How To Create The Complete Outdoor Image

Whether you’re shooting landscapes, wildlife, sports-action or travel, the best, most compelling images have common traits
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Wasatch Mountains and Middle Provo River, Utah

Dawn color and lenticular cloud over the Wasatch Mountains and Middle Provo River, Utah. Barker used Canon DSLRs and lenses and Singh-Ray filters for all of the images in this article.


Kings Peak WildernessA high mountain stream meanders through Painter Basin at nearly 13,000 feet in the Kings Peak Wilderness area, Utah.

In this era of digital photography, we’re bombarded with imagery each and every day. Our visual senses are pushed to the limits as we try to digest the good, the bad and the ugly. Yet somehow, in the midst of this creative cacophony, there are images that resonate. These are the images we remember. These are the images we study. These images are complete.

Is there a formula for this complete image? Maybe not a formula, per se; there are necessary components, and an outdoor image struggles to resonate with viewers without all of them. It takes a special combination of natural events and creative and technical prowess to connect all of the dots on any given photo shoot. In my experiences, both as a viewer and a creator of outdoor photography, I’ve found three essential components that comprise the complete outdoor image:

> Superb light
> Engaging subject matter
> Dynamic composition

Whenever possible, the artist will find a way to combine these elements to make a mini-masterpiece. Many times we’re able to capture unbelievable light, but the composition is lacking. Similarly, I’ve seen fantastic compositions with uninteresting and, quite honestly, unaesthetic foreground subjects. We must find that balance and convergence of these three components to deliver the full visual package and leave viewers virtually intertwined with our two-dimensional reality.

Let’s delve into the building blocks of these components and how we, as photographers, can better capture and make them a part of our imagery.

 Grand Teton National Park, WyomingA stoic bison holds its stance for eight seconds in this dawn image of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Superb Light
The literal meaning of the word photography is “writing with light.” As outdoor photographers, we write with succulent sunrise light. We write with rich sunset light. We write with soft and subtle dawn and dusk light. We write with heavenly storm light. We write with backlighting, sidelighting and bounce lighting. If we could bottle up the light that blesses most of our five-star imagery, we could sell it for billions of dollars a bottle—that’s how good the light is that we crave most.

Where do we find this light? We find it in the early and late hours. We find it when most other sane individuals are warm in their beds or swishing their glass of evening wine. You must be committed to getting up early and staying out late. Always arrive at least 45 minutes before sunrise and stay equally as long past sunset. Stay until every last bit of color is gone in the sky—we’ve all had those frantic shooting experiences when everything has been packed up, only to realize that Mother Nature is about to launch into her grand finale.

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Big Cottonwood Canyon, UtahOvercast conditions make for soft, even lighting and rich color in this fall image of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.

Why is light so important? It brings out intimate texture and profound detail in our images, especially when the light source is low on the horizon. It defines our images by giving them depth and dimension. Combined with contrast in color, shape and texture, light is what ultimately conveys a sense of three-dimensionality across this two-dimensional medium. People know and understand light, and that’s what allows them to momentarily forget that they’re staring at a flat surface and virtually step into the represented reality of unforgettable photography.

There are certainly some exceptions to this statement (especially with the camera technology available to us these days), but generally, if you don’t have superb light, you don’t have squat.

Engaging Subject Matter
For the most part, this is a fairly straightforward component, right? Just find something “pretty” and throw it in the frame in a decent spot, and you have your keeper, no? Were it always that simple, we would all have little to pursue and even less to perfect.

Engaging subject matter may or may not present itself at any given location. Finding engaging subject matter in Yellowstone National Park may not be a huge photographic challenge, but how about finding urban beauty when you’re traveling and working on getting interesting shots in an urban jungle?

Why is light so important? It brings out intimate texture and profound detail in our images, especially when the light source is low on the horizon. It literally defines our images by giving them depth and dimension. Combined with contrast in color, shape and texture, light is what ultimately conveys a sense of three-dimensionality across this two-dimensional medium.

