How to take crappy pictures in the woods.

(Actual "tech" notes much further down. We'll start with the whole-wheat stuff)

I take crappy pictures when I'm in a hurry. One day I was out there and I realized that my mind was disconnected from my eyes ("How much time have I got? I'll check that one spot and then that one fallen tree and take the other way back so I can see what's over there as long as I'm walking back by 2:00 so I can shower before work," etc.), and I wasn't having that twinkly feeling I get when I'm ready to see anything and I've forgotten everything about me and only want to LOOK FOR STUFF.

The problem happens when I have time constraints on the hike (including trying to beat the setting sun). Hike until you're done, I say! Start early so you can walk as slow as you want. I take a step and look around, take two steps and look around...if someone's with me they can get a little bored. They feel like they're just standing around waiting for me (maybe they think I'm just standing around). Fellow nature-nuts work out okay.

Basically, if I'm walking about as fast as a great blue heron walks around a pond, I'm good.

When it's really HOT out and I'm sick of carrying my damn backpack but I won't take it off to take the shot (so I don't fall forward from the weight of it) because it's TOO MUCH TROUBLE, forget it. I try to get the shot before I lose my balance, and that never works.

Sept. 2010 edit--thanks to my best-beloved, dearest friend, who in a stroke of pure genius got me a LUMBAR PACK for my birthday, I have a new-found hiking freedom. I'll never use a standard backpack again on a photo foray. These things are the best invention in the whole world, next to wheeled suitcases.

It looks all strappy and confusing, but once you use it a few times, it's as easy as putting on a hat. I feel like a mountain goat in the woods now. And I swear it holds as much as my backpack did (here's the list!).

So, when I'm in a hurry, firstly I'm sure I just walk right past all kinds of little wonders, and mostly, when I'm composing a shot, I don't see what's actually in the viewfinder. My brain is in the future, so I'm not fully attentive to what's actually in front of me. So a stick or a leaf or something will end up in the image, making the composition stupid, and then I see it later on my monitor and say "Dammit! Wish I'd seen that when I was taking that shot!" But it was there...I just didn't see it.

But I figured out I can adjust my receiver to "be in the woods now."  So I try to stop for a sec before I start out, and think about what kind of hike it's going to be--am I just marching straight to The Field of Chanterelle Joy, to see if they're up yet, or do I have 3-4-5 hrs and two fully-charged camera batteries and plenty of snacks & water (and napkins) and absolutely no goal whatsoever, except to go look for stuff?

Oh, boy, do I love looking for stuff in the woods.

As far as anything of a TECHNICAL nature (speaking entirely from a point-and-shoot camera perspective, which is what I use), I will say that the sun is not my friend when taking pictures in the woods. Photos of white or light or shiny things (especially against a dark background, like a tree trunk) become a screaming, blown-out white, with detail burned out and irretrievable (a sign of being over-exposed). In my opinion the cast shadows distract from the subject, and it looks harsh. My first choice is always an overcast day. Second choice is to make a friend stand where you tell them, casting their shadow on your subject. Third choice is contorting your own body to block the sun. One more miserable choice is to drag a piece of foam board along, and try to hold it in the right spot to cast its shadow with one hand while trying to take a picture with the other. Seemed like it had potential, but mostly it just made me swear a lot.

*Edit May 2011: they DO make a small collapsible reflector! It twists closed like a spring-loaded windshield sun shade! I got a 12" one, and it collapses down to about 5" and fits in a little zipper pouch. 

If your point-and-shoot camera allows you to adjust the exposure (and I bet it does, if you RYFM), set it to UNDERexpose (I go as far as TWO stops down sometimes--as much as the lighting conditions will allow). The images will look dark, but the detail in bright areas will be maintained, and can easily be tweaked brighter using the most basic (and free) photo-editing software. I use Picasa. That's all.

