Getting Better Photos When Walking With Your Camera: Part One

Getting Better Photos When Walking With Your Camera: Part One

Walking photography should be a genre of its own; it is the most popular form. There are simple things you can do that will ensure you come home from your walk with better photos than before. This is the first of two articles looking at ways to improve those images.

Many years ago, someone at my workplace said to me: "Why does the sun always have to shine in my eyes when I walk to work and again when I walk home?" They were never going to win a prize for astrophysics, but their observation was something photographers don't see as a disadvantage.

There's something to learn from seasoned landscape photographers who plan their shoots around the sun. They consider the weather, look at the sun's position at that time of year and day, and decide what gear they should take with them. Consequently, they get some great shots. We can think about this before going for a stroll with our cameras.

Consider what the sun will be doing before you head out. Where I live now, winter is fast approaching, and the sun is always low in the sky. Furthermore, it doesn't rise above the horizon to the southeast until about 8 am. It goes down again in the southwest at around 4 pm. Because my home is a long way north, the sunlight (if clouds do not hide it) is pretty special all day long.

At this time of year, even in the middle of the day, the light is angled low and warm in color.

Planning a photo walk at this time of year, I know the light will be attractive, the shadows are long, and I know which direction they will be leading, and those influence what photos I will attempt. However, in mid-summer, the sun is already far above the horizon, even when I go for my early morning bike ride. My camera stays inside its saddle bag, that is, until I start cycling through the forest. Then, the light is diffused, and deep shadows and rays of light burst between the leaves. So, planning where to walk and what photos I get depends upon the season and the time of day.

When making photographic art, we are trying to share our unique view, interpreting the world in a way most people don't see. We can do this by choosing subjects most people don't see and finding ways to shoot them outside normal parameters.

Getting up early and relying on my camera's image stabilization and inbuilt ND filters to achieve a longer exposure handheld can help show the world in a way that most people don't see it.

For example, awareness of how changes to the camera's position vary the look of a photo helps us to make our compositional choices. With the camera held at eye level, the world appears most people observe it. Consequently, the resulting image can lack a special element that would be easy to achieve just by altering its height.

If we lower our cameras to knee height, we shoot the scene entirely differently. Most people haven't observed the world since they were, well, knee-high. If your knee joints don't make it easy to crouch, most good cameras have tilting or fully articulated screens that allow you to use the live view image without squatting down or lying on the ground to get those low-level shots.

In the following shots, the low angle of the first image has a more intimate feel than the second.

Similarly, we rarely see the world from a higher vantage point, so raising the camera can also make a difference to your photos, too.

Different heights change the amount of ground visible in a photo; the lower you are, the more it is foreshortened. Up high, you see more land between you and the horizon. Height also affects the angle at which parallel lines run away from you and converge to a vanishing point. Low down, that angle is obtuse, whereas, higher up, the angle is acute.

In the following two pictures, shot at different times from the same position but at different heights, note the bottom edge of the frame where the path meets it. In the second, lower shot, the path appears much wider. They were both taken with a 12mm lens.

The height of the camera changes the distance of the horizon too. Decreasing the camera's elevation brings the horizon closer to the camera, making the image seem flatter. The distances from the camera to both the end of the pier and the horizon are foreshortened in the second picture, too.

However, reflections appear longer when viewed lower down if shooting over water and shorter when viewed from higher. The following two pictures of the same bird illustrate this. The first is shot from above, and the eider's reflection is short. In the second photo, shot nearly at water level, the bird's reflection is longer.

Not all, but many landscape photos have front-to-back sharpness. If you study many famous images, there's often a foreground object and lead-in lines that point toward something the landscape photographer wants to draw your attention to. It's not the only formula; sometimes, that approach can become a cliché if overused. Nevertheless, it works.

Front-to-back sharpness was important here, so all the aligned elements are in focus.

You can, of course, deliberately blur what's close to the camera in a landscape photo. There's a lot of nonsense about needing a fast lens and a full frame camera to achieve a shallow depth of field. Having the background well blurred and the subject sharp doesn't require a big, heavy camera and lens combination. A shallow depth of field is easily attainable with kit lenses and even phone cameras with tiny sensors. The combination of proximity and selectively focusing on a distant subject will blur the foreground.

By getting close to the lobster pots and focusing on the bird, the pots in the foreground became blurred as did the pier in the background. This was shot at 150 mm and f/5 using a micro four thirds camera.

Equally, getting close to and focusing on a subject while ensuring plenty of separation from what is behind it will give you a nice background blur.

Proximity to the subject allows the background to be blurred, in this case, leaving enough detail to add context to the photo.

It's slightly blurring part of the image accidentally where some people fail. Many novices want front-to-back sharpness and place the focal point on a feature well back in the photo or even on the horizon. However, this will mean much of the foreground will be out of focus. That's not so important if, like me, you are shooting some minimalist, long-exposure seascapes where the foreground has as low visual weight as possible. However, as I mentioned earlier, many landscapes include foreground interest, and the photographer will want both that and the distance in focus.

The gull in this shot was just beyond the hyperfocal distance at 66mm and f/4, so both it and the ruined pier behind are in focus.

The solution is to use the hyperfocal distance. This is the distance at which the maximum depth of field is possible. It varies depending on different factors, including the camera's sensor, the lens, and the aperture. Plenty of phone apps are available that will work this out for you; probably the best known is PhotoPills.

Although there is a wide variety of settings, you probably only need to remember one or two measurements. When I want front-to-back sharpness with my camera, I shoot either at 7mm or 12mm at f/8. So, if I focus at about 16.5 inches with my 7mm lens, everything from eight inches to infinity will be in focus. At 12mm, I need to focus just about 48 inches, and everything from 24 inches to infinity will be sharp.

You notice I use the words "around" and "about." I don't have a tape measure; I estimate it. Achieving maximum depth of field is made even easier these days with focus assistance, where the edges of the in-focus area are highlighted in the viewfinder.

I hope you found that helpful. Seeing some of your walking images in the comments would be great. In the second part, we will discuss shooting animate subjects, whether we should walk with telephoto lenses, and why walking with a camera is good for the soul.

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10 Comments
Colin Robertson's picture

Side note not really to do with the article, but the slide over image widget seems to be broken in safari, at least on iOS. This is not the first article here where I’ve seen that.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Colin. I'll escalate that upwards.

Robert Guild's picture

That feature is working for me in Safari on an iPad running iOS 15

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, I'll let them know.

Alan Fletcher's picture

It is refreshing to see original content that discusses the art of photography instead of "this video brought by... (some guy/gal on yt)".

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the nice comment. It's a difficult balance for Fstoppers to achieve. I rarely do video reposts (three or four out of around 150 articles). I prefer writing articles. A lot of people view the video articles, though, and it saves people time finding better quality video content as Fstoppers has already sorted the wheat from the chaff.

On the homepage you will see an Originals menu item. That will filter out the reposts.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I'm glad written content is still appreciated. That Fuji is a splendid camera, and I agree with you about camera phones. Thanks for commenting. (I'll try not to make anyone suffer with me in front of a video camera!)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Keep a look out for part 2 that will be published in the next few hours.

Ivor Rackham's picture