand out in a blue sky – but they can produce unnaturally dark skies in many alpine areas.

Use of a polarising filter resulted in an unnaturally darkened sky that was impossible to fix through editing.

Neutral density (ND) filters are used in very bright situations to reduce the light entering the lens and allow more control over aperture settings. Graduated ND filters are dark at the top and fade to clear at the bottom, so they must be correctly aligned. Properly used, they’re great for slightly darkening over-bright skies.

Useful links

Scenery tips

Wildlife tips

This article by Margaret Brown is an excerpt from Travel Photography 4th Edition pocket guide.