The Secret to Taking Better Outdoor Photos: Instructional Interview with David Cox

November 20, 2013 — 4 Comments

Girl with SnailDavid Cox shoots a lot of his best photos with an iPhone, and he might be entirely alright with that.

“It may be sad, or maybe not, but the fact is, it’s what I have on hand at pretty much any moment,” David said when asked about equipment. “I think gear is secondary to vision and passion for expression. Sounds cliché, but oh well, it’s true. Give an uninspired man a grand piano and put him up next to an inspired man on a broken Casio… it will be obvious who the artist is regardless of the instrument. That being said, I think if you have means to buy an SLR or DSLR camera it’s sooo worth it.”

(Editor’s Note: Short on time? Just want some quick tips? You’ll miss out, but the headings below in THIS COLOR are what you are after.)

A little about David

This understanding of what is important in photography and what isn’t, runs thick in David’s blood. A photographer, designer, and entrepreneur, he has been living and photographing in the West since the 1990s. His work is captivating, drawing in and meddling with emotion. It is the type of art that makes me yell, “You’ve gotta come look at this!” across the house to my startled wife.

Additionally, when not behind the lens and enjoying the outdoors with his young family, David spends time with a friend designing and building handmade products, such as vintage shaving kits, children’s drawings books, or brewing root beer. These projects can be discovered on instagram @smithandcox.

I recently had the opportunity of browsing through hundreds of David’s photos and was amazed at his ability to extract unique art out of natural landscapes while effortlessly intermixing people.

Why this interview?

Photographer David Cox

Photographer David Cox

It’s pretty universal that outdoor enthusiasts want to take better pictures of their adventures, especially capturing moments with friends and family in ways that are both memorable and powerful. I haven’t seen David in person for years, but I follow him online and each time a new photo emerges, life pauses in amazement and recharges my desire to work harder towards better photos of my own.

I’ve asked David to spend some time with me and share anything photo related that makes up his unique style, or that could help the rest of us better capture our own outdoor experiences. Regardless of your level of photography, there will be something to learn.

What’s the story? When and where does ‘David staring through glass’ begin?

DC: I was about 14, living in Atlanta, when my mom surprised me with my first camera, an old dusty Olympus OM1 collected from a nearby garage sale.


It came with an array of lens filters (pre-Walden) and lenses. With the internet and iPhone un-invented, I had to learn what all the knobs, buttons, and levers did by trial and error. It was also tricky to learn how to load the film and how not to load the film. This is all old process, but there was a charm about it that I miss.

I immediately took to my new treasure and obsessed over it. This was the early 90′s, so for the next 10 years I was shooting 35mm film out of this thing, and spending a lot of money and time at, now historic, 1-hour photo joints. I skateboarded, so naturally I found myself curbside on late nights trying to capture my friends killing themselves over trashcans and staircases. I shot everything manual, so I had to learn quickly how to get the shutter clicking on time and the aperture open just right in order to get worthy images without ruining rolls of film.

I also shot a lot of nature, a lot of people, but ultimately found myself lost in the in-betweens.There was something intriguing about creating a composition from detail others may have overlooked. This is where I learned to make art with my camera.

Any formal training or just endless canisters of spent film?

DC: I went on to minor in photography at Utah State University, keeping graphic design at the helm. I also married a professional photographer so any doubts in my inability to shoot well were quickly solidified shooting next to her—but living with a talent bigger than your own only makes you that much better. She started a photography business ( and as a second shooter, I helped capture over 100 weddings. These are an entirely different beast compared to other facets of photography, a lot of stress involved. It was the first time I had to shoot for someone else rather than for myself, so it was a challenge to make sure you kept the client happy.

outdoor blog 9Particularly inspiring to me is that you often capture natural environments with family and friends effortlessly intermixed and in and with style not often seen. Great cameras are suddenly everywhere and with so many photographers competent with lighting, composition, and technical this-and-that, but I still see a huge lack of artistic ability. Your photos on the other hand are rich with this. What can you tell us? How do the rest of us get this?

DC: It has become pretty clear to me what sets a truly talented photographer apart from the rest: The ability to capture that moment. Nobody can tell you what it is, but when you are behind that lens, whether it be a wildlife shoot, a wedding, or a snowboarder launching from a kicker, you will see it if you allow yourself to be in the moment. It’s obviously more difficult to capture this with a slow response camera, such as that on a phone, but in a way it’s more likely because the phone is always with us, while a DSLR might not be.

Camera phones also make it easier to take a decent photo without ever having to know what an f-stop is or what the ISO means. And now with HDR (high dynamic range) built-in on some phones, with one click the ‘phone-tographer’ is able to capture a healthy range of values all at once! No more blown out sky or blackened shadows. So easy, right? Too easy? The quality of our everyday photos may seem to be improving as a whole, but because technology can think for us and so many things are pre-set, we no longer have to try, and this is where we risk losing our creativity.