Finding engaging subject matter takes an eye for the unique. It may simply involve looking at objects differently, finding different angles or, oftentimes, just waiting for the right light to highlight the subject. Many times, you must find the pieces of the visual puzzle in front of you that speak most to the viewer. A golden aspen grove in and of itself may provide adequate subject matter, but a certain section of that aspen grove, with just the right convergence of branches, leaves, spacing and light, will make for the most meaningful image.

Duchesne Ridge, UtahThe last rays of daylight illuminate a healthy patch of purple lupine along the Duchesne Ridge, Utah.

Subject matter can be anything under the sun, literally. That being said, for it to feel right, it must complement the image as a whole. Just as most prefer to fill their piggy bank with more than just pennies, as a photographer I search for subject matter that makes the most of the space I’m given within my photographic frame of view.

In the end, we must engage the viewer with everything we’ve chosen to include in our image. If we can do this, it will be tough for the viewer to look away.

Dynamic Composition
If superb light is our foundation and engaging subject matter the building blocks, then dynamic composition is the glue that holds it all together. I believe that composition is the rawest demonstration of a photographer’s ability to create. Subject matter is most often already existent. Light can be happened upon. Composition, however, is entirely dependent upon the artist’s intrinsic ideal. It’s the outward arrangement of an inward vision.

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Big Cottonwood Canyon, UtahSoft dusk light paints this stand of snow-dusted aspen with a subtle pink glow in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.

What is composition, and why is it so supremely important to creating the complete outdoor image? Composition is the careful placement and arrangement of all the elements in an image that matter. Composition isn’t just about inclusion, however. We also must consider what necessitates exclusion to have maximum impact on the viewer.

Our biggest challenge as photographers involves erasing the two-dimensional barrier that prohibits many from fully relinquishing themselves to the viewing experience. If it doesn’t feel real, then it doesn’t feel real.

We can overcome this barrier through the way we construct our images. By breaking up our images into foreground and background elements, we give the viewers the near/far dimension that they experience in real life. Look for strong foreground anchors that will instantly grab the viewer’s attention. As seen in some of the imagery examples throughout this article, this may be a backlit cactus or a grouping of wildflowers. It may be a submissive bison or a sidelit bunch of ice plants.

Pacific Ocean from Twin Peaks OverlookThe Pacific Ocean from Twin Peaks Overlook, San Francisco, Calif.

Complete this foreground with a secondary background subject like mountain peaks, puffy clouds, a sunstar or rolling waves. By including these foreground/background elements, we provide the image with good visual tension and an opportunity for the viewer to explore all the parts of the image around and in between.

Consider every image a visual journey. It must have a beginning and an end. If our image is to be successful, the viewer will make this journey over and over, exploring even more with every pass along the visual path. By including compositions with leading lines, we can direct the viewer into and through the image. These “leading lines” might be a meandering mountain stream, side-lit striations in red rock or repetitive patterns in color or contrast. These leading lines may not be lines at all; they may be strategically placed pillows of snow, rocks or other subject matter that carry the viewer through the image.

In the end, we must take the viewer “there,” and this is done by delivering on our mission as dedicated outdoor photographers to create complete images, leaving little to be desired. Perfection is a pinnacle reached by few, but by including all the components of the complete outdoor image, we’re sure to come close!

You can see more of Adam Barker’s photography at his website,

Helpful Hints

1 Choose locations wisely. Know where the sun will rise and set, and set your image up appropriately. If possible, choose locations that give you shooting options both into and away from the sun.
2 Understand your postprocessing approach, and shoot accordingly. Understand how your camera functions, as well as how the information captured translates into your vision for the final image.
3 Use a tripod. Creating a complete image leaves little room for soft or fuzzy images. Make a habit of shooting on a tripod and providing yourself with a stable platform from which to shoot. Additionally, you may want to use a cable release and utilize mirror lockup to ensure a tack-sharp image, especially on longer exposures.
4 Previsualize. Know beforehand what you’re after. Have both a creative and technical plan B should locations/conditions go south on you.
5 Choose the right lens. Understand which lens the scene calls for. Use different lenses often, and learn how to “see” as if you were looking through your different lenses.