You might think that photographing natural landscapes and outdoor scenes is among the easiest tasks for a digital camera, and for snapshots you would be correct. However, if you are trying to capture dramatic outdoor photographs, digital cameras need help from you. You need to override the camera’s built-in exposure modes and adjust them manually to create exactly the mood and lighting that you envision, something few digital cameras can guess at properly. In this article, we’ll look at the tricks of good landscape and natural light outdoor photography, showing you the two main factors in a good photo: light and composition.

Basic equipment

You’ve come across a dramatic column of tufa columns rising from the desert floor. Or a sweeping view of the Grand Canyon. Or a beautiful fall color tableaux. Do you just whip out your digital camera, frame, and click? Or do you spend the time to capture the mood of the place, emphasizing the drama of the scene and its colors? If you want a snapshot to show others, the quick click is fine. If you want to create an exhibition quality photograph, you need to take your time and do it right.

Let’s start with the basic equipment you’ll need. Of course, there’s the camera. Since it’s unlikely you have several digital cameras slung over your shoulder, all with replaceable lenses, we’ll assume you’re using a typical digital camera with fixed (or zoom) lens. Your first piece of supporting equipment (literally) should be a tripod. The tripod does two things: it forces you to slow down and frame the scene properly, and it provides a solid, vibration free mount for your camera. Although bright light exposures are unlikely to cause vibrations in your camera, the tripod ensures you have a frame that minimizes any chance of losing the shot.

The next piece of equipment you need to consider is a light meter. We’ll talk about light meters in a moment. If your camera allows filters to be attached to the lens, you should consider carrying at least two filters: a polarizing filter to enhance the colors of a scene and minimize reflections off water, and an 81B warming filter that adds a touch of orange to the scene and “warms” it up. Most digital cameras allow filters to be screwed in front of the lens, and filters are often inexpensive ways to enhance your camera’s capabilities. If your camera doesn’t allow filters to be attached directly, vendors offer filter holders that can snap onto the body of a camera or onto the flash hotshoe mount, if your cameras has one. If all else fails, handhold the filter in front of the lens!

Finally, you might want to consider some reflectors to provide bounced light for some scenes. A reflector is a piece of fabric, cardboard, or other material coated with a reflective surface. You can make a simple reflector from a large piece of cardboard coated with tin foil, but professional reflectors that collapse into a small shape cost less than $100 and can make or break some photographs. The reflector is used to provide additional reflected light to a scene, usually close in, that balances and highlights or fills the natural light.

When to take outdoor shots

The best time for dramatic landscape photos is early in the morning or late at night, when the sun’s rays are at a low angle, gentle, and less intense. Light at these times of the day tends to be more diffuse and softens the images you are trying to capture. Sunlight in the early morning and evening also has a golden glow about it that warms the scene.

From the morning warm light, the sun climbs slowly and the rays can accentuate the texture and form of objects. It’s often a good idea to hang around a scene you really like because the image will change dramatically as the day progresses. By noon, the light rays are usually so strong colors are bleached out and landscapes can appear lifeless. Things improve again as the sun lowers, leading to warm orange images as it sets.

Time of year and weather can change a shot considerably. A scene that looks bland in the summer can take on extraordinary beauty in the other seasons. Many photographers have favorite locations they return to several times a year, waiting for the magical combination of color and exposure that makes a fantastic image.

Light meters

Although most digital cameras have very good light meters built in, they tend to average a scene and produce the best overall exposure. This isn’t what you want in most cases, especially when there is a great deal of sky or monotone color (such as desert or grass) in the scene. The exposure will be incorrect as the meter takes into account the entire scene, and not what you are concentrating in. Some digital cameras have a spot or adjustable zone feature for their metering system which allows you to select a specific area to meter, but if you are trying to place the subject of interest off-center (following the rule of thirds, for example), the camera will often re-meter the entire scene when you press the shutter release instead of retaining the exposure for the selected area.

