While out enjoying nature we often wish to capture 'the moment' so that we can later relive our experiences, or share our excitement with others online and through social media. In fact it almost seems that, nowadays, decent photos are a prerequisite from any trip to prove a few bragging rights! There’s almost nothing more frustrating though, then, in returning from a great hike, ski or a day snowshoeing and find that those snaps you took while out on the trail weren’t quite as sharp as you’d first thought… so how did it happen?
Well, in the excitement of the moment we often overlook the fact that a photo can look quite acceptable on the small LCD screen of a compact camera or smartphone, only for us to discover later that when viewed by friends and family on their PCs and iPads it’s a little blurry — and doesn’t quite excite everyone’s interest as we had initially hoped for! The good news is that acquiring a little knowledge on how to take sharper pictures is actually not that difficult: this blog shares a few simple tips to improve your photography and produce sharper images from your camera (or, indeed, smartphone) when enjoying the outdoors.
Improving your technique - first steps Getting the sharpest possible photos when shooting outdoors is all about technique. Almost nothing will spoil an image more than the blur that camera shake produces. As such, it’s vital to try to reduce the movement of the camera when taking shots. As you’re outdoors, this can prove a little tricky! However, first, think about what’s causing the movement of the camera while you compose and focus your picture: is it the wind? If ‘yes’, then it could help to seek a little shelter or otherwise reduce your exposure to the buffeting effect the wind has on your ability to steady the camera and prevent shake. If the wind’s gusty and you’re not in a rush, be patient and wait for a lull and shoot the frame when it’s calmest — you’ll observe a big difference in the resulting image.
Waiting for a calm moment is also a good exercise in observing changes in illumination — air currents and swirling winds interact with the clouds, resulting in shifts in ambient light: experiment and see just how different a scene can look as nature casts different tones and shades across the landscape.
Tripods - and their (weighty) limitations Without exception, any respectable guidebook or blog on photography will advise first of the necessity of using a tripod to get sharp images from your camera. A decent tripod is considered a critical part of sharpness technique, and yet you’ll rarely see anyone even on a day hike (let alone a multi-day trekking trip) carrying one. Why? Well, even the newer carbon versions are still relatively heavy and a nuisance to fix to a backpack.
Accepting that few people will wish to lug a tripod around, it’s better that we therefore focus on how best to get around this. Firstly, you might wish to consider making use of either the Leki adapter or Hama trekking pole that can be adapted to work as a monopod to mount your camera to: these provide a useful base to steady your camera and achieve a less blurry image.
Absent the conversion of a trekking pole into a monopod to stabilise your camera, you’ll need to adapt your technique to minimise shake when holding the camera. Holding the camera correctly is crucial to achieving maximum sharpness. When holding your camera, be sure not to tense up or grip it too tightly — try to clasp it gently and not squeeze the apparatus too hard: this will just make your hands more sweaty and likely lead to greater movement when you press the shutter. Either hold your camera to your eye (if you’ve a viewfinder) or in front of you at a distance where you can view the LCD back screen comfortably, then drawn your elbows close to your chest: this creates a stable platform for the camera and allows you to take sharper pictures.
Image Stabilisation A key point when shooting a handheld is to choose a fast enough shutter speed (if your camera allows manual adjustments such as this). A shutter speed of at least than 1/60 second for wide angles, 1⁄125 second for standard focal lengths or 1⁄500 second for telephoto focal lengths is a good rule by which to work. If your camera or smartphone allows the option of digital zooming, well, you’re much better off avoiding using it — it simply crops the existing photo by zooming in on the image sensor, resulting in a more pixellated photo!
Instead, make use of image stabilisation if your camera has this functionality. Image stabilization (IS), also referred to as ’SteadyShot’ or vibration reduction, is a relatively new technology that enable photographers to take shots in conditions outdoors that would have previously resulted in much blurrier images. Depending on the make and model of your camera, image stabilization works by sensing your camera’s movement whilst you steady it, then adjusting the lens or image sensor to offset the shifts and vibration in real time — it does this using some very sensitive sensors and complex algorithms (which we needn’t go into!). IS has developed in leaps and bounds in the last decade and is definitely worth making use of. Switch on your IS system and see the results — and don’t see it as cheating!
Shooting on Continuous Mode Sooner or later while taking photo outdoors you’ll find yourself in a situation where holding your camera steady is really tricky — perhaps the wind’s up and you really can’t wait for a lull as you need to keep moving (and your fingers are beginning to feel like they’re icicles!). A great way to maximise your chances of getting a sharp shoot is to set your camera to continuous shooting mode.
Whilst this setting is usually used for action shots, it’s actually also very handy for when you are shooting handheld at relatively slower shutter speeds and trying to get a sharp shot. Hold the shutter down for a burst of four or five shots: you’ll find that those in the middle of the batch are usually sharpest (pressing the shutter button causes movement in the camera, which settles once you have the button depressed fully). Discard the less sharp images and just keep the best one! That’s the beauty of digital photography: endless scope to experiment, explore and make changes. Indeed, we’re blessed with amazing technologies that create far more flexibility in how we choose to capture that perfect moment in the outdoors than just a generation ago. Go explore, have adventures — and bring back some unforgettable memories!