With the increase of technological convenience comes a decrease of thought. What I miss about film, and why I still love vinyl records, is the thoughtfulness around each piece, around the intent.

On a roll of 24 every photo counted, just like every song is heard (in order) on a vinyl record. Before digital, art had breathing room, undiluted and formed with intention. I’m in no way anti-digital either. I think an artist is an artist no matter what the medium. Early photographers were considered cheaters by the classic painters, and digital photographers were criticized of the purist photographers. None of that matters, it’s all invented anyway, and is just a means to an end which is the desire to create and express. Let’s do it the right way and slow down.

outdoor blog 11A lot of people are just shooting too much too fast and end up with a dozen photos that suffer, when they could just shoot less but more thoughtfully, looking for that moment rather than spraying their camera at machine gun speeds hoping when they go back to their computer they find one that worked. When I shoot I try to be aware of more than just the subject. If my 1-year-old is sitting on the floor and looks up suddenly to smile at his mother who walked in the room, I have a small window to capture this moment, completely candid and natural. I also have to be aware of how I’m cropping the image and the angle I’m shooting at. All of these little details in the end will tell the story. This is where your intention comes in. You may need to train yourself to do this at first, go down a mental checklist, and eventually it will become a natural impulse. Experiment with different compositions and it will help define your own distinct style.

With the daily Instagram trends all of the photography “rules” I learned academically have basically been tossed out the window. Rule of thirds? Gone. Exposure levels and zones? Gone. I’m even seeing a lot of photos rotated upside down. Anything goes it seems as long as it’s original. This mass experimentation will eventually turn out some new rules of thought and innovative work—in a way we are reinventing photography. The trade off is a mass amount of crap floating out there. Just something to be aware of, so we can make sure that our shots are full of intention. For example, some of the product shots I take I will pre-determine the feeling I want to convey for that product. Sometimes a filter can help with that as long as it’s tasteful and intentional, but once I go down the road of blindly using apps to make me look awesome, then I’ve disconnected from the art of photography.

What inspires you when you get ready to shoot?

DC: I’m not afraid to look at my favorite photographers and I have a lot. This reminds me of how much amazing stuff there is out there and keeps me thinking fresh and to avoid slipping into old habits or routine. Follow some of your favorite photographers and realize the thought behind each of their images.

Music is also a huge factor into what inspires me. It can alter my entire mood.

The thing that strikes me the most is your eye for interesting composition and seeing things that others would pass by. What tips can you share to help people capture their wild moments in more interesting ways? What is going through your head?

DC: Here are some things to consider when taking photos:

  1. Content
    Is what you’re shooting something you will want to look at tomorrow? Next week? How about a year from now? Sometimes it’s tempting to jump out of the car so you an hurry and snap a shot of that fading rainbow, but for what? Will you ever really look at that rainbow picture again? If so why? 
    outdoorblog 41If you need a good photo of a rainbow there are some pretty sweet ones on Google images. In this case, it’s better that you leave the camera alone and enjoy this brief moment through your natural eyes. In order to free yourself from a hard drive full of clutter, just limit what you shoot.
    ave it for those really unique moments. I saw the Grim reaper walking down the street the other day, just before Halloween. He was going home from an event, and stood at least 10 feet tall, using stilts. I noticed he was approaching an elderly couple from behind to pass. My brain exploded with the opportunity to capture a profile of the reaper following behind this couple, morbid but humorous. I was too slow, but the fact is my mind is always looking for moments like that. Don’t be afraid to shoot something new or out of your normal routine. On countless occasions I’ve turned my car around to go back and capture the most random detail on a deteriorating building I’ve never noticed before. Usually these end up being my favorite shots.
  2. Composition
    Like I mentioned before, the rules are breaking apart more and more daily. The rule of thirds (dividing up the viewfinder into vertical and horizontal thirds) is rarely seen anymore. But I think it’s good to experiment, so as long as you can pull it off tastefully. If you don’t feel confident in that, sticking to the classic rules is always a good way to go. Your subject will tell a story, but so will your composition. Use your composition to tell the story, no matter what it is. Are you going to square off your subject? Are you going to give it a dynamic look and tilt? Are you going to give it room to breath with white space around, or will you crop in tight and take us into an emotion. Consider it all.
  3. Apps & Filters
    Be careful. It’s like sugar. Don’t add too much as tempting as it is. Here’s a good practice: When you take a picture you like, look at it and determine if it needs any adjustment or filter. outdoor blog 1If it doesn’t, sweet! You win. If it does, and before opening any app, envision what you think the photo needs in order to be a ideal in your mind. This pre-thought makes a world of difference. Rather than lazily sending your image through an endless carousel of filters and numbing your creativity in the process, decide how you want it to look first, then open the app you need to make that happen. This is actually my favorite part of the process. It’s so satisfying to actually create an image successfully that I had in my mind, composition, color, mood… It’s a fun challenge and makes photography that much more rewarding. They usually come out better than I imagined. Some of the filters out there do amazing things, but be careful not to forfeit your unique photo to a pre-determined, mass-produced look. The best apps out there allow you to adjust the amount of filtration you use to get it to exactly what you want. The built-in Instagram filters don’t allow this, so I rarely use those. I primarily use Snapseed for core adjustments, and VSCO Cam for a touch of flavor. VSCO allows you to tone the filter down like I mentioned. Another fun app I have used is the PS Touch (Photoshop for smartphones). This is incredibly powerful if you wanted to do a major edit, anywhere from taking out dust to full on compositing, if you have the patience. Finally, if you want to free yourself from the standard square, but want to avoid the black bars on the side, I use Squaready. It allows you to compose a portrait or landscape photo while keeping the white edges clean and seamless. I’d stay away from pre-made borders or drop-shadows in some apps as they distract from the photo. Also, dare to post a pure photo every once in a while if you get a good one. More often than not, the most natural images are best.