The one sure solution to metering problems is a good light meter. There are many models of light meter available ranging in price from less than $100 to well over $1,000. As the price increases you get more flexibility and features in the meter, such as adjustable coverage, a zoom feature, flash metering, and multiple averaging of spots. Investing in a good light meter is something every serious photographer should consider, especially since it can turn a well-exposed shot into an excellent one. Light meters are robust and reliable, and often last decades.

If you don’t want to invest in a light meter, use the spot metering feature of your digital camera and take readings from several areas in the scene that you want properly exposed. Use an average or weighted calculation from the critical areas, and manually adjust your camera for that exposure. Turn off the automatic program mode and the metering system, and trust your average. It will usually be close enough to produce excellent exposures. To be safe, many photographers bracket a couple of f-stops on either side of the calculated exposure.

Photographing water

Photographing oceans, rivers, ponds, and streams is a favorite. Getting good exposures of these scenes is difficult with most digital cameras because the reflections of light off the water’s surface makes the image appear brighter than it really is, resulting in exposure errors. When photographing water, a few tips should be kept in mind. First, use a polarizing filter if possible to minimize reflections and darken the color of the water. Second, view the scene from many angles, looking for a unique vantage point. Too many water shots are taken from standing position, when crouching produces a much more intimate photograph. Third, use a tripod, especially if you are going for long exposures to produce blurred water images. It’s fine to blur the water, but the rest of the scene should be rock solid. Using long focus lengths is often good for streams and wooded scenes, as they compress the image and often lead to an almost three-dimensional effect when you have a good foreground object (such as a tree) against a distant background (such as a forest).

Photographing large expanses of water or shots like a sunset over the ocean require more effort. Because cameras cannot exposure sunsets properly, tending to make them too light, you need to manually choose the exposure. As a general rule, you should meter both shadow and highlight areas, and then choose an exposure between the two. Filters for sunset shots tend to be a personal choice, but a polarizing filter will deepen colors and minimize reflection effects. A light blue filter can cool down a shot slightly to avoid the artificial look, and a light red filter can warm the same image for a more intense sunset.

Moving water shots are a favorite of many photographers, but you need to have a solid tripod to take them effectively. To blur the water, an exposure of ΒΌ to 1/8 of a second is usually needed, depending on the rest of the scene. This is an excellent exposure range for water bubbling over rocks, for example. Because of the long exposure time, the aperture will be small. Manual exposure settings are necessary with most digital cameras, because their internal computers will not allow this range of exposure normally.


A dramatic shy photograph can be rewarding and extract many comments from others. Getting a sky shot right requires a little effort, though. First, a warning: if the sun is in your shot, either bright or diffused by clouds, take care with your eyes and equipment. The bright sun can cause retinal damage if you look at it through a lens. It can also cause damage to camera CCDs, burning out pixels permanently. If in doubt, skip the shot. It’s not worth the risk. Having said that, though, most of the times the sun will be behind clouds or other objects in this type of photograph, and as long as you don’t stare at the sun’s image too long directly, you and the camera will be fine. Exposures with a bright sun in the frame will always be miscalculated, so you need to resort to better metering techniques.

Sun and cloud effects are often good targets for photography, especially when the sun is highlighting clouds in different ways. To properly expose clouds take a meter reading from the brightest part of the sky, which will help accentuate the shadows in other areas. If the sky is the main focus of the shot, keep the horizon in your photograph low, usually in the bottom third of the frame. Filters can help bring out the colors even more, such as using a red or light red filter to enhance the oranges, or a blue filter to darken clouds down and make them look more threatening.

Sunsets are difficult to get just right with automatic exposure cameras because they will be overexposed. Manually meter the orange part of the sky that you want exposing, and base your photographs on that reading. For best results, bracket your shots a couple of stops on either side. Often you’ll find the bracketed photos more dramatic than the calculated exposure.


The general rules for photographing outdoor scenes are simple: ignore the camera’s recommended exposure and determine it manually, carry filters to enhance colors, use a tripod for a solid foundation, and experiment both with vantage point and exposure. Bracketing is a handy technique the all outdoor photographers should employ. With these tips you should find your outdoor shots more dynamic, colorful, and full of texture.