Many photography subjects will require that you be outdoors for extended periods. Your experience will be greatly enhanced if you are prepared for both the conditions and the subject opportunities you may encounter.
Your first choice for outdoor photography will be the camera. This will be highly influenced by the subjects you would like to photograph and your desire for light and compact travel. A high-level point and shoot camera will allow you to capture many subjects with good quality and it will be very portable. It can be a good choice if you are traveling with non-photographers and cannot take the time to set up a tripod or do extensive composition and bracketing.
A DSLR or other camera with interchangeable lenses will give you more options. You will have more telephoto reach with the appropriate lens. A macro lens will give you different closeup options. The larger sensor will give you better image quality. You will get a faster burst rate for action shots. The performance at higher ISOs will be better. These options will come at a cost of weight and bulk that you will have to carry. You can get an overview of equipment for outdoor photography from Phil Hawkins’ course on Mastering Landscape Photography.
No matter which type of camera that you choose, you will need extra batteries and cards. You will most likely not be able to stop to recharge batteries or empty a card to a hard drive. If you are using AA or AAA batteries, buy the ones with the highest milliamp hour (mAh) rating. This is a measure of how long they will last on one charge. Your choice of card will be a matter of size. If the card is too small, you will need to change too frequently. A huge capacity card will prevent changes, however all of your shots will be jeopardized if the card malfunctions or is lost. If you prefer a backup, portable storage viewers are available. They also provide a better view of your image than the screen on the camera. Remember to bring extra batteries for this as well.
Interchangeable lenses will give you great versatility in capturing anything from flower close-ups to distant wildlife to scenic vistas. Each lens turns your camera into a specialty device for a particular subject. Fast, wide aperture lenses are great for allowing faster shutter speeds to capture action. However, they are more expensive and more bulky than slower lenses. Extreme telephoto lenses can make that distant antelope appear to be much closer. Extreme wide-angle lenses allow for interesting effects and perspective. Macro lenses let you get close to a subject, get it large in the frame, and have the background out of focus. They also let you work farther from the subject. Point and shoot closeup only works at very close distances, and at wide-angle, where it is not possible to isolate the subject from the background.
Beyond the Camera and Lens
One item to strongly consider for outdoor photography is a tripod. If you have opted for portability with a point and shoot camera, then perhaps a monopod will not be too much extra to carry. Although it may seem to be a burden to carry around, a tripod actually can be liberating. You will be free from worrying about blur due to camera motion at slower shutter speeds. This motion is magnified in macro or telephoto shots, further restricting the usable shutter speeds and perhaps limiting your options. Image stabilization will help, but can only go so far. You can turn up the ISO, but too much of that will begin to degrade the image quality. A tripod lets you take the shot without these concerns.
Another advantage of a tripod is in composition. If you have carefully composed an image from edge to edge, you don’t want to lose that composition as you press the shutter or take several exposures. The tripod also allows you to frame a shot of a flower and wait for the breeze to calm down for a perfect crisp shot. You can relax and let the tripod hold the composition as you enjoy your time in the field. Another aid in composition with the tripod is an L bracket. It lets you switch from horizontal to vertical framing very quickly without changing the camera angle with the tripod head.
Quality tripods are sold separately from the tripod head that holds and positions the camera. The usual choice for outdoor versatility is a ballhead. This allows you to put the camera into a wide variety of positions and lock it in place with the turn of a single knob. Be sure to get a ballhead that will support the heaviest camera and lens that you will use. A quick-release system will let you get the camera on and off of the tripod easily.
You will need a way to keep all of this gear with you as you move around outdoors. A backpack, shoulder pack, belt pack, or vest will help here. Perhaps a combination will work best. Items that are accessed frequently can be in the vest or belt pack, and less-often used items are stored in the backpack. For long periods of walk-around photography with a single camera, a comfortable strap may be all that you need.
There are a few other accessories that will be helpful to have with you. An air blower bulb or microfiber cloth may be needed for cleaning lenses while you are outside. A white balance reference can be handy to optimize your captures as the light changes. Portable reflectors fold down to a small size and can help to brighten shadows. If you want more lighting options consider Charlie Borland’s course on Mastering Flash Photography, which has a section on outdoor flash.
You can re-create many effects that filters provide with digital post-processing. One filter that remains indispensable and hard to duplicate is the polarizer. It can reduce atmospheric haze and glare. This improves contrast in skies and is very effective on foliage, where glare often reduces the real saturation. You can use this to remove reflections (these are also glare) from water and shoot into the water. With a DSLR where you view and focus through the lens, you should get a circular polarizer. This does not refer to the shape, but rather to the way in which the polarizing is done. A linear polarizer will interfere with the focusing and metering of these cameras. You can find out more about filters with the course Completing Your Outdoor Photography with Landscape Filters.
A useful filter for special effects is the neutral density filter. These cut back the light without affecting the color, allowing you to use long shutter speeds, creating unique images. These are available as variable filters allowing you to dial in just the right amount of light reduction. Otherwise you might need to carry a few filters of different strengths.
Be Prepared for the Weather
Outdoor photography no doubt conjures up images of extreme weather. This may offer great opportunities, but you need to be prepared. Winter photography might seem the most challenging. There are obvious concerns about saying warm. Look for today’s modern fabrics that allow the moisture to leave your skin yet keep you warm. You don’t want perspiration to moisten the inner layers of your clothing and leave you vulnerable to hypothermia.
Cold temperatures also pose challenges to your equipment. Batteries will run down sooner in the cold. Have a way to keep them closer to your body to keep them warm until they are used. A used battery can be warmed up and regain some life. Ironically, one challenge is when you leave the cold. The warm indoor air will condense inside your cold camera and lenses. This may cause serious problems. While still outside, remove the media card, then put the camera and lenses in your bag and close it. Let them stay indoors for about an hour to slowly warm to room temperature. You took the card out so you don’t have to wait an hour to see your pictures!
Snow cover will fool your camera meter and result in underexposed pictures. For details on this and other good information, read Snow Photography: Top Tips for Stunning Pictures. Don’t let the cold weather keep you from enjoying your photography.
Another obvious weather challenge is the unexpected rainstorm. Modern electronic equipment can be ruined in an instant by water in the wrong place. There are nice rain covers you can buy, but a plastic bag can protect everything at no cost. A resealable plastic bag can be modified to provide some protection while still allowing you to shoot. Of course, be sure that you provide rain gear for yourself as well.
In summer heat, if you are moving from air conditioning to humid outdoor air, you face the reverse of the winter problem. Your cool equipment will fog up when you take it out to use it. Allow time for equipment to warm up in the bag before removing it. In extreme humidity you may need to keep cameras and lenses in resealable plastic bags with silica gel desiccant to keep them condensation-free.
These tips should leave you prepared to spend long periods of time outdoors photographing a variety of subjects. To get memorable shots, be sure to look at Jim Zuckerman’s course on 10 Steps to Dramatic Nature Photography.