Connecting with the Outdoors: The Place of Photography.

Observe any group of people in the outdoors and notice the amount and variety of photographic equipment being used. There will probably be mobile camera phones, compact cameras, and possibly digital single-lens reflexes (DSLRs) with interchangeable lenses and even tripods. What are all these cameras being used for? It is likely that many of the photographs taken will be used a memory aid and a reminder of what happened when thinking about the experience ‘back home’. As outdoor educators, how can we capitalize on this increasingly widespread and rapidly growing interest in photography?

Forest School Camps make a wide use of photographs in their brochure to convey the energetic responses of children and young people as they connect to the outdoors. Their philosophy states that ‘the outdoors demands and encourages learning’ (FSC, 2010: 2). In this article I consider the potential of photography in the lives of the children, young people and adults we accompany in the outdoors.

Not everyone sees photography as a valuable learning tool for developing a greater awareness and understanding of what we are seeing in the world around us. For example. Edward O. Wilson (2000:vii), naturalist and environmentalist, suggests that it is illustration, rather than photography that has the real power for the observer to see the complexities and intricacies in nature. For him, the technical details associated with capturing an image can detract from the intrinsic details of what is being observed. However, Niall Benvie (2001:32-33), nature photographer, photo-lobbyist and a director of Rewilding Childhood, believes that photography can support children in discovering nature for themselves, and can subsequently have a positive long term impact on their lives, developing into a lifetime passion for nature and environmental actions. Children’s observations and photographs can also contribute to an in depth knowledge of the local area (2010:53). For example, Fergus Gill, who has won twice the Young Wildlife Winner of the Year, has focused on capturing the character of animals in his locality (Smith, 2011: 53). 

In its simplest form, photography may be described as ‘an expression of our response to the world, in a particular place, at a particular moment’ (Waite, 2009:7). However, David Ward, who seeks the abstract in landscapes, has a more elusive definition. For him it is ‘chasing …. an unobtainable illusion’ and linked to a personal inner quest (2004:11). So how may this experience these be achieved? It seem to me, at the heart of developing photography beyond the mere capturing memories are a number of possible actions:

  •  slowing down the process of taking photographs;
  • reducing the number of images recorded; and
  • developing a greater knowledge of a particular environment, for example, where the sun rises and sets at particular times of the year, the path of light across the landscape, the tracks of animals, the positions of particular flowers, the seasonal changes of tones and hues.

The possession of a camera, and taking photographs with intent, with a particular purpose, can ‘slow us down’, as it were, so that we can begin to see, actually take in and appreciate the details, the inter-relationships within a landscape or scene. As duChemin (2009:4) suggests:

Vision can be elusive. We may not always have an immediate conscious reaction to the world around us, may not understand our feelings about the story in front of us. In these times, it is often the case that the camera becomes more than a means to record our vision; it becomes a means to help clarify it.

He continues:

The more we engage the world and examine our thoughts and feelings about it, the clearer our vision becomes. We become able to describe feelings and thoughts that were once unconscious.  (2009:6)

So, the act of ‘slowing down’ in the taking of photographs can result in us actually seeing more, rather than simply look at obvious or superficial things. Whether sitting or walking around, this ‘slowing down’ might develop into a form of contemplation or meditation, stimulated by what we are observing and thinking. It can increase our perspectives on what we are on the subject of our focus. This may then lead to us on to photographing the image that we really want to capture, rather than just taking photographs randomly. A random approach to photography, is all too easy to adopt in this digital age (Minnitt and Malpas, 2009: 19 and 122). It has some points in its favour. It may open our awareness to serendipity, observing things which had been ‘invisible’ in our conscious scanning of the scenes before us. However, for duChemin, a purposeful but conptemplative approach is at the heart of being truly creative. He (2009:69) writes:

Creativity is about receptivity, and that doesn’t happen until we let ourselves go for a while.

He also suggests that ‘shooting from the heart’ can enable us ‘to tell the visual stories’ about the things that we care about, to move beyond the taking of photos to taking photographs that capture the spirit of the place or event  (ibid, 2009:13 and 152). 


Putting this ‘slowing down’ into practice

When we are out on our own or with family or friends, it can be easy to slow down, to give time for ‘watching the world go by’, and to capture those images which can give insights into the essence of a place or event. However, when we are with a group, we have other matters to consider, such as the needs of individuals and the group as a whole; our broader responsibilities as educators and outdoor facilitators, for example, related to group members becoming perhaps distracted (leaving that to the readers’ imagination), cold, hungry, bored …. It is also worth remembering that outdoor learning does not have to occur in remote or physically and emotionally challenging environments, where a higher order of safety awareness may be required.

Group members can be challenged to record the unusual, to focus in on unusual perspectives (image 1). This could be done, for example, by incorporating images into a quiz.

They could be tasked with creating sculptures that convey a message about conflicts within the environment and photographing these (image 2). They could be stimulated to start challenging attitudes by taking photographs of:

rubbish versus beauty;

a polluted versus a beautiful site (image 3).

Group members could aim at creating abstracts, through focusing in to scenes or panning (moving the camera horizontally or vertically) (image 4).


An introduction to key elements of composition might lead to improvements in the quality of images. The rule of thirds is commonly used as a guide (ie dividing a scene into thirds, horizontally and vertically, as in the diagram, and placing key objects such as a horizon, or a tree on those lines or their intersections). It is always worth remembering that rules are made to be broken! (see diagram 5)

Consider the framing of the picture. Is all that needs to be included in the viewer or on the viewing screen? Are there objects within the frame that could be excluded, because they add nothing to the picture?



Photography can enhance the outdoor learning experience. It can simply be an aid to memory. However, it can enhance learning, drawing attention to aspects of the outdoors that we might otherwise rush past in our impatience to complete a journey. For people who are reluctant to engage with the outdoors in a physical way, photography can be the medium that enables and develops a connection with the outdoors. Enjoy your photography!


Di Collins




Benvie, N. (2010) Juggling Act. in Outdoor Photography. Issue 124. March 2010 (pps 52-53).

Benvie, N. (2011) Nature Photographers: the next generation. in Outdoor Photography. Issue 136. February 2011 (pps 32-33).

duChemin, D. (2009) Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Leslie, C.W. and Roth, C.F. (2000) Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a whole new way of seeing the world around you. North Adams Massachusetts: Storey Books.

Minnitt, C. and Malpas, P. (2009) Finding the Picture: A location photography masterclass. London: Envisage Books.

Smith, N.(2011) 10 Questions: Fergus Gill. in Outdoor Photography. Issue 136. February 2011 (pps 52-53).

Waite, C. (2009) Foreword. in C. Minnitt and P. Malpas (2009) Finding the Picture: A location photography masterclass. London: Envisage Books (pp.7).

Ward, D. (2004) Landscape Within. London: Argentum.

Wilson, E.O. (2000) Foreword. in C.W. Leslie and C.F. Roth. (2000) Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a whole new way of seeing the world around you. North Adams Massachusetts: Storey Books (pp.vii).


Websites             Niall Benvie’s site             Niall Benvie’s site


To cite this article:

Collins, D (2011) Connecting with the Outdoors: The Place of Photography.

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