Cover image: To take excellent nature shots, you must understand your camera's settings. All images: Elisabeth Brentano.
Going for a hike and stumbling across a terraced waterfall can be an amazing experience, but taking a photo that captures that moment can make it last forever. But how exactly do you snap that perfect shot? Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered!
With the right camera gear, images like this are within reach.
1. Get the right gear
The amount of money you spend on equipment won’t be proportional to how great your images will be. Rather, it’s practice and understanding how to use your camera that will produce the kind of results you’re after. If it is within your budget, upgrading from a point and shoot to a DSLR body is something you should look into it. The cameras are heavier and there is a learning curve, but the level of control you have will basically set you free.
Then come the lenses. If you’re looking to shoot landscapes, look into getting a good wide angle, a tripod and neutral density filters. If you want to shoot wildlife, a zoom is a good investment, and the same goes for a macro lens if you want focus on all the little details.
2. Know your settings
If I’m shooting wildlife, I want my f-stop to be as low as possible and my shutter speed to be as high as possible. This helps me get a sharp focus on a specific object (i.e., the animal’s head) that may or may not be moving in a setting with less-than-optimal light.
On the other hand, if I’m shooting sunset over the ocean, I generally pull my aperture up to f/16, pack on a few filters and drop my shutter speed to 10-20 seconds to shoot long exposures. It’s knowing these kinds of numbers and understanding the balance between aperture (f-stop) and exposure (shutter speed) that will help you nail it when you go out to shoot. Check out this tutorial for more info.
3. Find good light
Light is the most important thing about photography — perhaps even more so than your composition. If we didn’t have light, we wouldn’t be able to shoot anything.
Without light, there is no image. Finding good light can take work. It's worth it.
If you’re into landscapes, sunrise and sunset are the prime times to shoot, followed by the golden hour (generally an hour or so before sunset). Pay attention to which direction the sun is moving and research locations ahead of time. For example, I was recently shooting in Tahoe and found this spot along the east shore of the lake, which looked incredible under the late afternoon sun.
4. Think before you shoot
Think first, shoot next. Take in the entire setting and be conscientious about your composition. You are making an image, not snapping a photo.
Take a few minutes to set up your shot and move around. An underexposed photo is easy to fix in Lightroom, but you can’t add trees to a landscape or raise your tripod up a foot when you’re editing. Make sure your horizon lines are straight, and shoot both wide and tight. This will give you plenty of options later, and odds are you might find something even better if you experiment with a few different compositions and angles.
5. Layers and lines
When composing a shot, separation and finding your leading lines is what can make an impressive sunset look truly spectacular. The best shots have a perfect balance of foreground, middle ground and background, and one of these elements should be the obvious focus of your photo.
Also pay attention to the rule of thirds and place objects and points of focus across an imaginary grid in your image that consists of two lines drawn vertically and horizontally.
6. Learn how to edit
Whether it’s pulling up shadows or doing a selective color edit, manipulating your images with the right editing program can make a world of difference.
Editing your images allows you to bring out their biggest strengths.
But don’t go overboard with tweaks.
Making an image too dark and boosting the saturation to an unreal level are the two biggest mistakes, so stop and consider what the setting looked like before you put it on your computer screen. My general rule is not to go beyond 15% when it comes to increasing vibrance and saturation, because anything more than that looks fake. As far as programs, Lightroom is my favorite system, because not only does it help you edit efficiently, but it catalogs your photos as well.
7. Put your own unique spin on it
Let your images reflect your vision.
Finding your style is key to creating images that tell a story, and more importantly, your story. I prefer colorful and bold wide landscape photos with plenty of contrast, but I also play around with sharply focused wildlife “portraits” and minimalist compositions as well. I generally don’t feature people in my photos, but plenty of other outdoor/travel photographers do, because they like to show the scale of a landscape.
Elisabeth Brentano is a blogger/photographer based in Southern California, but her wanderlust takes her all over the world to capture landscapes and wildlife. You can follow her on Instagram (@elisabethontheroad) or read her musings online at elisabethbrentano.com.