Outdoor Photography: What I’ve Learned

By Kate Riley October 28, 2013

Hey everyone! I’m back from a quick trip to visit with family and I was asked to take some pictures of the event which took place in late afternoon and just before the sun set. My cousins were asking me about my “fancy camera” and how I learned to use it. Their questions reminded me just how far I’ve come with photography in the past few years and how I taught myself how to work a DSLR and shoot in manual. It took time and concentration but I’m so glad I kept at it, but I’m still learning.

I thought today I’d share a little about the camera and lenses I work with. As you know I take pictures of everything from craft projects to large spaces but I really do enjoy getting outside to play with my Nikon, whether it’s a wine country adventure or just a tour through my backyard.

First a peek at my toys – the camera bag is the Rose Moss from Jo’s Totes.

kates camera


I use the 12-24mm and 10-25mm zoom lenses for landscapes and room shots, and the 35mm and 50mm prime lenses for vignettes or details. The 35mm is my favorite so if I’m only taking one lens that’s the one I grab because it’s so versatile.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way when it comes to taking outdoor pictures …

Shade is Ideal.  Bright direct sunlight creates harsh shadows. Any outdoor scene looks better in shade than direct sunlight. For example with an exterior or a porch, shooting when the sun is behind the house and not in front makes for a better composure. For my own home, I’ll photograph my east facing porch in the afternoon after the sun has passed behind the house or my west facing rear courtyard in the morning while the sun is still shining directly on the front yard.

better detail with shade

knoxville gray fall front door


Seek the Golden Hour. Oh that glorious hour just after the sun rises and just before the sun sets. It’s when you’ll get the puuuuuufect light to capture your environment.

oahu sunrise

One hour after sunrise

horse on beach

One hour before sunset

Aperture Matters.  I usually have my ISO set very low (under 400) for daylight photography but I do like to play with aperture and shutter speed. One of my favorite styles of photography is shallow depth of field when you dial down the aperture setting so the background or foreground is blurred.

The only difference between these two photos is the aperture setting. The first is set at f/4.5 the second at f/22.

brick fountain

35 mm 2.0, ISO 200, f/4.5, 1/4000

ahwahnee hotel yosemite winter

35 mm 2.0, ISO 200, f/22, 1/4000

The effect in the first image (at least to me) from the blurry hedge in the foreground is that the fountain was hidden but just discovered around the bend. In the winter picture, I wanted as much in focus as possible so I changed the aperture to f/22 to achieve greater depth of field.

Move the Focus Point. Sometimes I’ll move the focus point up or down or to the right or left to frame something, like this dragonfly that landed in our lime tree this summer. I wanted to capture the leaves but have them be softer with the focus on the dragonfly – I like this composition and it worked by moving the focal point setting to the left of center. The detail on the wings is sharper but the leaves are softer. The same with the potato vine, I like how only a few blooms are the focus and the rest of the scene fades away as a result.

dragonfly wings

flowering purple vine

Vertical is Best for Blogging. I’ve learned that shots framed vertically look better than ones take on the horizontal (portrait layout is better than landscape) so I take 90% of my snaps I may publish here with the camera in this position.

tiled staircase in santa barbara

Clouds are your Friend. If I know I’m shooting outdoors and I see signs of clouds I’m feeling happy since the haze acts like shade in many respects by preventing bright sun on your subject which casts harsh shadows. This outdoor room I photographed in early summer but didn’t have to use RAW files because it was a partially cloudy day, so when the clouds covered the sun for a few minutes, I started snapping.

outdoor room with canvas panels

Switch to RAW. On really bright days it’s hard to get images that aren’t blown out even with a rapid shutter speed because there is too much light outside, so one thing I learned is to change the Image Quality to RAW + JPEG for future editing. I really don’t use RAW except in these situations because a blown out or extremely dark photo can be rescued later with editing.

jpg plus raw[3]

If you want to edit a RAW (NEF) file you need access to editing programs that do that, both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements do. I pull mine into PE and tweak the exposure so the shot is not so blown out and to recover more detail.



However, I try not take too many JPEG + RAW files because they take up a lot of memory space, but it does help with clarity when shooting in bright daylight or in the opposite situation, really dark places because you can alter the Exposure and Levels later to save a capture.  

