How to Take Better Photographs Outdoors

I recently covered how to take better photographs indoors when dealing with low light conditions. Today, I’ll focus on the opposite situation: outdoor photography, where the light may be over-abundant. This article explains the most common problems you’ll find in outdoor photography and how to fix them.

Before we begin, if you aren’t comfortable with the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you will want to read through Elizabeth’s article on the exposure triangle before we get started.

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X-T3 + XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS @ 18mm, ISO 200, 8 seconds, f/10.0

Table of Contents

Problem: My Outdoor Photos Are Too Bright

When photographing indoors, most of our problems stem from figuring out how to get enough light. We have the opposite problem outdoors, where we must figure out how to control the abundant light that is usually available. If too much light reaches your camera sensor, your images may turn out too bright.

Solution: Lower your ISO (and then adjust shutter speed and aperture)

Most of the time when your images are overexposed outdoors, it’s because you’re in manual mode and using settings meant for indoor photography – a high ISO, wide aperture, and slow shutter speed.

The first one of these settings to fix is ISO. It’s usually possible in daylight to lower your ISO quite a bit, maybe even to the base value of 100 if there’s enough light. There’s certainly no reason to be at high ISOs like 3200 or 6400 and overexposing your photo!

If you lower your ISO to the base value and are still getting overexposed images, take a look at your shutter speed and aperture settings. Indoors, it may be common to use values like f/1.8 for your aperture and 1/50 second for your shutter speed in order to capture enough light. But outdoors on a sunny day, those settings will easily lead to overexposure, even at base ISO. I recommend picking an aperture that gives you the right depth of field (such as f/8 for landscape photography) and then letting shutter speed fall wherever gives you a properly exposed shot.

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Shot at f/8 to get enough depth of field, and 1/340 second to avoid overexposure.

Problem: Why do I have weird shadows on my subject?

Sunlight, even when abundant, has its challenges. If a lot of harsh light is pointed at your subject – or, worse, directly down from overhead – you are going to run into all sorts of issues in your photo. Your subjects may be squinting, and the light may be excessively high in contrast. Worst of all, if you aren’t careful about how you position your subject, you can easily end up with odd patterns of dark shadows and bright highlights going across them.

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Solution: Look for open shade

Short of turning into Superman and re-positioning the Earth back in time, it is safe to assume that you are stuck with the sun in whatever position it is at the time of day you are shooting. If you can’t wait around for better light (see below for more on this), you’re going to have to move your subject instead. The best place to start is by looking for areas of open shade.

Open shade is when trees, buildings, or other surfaces create areas of shade that are surrounded by areas of open sky. If you look at the shadows on the ground, these areas are easy to identify. You’re looking for the edge of the shadows – the lines where light and shade meet. Position your subject at the edge of the shade, so that they are standing in the shade but looking out into the open light. This way, the light falling on them will be both soft and bright.

Make sure that the shade over your subject really is full shade, rather than areas of dappled sunlight as it filters through tree branches or other structures. The easiest way to check for this is to look at the shadows on the ground. You want solid areas of shade; patches of shade speckled with random dots of sunlight indicate dappled light that you generally want to avoid (unless you are going for a very specific effect).

In the image below, by looking at the shadow patterns, it is easy to tell the difference between dappled light and the more optimal area of open shade. In this image, the subject is at an ideal spot along the edge of the open shade. The resulting light is both soft and bright. (If you wanted to photograph the subject’s face, don’t change your camera position; just get them to turn around and face toward the light.)

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If you happen to be shooting on an overcast day instead, the clouds will soften the sunlight enough to turn the scene into a giant soft box. In those cases, you have a lot more freedom to photograph your subject without worrying about harsh shadows.

Problem: My Shadows Are Too Dark (Or the Sky Is White)

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X100F @ 23mm, ISO 400, 1/640, f/16.0

No matter how well you expose your photograph, you will be limited by the amount of dynamic range your camera is able to capture. Dynamic range is the number of stops between the darkest and lightest areas of your image. If the dynamic range of the scene is too great, you’ll have to choose between capturing detail in your shadows and in your highlights. The bright, harsh light of mid-day tends to exacerbate the problem.

Solution: Pay attention to the position of the sun

Since you can’t move the sun, you have two options: wait for the sun to be where you want it, or move the camera. For many purposes, the sun is best for photography early and late in the day, when the angle is low and the light is warm. Mid-day, when the sun is directly overhead, you are often going to have harsh shadows and more dynamic range than your camera sensor can handle. By photographing when the sun is low in the sky, you often end up with softer shadows and more flattering light in general.

Your second option is to move the camera. When photographing mid-day or in suboptimal lighting conditions, moving the camera’s position even a small amount can make a big difference. Rather than getting the sun in your photo and blowing out the sky, you can change positions so the sun is partly obstructed – or point in a different direction so that it’s behind you.

The images below were taken less than 20 minutes apart. In one, the sun is behind the Capitol dome. In the second image, I walked around to the other side of the building where the sun, instead of being hidden behind the dome, was directly shining on it. Changing my position changed the direction of light on the subject and created two very different images.

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Capitol building with the dome blocking the sun
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Capitol dome from the opposite side, with the evening sun lighting the building.

