By Kaia Means, golf photographer at Golfvisuals.com
Taking pictures of golf courses is notoriously difficult.
How many times have you seen a scene on the golf course that awes you, only to find that the photo you took just doesn’t do it justice? It happens all the time.
Even golf journalists who have been writing about golf for years and are paid both to write and take photographs, often fail to bring the goods home to their editor.
They end up having to rely on the PR photos supplied by the golf course (which may be of varying quality).
Why do they have such a hard time taking nice photos?
Perhaps they think that an eye for golf photography is some kind of mysterious and natural-born talent to which they have no access.
They give up before they’ve even tried.
Sure, improving your golf course photography will take time and effort, but if you change your modus operandi and put some more thought (and perhaps some investment) into your equipment, your shooting and in your post-processing, you’ll be well on your way to showing the world the beauty of the golf courses you visit.
To keep up on more tips, check out the Golfvisuals golf photography blog.
Here are five starting points:
1) Notice the light, like a tour player notices the wind
Most interviews with golf photographers start with the interviewee talking about getting up at sunrise and beating the greenkeepers to the course.
But there’s more to it than that. You also have to start seeing the world around you as the lens sees it. It doesn’t help to be up early if you can’t see the effect the light is having on everything around you. What is the texture of the fairway or the rough when the sun is low in the sky coming in at a right angle?
How does it change when it’s more behind you? Should you include a big sky in your photo?
When you start noticing the changes, it’s like an epiphany. Even though the actual sunrise may be beautiful, including the sun in your shot may be a challenge, because the course then becomes backlit – which usually means the photo will need a lot of help in Photoshop.
Look around, see how the light is transforming the course from something drab to something exceptional. And by the way, beautiful light doesn’t only happen at sunrise and sunset. For example, it happens often when the weather changes. You will start to see this.
2) Golf is an angles game: improve the angle of your approach
One of the most important elements in so many golf course photos is the flag. Is it clearly visible? Is the background behind it simple, contrasting with the flag?
You may want to move in an arc around the green until you’ve lined up a perfect background for your flag. And if the wind is up, you could take a series of photos so that you have at least one shot where the flag is perfectly waving in the wind (it’s hard to get windy flags to look great).
If you combine the knowledge of points 1 and 2, you will be ecstatic when you see a sunlit flag in front of a shady background.
3) Never underestimate height, it can save a club
One of the greatest feelings in golf is playing a beautiful par three from a raised tee and playing the perfect shot to that pretty green down below.
Why? Because it’s all laid out for you. You can see exactly what’s waiting for you and you can see the results of your shot as it plays out.
When you take pictures of golf courses from above, you will stir up those same feelings in the viewer: the course is waiting. ‘I can see the green and the shape of all the bunkers.
I would love to play that hole!’ How do you get height? Many courses have mounding around the greens – go to the highest point.
Climb the hills. If you’re really dedicated, strap a ladder onto a golf cart (put it where the golf bags usually go, tighten the straps) and climb to the top. Get a drone.
4) You may want to get a custom fitting of your equipment
Depending on what you want to do with your photos, you might consider some new equipment. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that you have a wide enough lens (although a good telephoto is also extremely useful).
I use a 16-35 mm lens on a full frame DSLR. It means that I can stand near a green, getting the green in the foreground while showing the beauty of the surrounding landscape in the background.
If you don’t have a proper wide angle lens, there’s still a way to capture the scene. The iPhone’s panorama function is surprisingly good, try it out.
Another option is to take a series of overlapping photos, for example four or five vertical shots. If they overlap properly (about 30-40 percent into the adjacent photo) it’s simple to merge them in Photoshop with the ‘photomerge’ function, just remember to go over the seams with the magnifier tool to make sure it looks good.
5) Post-processing is a science and a sport
This brings us to post-processing, otherwise known as Photoshop (and/or Lightroom).
Imagine if we could take our scorecards after a round of golf and run them through Photoshop, fixing what’s wrong.
We’d all be scratch golfers. Well, golf photographers can and do improve their shots after the fact. There’s a lot of discussion about how much is too much and finally it’s a matter of taste.
I know that most of the PR photographs of golf courses that are offered to me for use in publication are not to my taste – they are often oversaturated with unnaturally colored greens and fairways.
On the other hand, if you were to look at the raw photos, straight from the camera, of any well-known golf photographer, you might be surprised to see how ordinary-looking most of the images are.
The photographer would not send out a photo like that. There’s not a landscape photographer out there who would display a photo that wasn’t lovingly helped along in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Ansel Adams was the most perfectionist person in the darkroom you could find, working on prints until they were perfect. Like golf, post-processing is a skill where you can never be good enough – there’s always room for improvement.
About Kaia Means
Kaia Means studied photojournalism in San Francisco, California, working for National Geographic in Washington, DC before starting in a career of international adventure and travel writing and photography.
Recently she has specialized in golf photography, working for Scandinavian golf magazines and websites.