Apply the Rule of Thirds. Just like with interiors, I think outdoor shots are interesting when the subject matter falls along that rule of thirds grid so I find myself taking a lot of pictures off center out of habit now.

wisteria in bloom

statue at chateau st jean

ahwahnee lights

In regards to editing, I will sometimes tweak the contrast or saturation in Photoshop Elements, but with the tips shared above I find I can get the shot I want most of the time straight out of the camera just by changing lenses and settings. I haven’t worked a whole lot with Actions but I want to in the future when time permits!

Two other tools I’ve added to my bag for outdoor photography are 1) a UV filter to protect the lens from dust and ultraviolet light and 2) a lens hood to reduce glare.

Most everything I’ve learned about photography comes from playing around and also talking with people who know more than me. I’m nowhere near the professionals but I’ve come a long way, so that’s what I told my cousins and it’s my best advice, talk to other photographers, read up on how to improve, but mostly just get outside and play with your camera !



  1. I just got my DSLR a couple of months ago. I love it. I haven’t been using it as much recently, but it’s such a fun hobby.

  2. You always present information in a very understandable way. Thank you. Also, always wanted to mention that I look forward to your weekend links, they’re awesome.

  3. Timely post for me as I am going to pull out my Nikon soon.. bought it, took a few shots, read, learned, then had an accidental fall… almost 5 yrs later, almost ready to take out camera again… battery was removed so will have to start all over again… was recently reading up on photography again, and saving notes on it… I have a tripod to help me not vibrate the camera, so thanks for posting this to remind me to get off my … and start again with taking photos.

  4. This is fantastic post. I have canon camera at home but I seriously cannot use it as you are using yours. I have a lot do learn.
    Thx for sharing, as always your articles are so inspiring


  5. I’ve never considered vertical pictures working better on my blog. I’m definitely going to implement that one! Thanks!

  6. Very helpful post Kate! My husband bought me a new camera and I’ve been having fun playing around with it but I have lots to learn. These are great tips and advice you shared. I consider you a pro!! Your photos are always gorgeous.

  7. Thanks for the tips Kate. I’m gradually learning but have a long way to go. I love shooting outdoors because I don’t have to worry about the yellow artificial light when shooting inside!

  8. I just bought a Canon Rebel T3i DSLR camera. I also bought an instructional DVD to learn basic controls, and it was actually pretty good. But you’re right–nothing like getting out there and playing around with it! Learning about aperture has been very useful. Great tip on using vertical shots for blogging. Love your interior shots too!

  9. your pictures are beautiful. Everytime I visit your blog the photos draw me in by their beauty. I have a Nikon point and shoot with a few features that I’m still trying to figure out. Taking great photos is so important for showcasing my products because that is the most important thing that the the buyer has in making a decision to buy or not. You’ve given me some great tips and I’ll definitely try them out. Thanks a bunch.

  10. I chose a mirrorless DSLR because its smaller and lighter, and mine has some great features. But learning to use it in manual, and to shoot good photos, has been an uphill climb to be sure. I’ve even had darkroom training on a manual, but that was years ago and I’ve forgotten so much. I took my new camera out a few days ago, on a very sunny day, to shoot a gorgeous mountains/valley scene from an overlook near my new home in WV. I had quite a bit of clipping in the sky/clouds when I returned home, so your article has helped me to understand what happened there. I’m hoping by putting great photos on my art and gardening blog I will attract more viewers, so thank you very much for all of this great advice! TheCranesNest.com

  11. Thanks for the great, informative post! I just got a DSLR and am doing my own photos for my interior decorating business. I need to get a wide angle lens, but don’t know which one would be best…and they are so expensive! You mention both 12-24mm and 10-25mm zoom lenses for landscapes and room shots. If you had to recommend just one for interior wide-angle photography, which one would it be?

    Thanks so much!
    Tiffani @ http://blog.tiffanistutzmandesign.com/

    • Hi Tiffany, the Tamron is around $500 I think and the Nikkor is $1,000 – pricey but the better lens but both capture wide angle room shots really well.

  12. Great tips, and such beautiful photographs! We’ve had a DSLR for a few months now, and I’m always trying to get better! It can take a while to figure out, but having those beautiful shots is worth it. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

    ~Abby =)

  13. I’m still trying to learn how to use my Nikon after 2 years! Is there a better UV filter and lens hood you would recommend?

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