Getting Started in Outdoor Photography

Words and photos by Cotopaxi Ambassador Erin Sullivan

One of the biggest questions I get as an outdoor and travel photographer is HOW. This question seems to blow minds. How the heck do you get paid traveling around the world taking pictures? It’s too good to be true. There must be some secret code or magical spell involved. There is no secret, so if that’s what you were hoping for, well… sorry.

This career is a combination of hard work, time, creativity, and little bit of luck. That being said, there are certain pieces of advice and encouragement that can help you along the way. Regardless of whether you want to turn outdoor photography into a job someday, or you just want to take better photos outside, here’s what you should know.

It’s not about the gear

It can be easy to get caught up on what gear you have (or don’t have), but I assure you, gear is not the most important thing. The best camera for when you’re starting out is the camera you already own. Maybe this is your smartphone. Maybe this is something you borrow from a friend. Use what you have until you know what you like, then upgrade once you outgrow it.

Before you go

Do some research to set yourself up for success. Whatever device you plan to use, do you know how to use it? Do you know what features it has? Do you have a basic understanding of what the numbers mean? You can’t really be surprised at poor image quality if you haven’t bothered to learn your camera!

Get out and practice

The best way to learn is by doing it. When I look back on my career to this point, my work has improved the fastest in periods of time where I was doing the most. Any entrepreneur will tell you that it’s common to fall into traps where you feel like your work isn’t good—this feeling can trick you into doing absolutely nothing. Do the opposite. Get out and shoot, then dedicate time to editing your images.

Some technical advice…

Shooting mode

Generally, you need to develop a basic understanding of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. I recommend watching some YouTube videos on this stuff, then see how to adjust each of these settings on your camera. Your research will hopefully have given you some options on what shooting modes are available on your camera. Auto is good for starting out, but eventually you will want to have more control. I recommend either shutter- or aperture-priority mode. Both of these modes allow you to isolate just one factor, whereas in manual mode you have to control everything. Shooting on aperture-priority mode is the main way I transitioned to shooting manual, because it gave me a lot of knowledge on what settings produced the effects I was looking for.


For landscape scenes, you want to shoot with a narrow aperture, aka a bigger f-number. This will keep the scene as sharp as possible. Then find the closest point to you that you can focus on that will still keep the background reasonably sharp as well. Be sure to use a tripod for longer exposures.


If you’re photographing people, wildlife, or anything else close-up, and you’re looking for the blurry background effect, you want a wider aperture (smaller f number). It can be helpful here to use aperture-priority mode and then you can play around with the lowest f numbers on your camera, noting how this changes the shutter speed.

Light & composition

Generally, sunrise and sunset will give you the best light—that’s why these times are often referred to as the “golden hours.” Bright sun in the middle of the day can be challenging to shoot in due to dark shadows and very bright highlights, but I recommend trying everything until you know what environments you most enjoy shooting in. The middle of the day can be totally fine if you have decent cloud cover. Always make sure your horizon line is straight, and play around with perspective. Try shooting from high up and from low to the ground. Try practicing with the rule of thirds—imagining your canvas split into nine parts and position your subject accordingly, seeing what makes for the most interesting image.


Most of what people like about my images actually has to do with the way I edit, not the camera I use. I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, but there are many great apps out there—VSCO, Snapseed, and Lightroom to name a few. Many improvements can be made simply by playing with the exposure, contrast and saturation. Watching YouTube tutorials gave me a ton of helpful info; from there it was all practice. If you like a film look, think about buying a preset pack (VSCO has lots to choose from), and then play around until you start to notice what you gravitate toward.

A note on sponsorships

One big question I get frequently is about sponsorships and working with brands. This comes with time and work. I am in my third year of my blog—that’s three years of blogging consistently and posting on all social media channels. Three years of writing, creating, networking, and building my business. Long-term vision is important. Sponsorships and ambassadorships are gained through showing the value you can bring to a brand over time, not about getting free gear. Focus on building your business, skills, portfolio, and audience so that brands want to work with you because of the value you provide.

Lastly, don’t forget to let it be fun! Outdoor photography is a great creative outlet, and a great way to document some of your favorite memories outdoors. You will find your style as you practice. I assure you, with time and work, you will get to a point where you love the images you’re creating. The creative process is just that: a process! Enjoy the ride.