Problem: I Can’t Get a Blurry Background

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X100F @ 23mm, ISO 2000, 1/640, f/4.0

We’ve all seen photos with the lovely blurred background created by a nice shallow depth of field. But if your camera settings aren’t correct, it can be difficult to achieve this effect.

Solution: Use a wider aperture and a longer lens, and move your subject away from the background

To take these sorts of “shallow focus” photos, you need enough depth of field for your subject to be sharp, but your background must fall outside of the focus area. There are a few ways to achieve this.

First, the most obvious answer is to use the widest aperture on your lens. If you’re shooting in an automatic or semi-automatic mode on your camera, you might accidentally be at narrower apertures like f/8 or f/11 without even realizing it. Instead, switch to aperture priority or manual mode and set the widest available aperture, such as f/1.8 if you’re using a 50mm f/1.8 lens.

If your lens doesn’t have a very wide aperture, zoom it all the way in to its longest telephoto setting and start there. If you’ve ever taken pictures with a long telephoto lens, you’ve probably noticed that your depth of field begins to fall off quickly, even at more moderate apertures.

Also, move your subject away from the background. Background blur relies on the background being outside of the focus area in your image, so moving your subject away from the background makes a big difference in achieving blur.

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Taken at f/2.8 and 54mm in order to achieve an out-of-focus background.

Because a wide aperture allows more light into the camera, we’re back to the problem I discussed a moment ago about having too much light. All you need to do is lower your ISO value, and if it’s already at base ISO, use a faster shutter speed.

Problem: I Want to Use Longer Shutter Speeds But Can’t

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GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, 8.5 seconds, f/8.0

There are many subjects like water and clouds that can look interesting with a long exposure. But when there’s such an abundance of light during the day, you simply can’t use shutter speeds of multiple seconds without overexposing the photo, no matter what ISO or aperture you use.

Solution: Use a neutral density filter

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GFX100S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 64mm, ISO 200, 60 seconds, f/8.0

If a low ISO value and a narrow aperture aren’t enough to get the shutter speed you want, the solution is to use a neutral density filter.

A Neutral Density (ND) filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera – like sunglasses for your lens. ND filters come in different densities so that you can control their light blocking ability. A 3-stop ND filter, for example, would let you use a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second when your scene would otherwise require 1/250th.

My personal favorite (and most used) ND filter is a 10 stop, which can take your shutter speed from 1/1000 on a sunny day all the way down to 1 second, perfect for smoothing out water. And at sunset when the light is lower, it can easily give me exposures of a minute or more, perfect for a cloud-streaked sky. Make sure you are using a tripod on a nice solid surface when photographing long exposures, as even a small amount of camera movement will make for blurry images.

The other use of an ND filter for photography is when you want a wider aperture than the light would otherwise allow. It’s a bit of a special case, but in extremely bright situations like the beach on a sunny day, your camera may max out its shutter speed (usually 1/4000 or 1/8000 second) and make it impossible to use wide apertures without overexposing. The solution is a mild ND filter like a 3-stop to cut down the light a bit.

Problem: My Moving Subjects Are Blurry

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X-T3 + XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR + 2x @ 248.6mm, ISO 200, 1/1800, f/5.6

Photographing moving subjects outdoors seems like it should be simple. After all, you generally have enough light for fast shutter speeds. But anyone who has photographed fact moving action, pets, or children knows that getting sharp images is trickier than it first appears. In particular, focusing on the subject can be a big challenge.

Solution: Watch your meter and use continuous autofocus

Although there is usually a lot of light when you’re photographing outdoors, action photography tends to require very fast shutter speeds of 1/500 to 1/1000 second if you want to avoid motion blur. This may be fine if your subject is in bright sunlight, but even on a cloudy day, it may not be enough.

So, make sure to watch the camera’s meter to see if it’s suggesting too slow of a shutter speed. If so, don’t be afraid to bump up your ISO even in daylight. For the image below, I boosted my ISO to 2500 even though this is an outdoor photo during the daytime, so that I could keep my shutter speed to 1/640 second. Considering how fast my subject was moving, this was the only way to get a sharp image.

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X-T3 + XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR @ 119.2mm, ISO 2500, 1/640, f/2.8

Other times, the culprit behind blurry photos is your focus mode rather than your shutter speed. When photographing action, you should make sure that your camera is set to continuous autofocus. Continuous autofocus (also called Al Servo on Canon cameras, and Continuous Servo or AF-C on Nikon) tells the camera to keep focusing on the subject constantly rather than just once.

If you mistakenly set your camera to single-shot focus, it will focus on the subject once and stay there permanently, even if your subject starts to move. While there’s nothing wrong with single-shot focus for stationary subjects, it will lead to out-of-focus images when you’re trying to capture moving subjects.

Conclusion

Photographing outdoors is all about learning how to control the existing, and often abundant, natural light. While this does generally make things easier than low-light photography indoors, it still comes with its own list of challenges. I hope this article gave you a good idea of how to troubleshoot some of those common problems.

Feel free to share in the comments if you have any questions about outdoor photography, things that you find challenging, or your favorite outdoor subjects!