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11 Nature Photography Tips From Yosemite

An Ode to Nature and Landscape Photography

Millions of us have cameras, but few of us know how to really use them as the manufacturers intended. Sure, there’s the P-mode, that catch-all with which you say, “I have no idea what I’m doing, Dear Camera. Why don’t you decide how to take this shot for me?” The camera does its best to oblige, and for snapshots taken at the mall or roadside scenic vistas, the P-mode seems to serve well enough.

Credit: Shutterstock

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

But that’s a shame. Most of us have no idea what we’re missing. We can witness scenes of breathtaking beauty, point and shoot at them, and the results look—what? Dark? Blurry? Flat? You know. You’ve probably taken hundreds or thousands of shots that you know should have and maybe could have looked better, but you just didn’t know how to use all those darned settings.

I love travel and nature, and I love landscape photography. The trouble has always been that I never really knew how to do a decent job of capturing all of that lush, sprawling magnificence. So imagine being invited on a three-day trip to Yosemite National Park (which I’d never visited before) by Canon. I was told I would be given access to about $15,000 of camera gear, a handful of Lexar Professional flash cards, and plenty of time with a mind-blowingly talented nature photographer, Lewis Kemper. Before you hate me for my luck, know that you could have a similar “free” experience yourself as part of the Canon Photography in the Parks program. Canon offers photo shoot tours lasting several hours each to the public, free of charge, at five different national parks. I tagged along on one of the public tours in the midst of our private press tour.

MORE: Camera Recommendations for All Kinds of Photographers

This is not a pitch for Canon’s program, which you should absolutely catch if you visit one of the parks at the right time this year. Instead, this is a collection of some of the wisdom I gleaned from Kemper and Canon during these three days. I pass it on to you here in the hope that it might help improve your own photography and inspire you to love nature just a little bit more.

Here's a quick rundown in case you're in a hurry, but you'll find sample photos and explanations on the deeper pages.

  • Tip #1 - Find repeating patterns: The human brain is always looking for patterns, and patterned images are generally pleasing to the eye.
  • Tip #2 - Lead the eye: You can guide your viewer to the important parts of a photograph by using strong lines to control the direction of the eye.
  • Tip #3 - Use high dynamic range: Use a tripod to take multiple photographs at different exposures, then, use software to combine them into a single image with tons of detail in the shadows and the highlights.
  • Tip #4 - Experiment with texture: Sometimes textures can be just as pleasing as patterns, even if the texture is random and chaotic.
  • Tip #5 - Wait for your shot: Sometimes the only difference between a good shot and a great shot is having the patience to wait for the light to change.
  • Tip #6 - Shoot RAW: Shooting in RAW mode (as opposed to JPEG) gives you the most control after you've taken a shot. You can rescue shadow and highlight details that may have otherwise been lost.
  • Tip #7 - Use a polarizing filter: You can cut through reflections and darken or lighten skies by using a polarizing filter. This can mean the difference between a ho-hum picture and a truly dramatic landscape.
  • Tip #8 - Respect the Rule of Thirds: The human brain finds comfort in certain proportions. The Rule of Thirds is a useful tool for basic composition, but breaking this rule can also be used for dramatic effect.
  • Tip #9 - Adapt to your subject: You might not have the opportunity to get the shot you want. Adapt quickly and you might discover a composition that's an acceptable alternative (which is, of course, better than no photo at all).
  • Tip #10 - Bring out the details: Sometimes it pays to experiment with your exposure and aperture in order to evoke details that might otherwise be lost.
  • Tip #11 - Never stop learning: Even the best photographers can get better. Don't rest on your laurels. Keep shooting and keep learning.