Getting Better Photos When Walking With Your Camera: Part Two

Getting Better Photos When Walking With Your Camera: Part Two

Do you take your camera for a walk? In this second article on that topic, we will be considering why it is good for you and your photography in ways you might not think, why you could leave the telephoto lens behind, and how to improve at photographing animate subjects even with a shorter lens.

Earlier this year, I was out for my daily walk with my wife. I used to carry my camera, but now, I rarely do, as I would prefer to use that time to catch up on the day's activities. But one early evening last summer, I did have it with me because the light was fantastic. We walked past an older couple where the man was taking photos, and his wife was waiting patiently nearby. I jokingly asked her if she, like my wife, was another photography widow. She and her husband both laughed and gave a very firm, "Yes!"

It's easy for folk to get lost in activities to distract them from their lives, especially if those lives are stressful. For many, activity means aimlessly scrolling through social media or watching YouTube videos with bland, unimportant content. That can become an addiction that is a short-term analgesic to numb the pain or boredom of their lives. But it's unproductive. When walking with our cameras, we get that distraction but are creating something, getting exercise, and probably socializing too. I don't know about you, but people always come to talk with me, usually just as the sun is rising above the horizon and I want to photograph it. Those parts of photography are significant for our mental well-being.

This and the next three shots were taken one early morning on the beach walk. I was experimenting with long exposures and birds in flight.

There has been a long tradition in many cultures worldwide of people walking alone. This temporary mobility is often misunderstood as either directionless wandering or a difficult journey to a specific destination. However, for those who undertake such peregrinations, it is much more than that because there is a purpose behind it linked to personal mental and spiritual growth. It usually involves noticing the world around them on that journey and learning about themselves.

A study on how pilgrimages impact human well-being has shown that pilgrims are more content and optimistic about their lives and less troubled with their health problems. I am not suggesting you pack up your bags and walk to some remote religious site. However, in this stressful modern world, when we are rushing about and competing to win our place in society, and when we have little time for our minds to be in the present, walking with a camera becomes a mindful act that absorbs us. It can serve a similar purpose, making us notice the amazing natural world around us and experience inner calm.

I've been told that it seems a bit airy-fairy or bizarre to some, but it is crucial for photography because calmness is essential for getting great photos.

Many novice photographers let over-excitement overtake them. It is easy to be excited, especially when we are photographing something special; I clearly remember my heart pounding the first time I saw a wild elephant through my SLR's viewfinder. After all, we would not be out creating images if we were not enthused by photography. However, peaceful enjoyment of the moment will lead to more hits than a hurried eagerness to get the shot.

If you speak to any good wildlife or street photographer, they will talk about the merits of staying still and waiting for the shot to happen. Many novice photographers don't do this. They rush from place to place, trying to find the action instead of discovering a good backdrop and waiting for things to happen there. So, when walking with your camera, stopping is necessary too.

With many types of photography, you need to be able to anticipate the exact point when you should press the shutter. It's what the great Henri Cartier-Bresson defined as l'instant décisif, the decisive moment. To capture that, you must be ready for it. It's a skill that can be learned. So, with experience, you can anticipate the perfect shot even if you are moving. I remember watching a TV program about Cartier-Bresson, which showed how he almost danced down a street, flowing unnoticed to the right place to get the picture. That takes much practice, and it's an ability that you will gain by first stopping and watching.

Is the solution using to getting up close using a telephoto lens?

Clients often ask me the same question during my outdoor workshops: "Why does that man have such a big lens." My usual reply is that they are just compensating for inadequacies in other areas. I'm joking, of course, but some people feel they must walk around with something resembling a rocket launcher no matter what they intend to shoot.

Smaller camera and lens combinations are better in many ways when walking. Cartier Bresson, one of the most outstanding photographers to have lived, walked around using a small Leica 35mm rangefinder camera with a 50mm lens. It was a tiny camera compared to today's hulking full digital beasts. The war photographer, Robert Capa, used a 50mm lens on his small Leica too. They used them because of their mobility and outstanding image quality. That focal length makes you work for the photo. With an APS-C camera with a 1.6x crop factor, a physically smaller 33.33 mm lens would give you the same field of view. On Micro Four Thirds, it would be an even smaller still 25mm lens.

This long exposure photo of a female eider was heavily cropped. Photos from modern cameras can take quite heavy cropping, especially if the image is being used online, where the required pixel count is far less than the camera delivers.

Long lenses are fabulous. They do allow you to get certain shots. However, they are a pain to carry around on a walk. Most are cumbersome and not at all well suited to walking photography. Years ago, I had a sore neck after carrying a big DSLR and a long lens for a day. I've since discovered the delights of a lighter camera system and a shoulder strap. Why do manufacturers still supply neck straps and not shoulder harnesses that are much more practical?

The temptation with long telephoto lenses is shooting things that are far away. This isn't always a good approach. As subjects become farther from your camera, there is more atmosphere between you and them. That air is full of impurities that detract from the quality of the image. Take the following images as an example. The relatively small buoy in the water at the bottom of the photo is far sharper than the much larger castle in the background. In turn, the castle is clearer than the distant trees and houses. The water vapor and dust in the air reduce visibility, even on a clear day.

Click on the photo to see a larger version.

So, if you want great shots, consider getting closer to your subjects and using shorter lenses.

Like the header image of the herring gull, this puffin was photographed at 200mm using an old legacy lens. The distance allowed enough depth of field to add context. But the light wasn't great, and the puffin was just sitting, watching me.

Birds, animals, and even people are not necessarily that easy to get close to, so that's where a telephoto lens can come into its own. Nevertheless, in most cases, the definition of all modern cameras allows for heavy cropping. Furthermore, short telephoto lenses are available that are light and have excellent image quality. But even with a standard kit lens, if you are walking with a camera, there's a reason why you might get better photos than with a long lens.  

Shooting animate objects with a shorter lens is harder to achieve. Many technically-minded photographers aim to show the subject and blur the background. However, that can be a bit monotonous. It's fabulous for catalog shots. But adding background context by using a shorter lens, not being so close, using a crop sensor camera, and reducing the aperture, can enhance the narrative of some pictures, bringing in the details of the environment you are walking through.

Creating complex stories with animate objects is much easier than with landscapes or still life. Moreover, we can consider adding other elements to the image to make the picture even more interesting. For example, this might be movement. Most bird photographers consider a bird on a stick photo to be lesser than an action shot. But great lighting can take even the humble bird-stick combination up to the next level.

Shafts of sunlight lit individual elements in this scene shot one mid-morning in June a few years ago. I spot-metered the bird, and although the heron was small in the frame, the strong contrast added to the narrative.

A behavior display is another narrative element one can add to the photograph to elevate it beyond the mundane. A dog chasing a ball, a bird pulling a worm from the ground, a cat prowling, and a person laughing at someone else's misfortune will all add an extra element that improves the photo's story. We can observe and photograph these things when out walking with our camera.

When walking, the most important thing to remember is that you are shooting for nobody else but yourself. The act of photography is far more important than the photograph.

If you missed it, in part one, we looked at ways of using sunlight and why camera positioning was essential when walking with your camera.

Have you any tips to pass on to others when out and about with their cameras? It will be great to hear about your experiences and see some of your photos.

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