Also, if you haven't figured it out yet, using a flash can make things pretty ugly (click for example). The camera reads what's illuminated by the flash, and ignores everything else, so it looks like you're taking a picture on a gloomy, desolate night. And the closer-up you are, the worse it looks (but I do use it sometimes to capture detail in a documentary sense). If you must use a flash, see if your camera has a setting to adjust the flash strength, and knock it way DOWN. For close-up photos you don't need nuclear-blast intensity. There is also a "slow-sync" function on many cameras that will fill in the background, but that doesn't help for macro shooting. I'm just not crazy about the flash. In its defense, the flash will produce the truest colors--yes, more accurate than "natural" daylight. Diffusers have some potential, and I'm considering using one. A quick search online for "make your own flash diffusers" pulls up a ton of really inexpensive and simple designs.

I eventually figured out that unconsciously holding your breath is bad when you push the shutter release. It seems to amplify your pulse, which goes straight into your hands, which makes the shot blurry. So, don't do that. And you don't have to hold the camera so tightly! Hold it gently.

Keep the shutter release button depressed until after the shot is taken--don't poke it and release it, squeeze it and wait. When you let go of the shutter release you move the camera, which, of course, is usually considered bad for photos. Also, do try using the self-timer--even a two-second delay is enough time for you to get your hands off the camera and let it take the shot automatically. Use the self-timer with a tripod or when the camera is sitting on a stable surface--not hand-held.

Tripods are really useful, but I'm usually taking shots at ground-level, I mean literally ground-level, as in, I'm resting the camera on the ground, so I can't really use one. What I need is a borescope. Or just a bean bag! 
There are tiny tripods. A friend gave me a 3" one, but I don't even use that one much at all.

Trust me, take many, many shots of your subject. I can easily take 100 shots in 2 hours. The one you thought was fine will be blurry because you moved. Everything looks in focus on a 3" screen. Enlarge it on your computer for your out-of-focus surprise! And if you've got a digital camera, what do you care how many shots you take? I think I can fit something like 600 shots on my 2-gig memory card, and that's at maximum resolution. Make the extra effort to find the best vantage point, and refuse to be distracted when you're taking the shot.

Oh, and if you're trying to do a really tight close-up and can't make the camera focus where you want, you could back it up a bit, let it focus more broadly, and crop it later. It's not cheating, it's working with the technology. But be judicious about this's considered bad practice. The quality will suffer because you're not really taking a picture of what you're intending to see in the finished shot. I very rarely crop images anymore. Your camera probably has a manual focus feature if you need it, anyway.

And of course you can move stuff out of the way to get a cleaner shot! I always take one "as found," for posterity, I guess, but then I move leaves and stuff out of the way so I can get a nice clear uninterrupted macro-view.

In the end, you'll figure out what's working and what's not. But stop taking pictures in the sun, and stop holding your breath! Those are the two most important things I figured out.
I got a Fine Arts degree in photography (film, of course) in 1981...and then carefully forgot all the technical info I learned. Then I didn't even have a working camera until 2007. But, that's more about where my head was when I was in college than anything else. Frankly, I'm glad I stopped using film cameras long enough for the digital age to come. It suits what I'm using it for, anyway.


  1. I got this little tripod, and a couple rechargeable batteries, charger and bag for about $15 a little while ago:

    It's actually a pretty decent tripod, head swivels and all, and SO small it fits in my compact bag with everything else. Too bad my batteries are incompatible with the charger now!

  2. I've got a little tiny (6"!) flexing one that came with my camera, but even THAT one is too tall for how I take most of my pictures (resting the camera directly on the ground). BUT I am very excited about the BEAN-BAG technique that I read about on I think that is going to improve the quality of my life immensely.

  3. I know exactly what you are saying here. I was in too much of a hurry recently and not reviewing as I should and ended up deleting most of my pictures.

  4. I recently discovered that if I keep the shutter button pressed after I take the shot, it "holds" the image in the viewfinder, without having to push any more buttons...that helps. Don't know if that's a real feature of the camera, or something I accidentally made up.

  5. Thanks for your tips!
    I make photos of edible wild mushrooms only and I know how difficult it can be with lightening. So, in the forest I am trying to take shoots of mushrooms which are either in the shadow or on a sunlight - it eases a bit task for proper light setting.
    I totally agree - the proper photo equipment is damn heavy to walk with, especially if you have to bring with you collected edible mushrooms :)

  6. Awesome tips! I know that sometimes I do hold my breath, just so excited to get a shot, but that's why were lucky to have digital cards rather than film, because you can just snap away!