Three pieces of advice to those wanting to take better pics of their kids outside?

  1. Don’t be afraid of backlighting, if you can expose their face properly you will capture a way dreamier shot than with the sun in their face.
  2. Don’t pose your kids too much. Let them be themselves, you will cherish the in between moments more than that one ‘documented’ shot you were going for. And definitely don’t push your kids passed the point where they are frustrated. It’s ok to let the moment go.
  3. Use the art of distraction. Lie and tell them there’s a purple bird in tree, they will look up with excitement, then snap it.

Girl-AspensYou’re with your family in an amazing setting and the mountain light is cooperating nicely. Simplify things for us and tell us what steps you might take to get some great shots?

  1. Find a spot with as few distracting elements as possible. This is where the designer in me comes out, and I don’t want to see a random tree limb or piece of sidewalk interfere with my composition. I like to eliminate everything from frame, except the essentials. I sometimes crop an image if I need to get rid of something distracting.
  2. Don’t make a long drawn-out scene. Be quick about getting your shot so it doesn’t become an annoying memory in your kid’s mind—that parent who had to take a family picture everywhere they went. Hurry and find your composition, then “Everyone, look at me!”
  3. Try taking turns with the camera, have each kid take a picture, they will love being involved that way. Just make sure you get a turn.
  4. As for arranging your family, let it be as natural as possible, but you can still structure it to a degree so the composition makes sense.
  5. If they are patient try more than one setting; shade, sunlight, or direction of light will dramatically change your image. There’s no one right way—so try two.

outdoor blog 10What is your usable-to-unusable ratio when you review your photos after a shoot?

DC: I’m getting pickier and pickier. I think my first instagram post years ago was of a bathroom towel. I was just testing the app out, not realizing it would soon be public to the world. Now I will find myself holding off on pretty decent images if I don’t feel like it would add value to the feed, or if it’s a bit redundant. I also try really hard to not take a picture just for the purpose of posting it to instagram. Take it because it’s awesome, then if it happens to make instagram, great. So to answer the question, if I return from a shoot or a trip with about 50 images, i’ll likely post 1-3 from it. Don’t “over gram” guys, nobody likes it, except maybe your mama’s.

I’ve seen some great product photography and design in your product feed (@smithandcox), what is that about?

DC: I keep my personal feed on private mode, but I send most of my images to a public feed found @smithandcox. This is a company feed I co-founded with my friend, Austin Smith. He and I share a love and admiration for handmade products, produced the old way, hoping to instill a bit of integrity back into market. We teamed up to make our mark in this way and currently make classic shaving kits, genuine root brews (from actual roots), children’s nature sketchbooks, etc.. Our instagram feed shares part of that story and I try to capture our process and growth as a company. Other times I simply post lifestyle shots or what we find interesting or inspiring. This has brought my photography more exposure than anything I’ve shot before, all thanks to the magic of social networking.

Superpower of invisibility or flight? 

DC: As much as it scares me to think of it in real life, I would have to say flight. I would likely start off by hovering close to the ground the first few days, just to get it down. Flying over my first house would be a adrenaline rush. But once I trusted my new superpower I would gradually elevate until I was a legit superhuman. How would it be to check out mountain ranges like that? Bugs in the eyes could be a problem… and fatigue, probably need lot’s of naps in between.

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4 responses to The Secret to Taking Better Outdoor Photos: Instructional Interview with David Cox

  1. Great article and amazing photos! Love the idea of shooting less but with more effort. Well done.

  2. love the perspective and insight I gained from this article.. also, awesome images!

  3. Nice article, I really appreciate all the good tips especially about not making it a bad memory for the kids and capturing the moment. Thanks for the thoughts DC and for the article Kirk.

    • My fav tip too! The worst of people can definitely come out at an organized family pic. I think that is what I like the most about David’s pics, is they all seem so casual and relaxing. They capture a moment you want to go back to… not one you hated.

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