How to Create Amazing Golf Course Images
1. Do your homework first
- Get on the golf course’s website and look at their photography, illustrations, and yardage book.
- Try to figure out which holes you would like to photograph. Do they have a signature hole? A signature hole is usually the most visually appealing, most photographed and most recognizable hole. (Yes I realize I just used ‘most’ three times in a row, but it’s worth the emphasis.) Why would you want to photograph something everyone else has shot? Because you want to put your spin on it, add your style, maybe hand paint it, or just beef up your portfolio.
- Read about the architecture; are there any important golf course architecture elements you want to make sure you capture?
- Find out who is in charge at the pro shop, the title will normally be Head Professional (called head pro) or Director of Golf. Also find out the name of the Superintendent, this is the person who is in charge of the grounds crew.
2. Call the Head Pro or Director of Golf
- Don’t e-mail, send a Facebook message, or drop by. Pick up the phone and call. Golf pros are getting solicited all the time for all kinds of stuff, be considerate. Introduce yourself. Briefly explain your credentials and goals for the shoot. Offer to send a link to a gallery of your best landscape images (not portraits or travel). Better yet, if you have a book of landscape images offer to mail it or drop it by the course.
- Explain that you’d like to come out on two separate days. One day to scout and another to take pictures. Do not try to scout and shoot on the same day that is a recipe for lame images.
- Your ability to gain access depends on the course. If it is a public course this increases the odds they will let you on. If it is a private course many pros will still let you on if you offer to let them use some of the images you create.
- When you talk to the head pro ask:
- Which holes are the prettiest, most unusual, talked about, hated, where do people lose the most balls? These questions can spur great image titles, “The most terrifyingly beautiful green in the Midwest, Purgatory Golf Club’s 8th hole.”
- Where are the most ‘hole in ones?’ People who shoot a hole in one often want to buy a picture of that hole.
- When is the course at it best, daybreak or sunset?
- What day of the week is the least busy? Is there a morning when the golf course is closed for maintenance? If there is, that is the day you want to be there.
- After the pro has warmed up to you, ask if they can provide a guide. Why do I recommend a guide? When it comes time to go out of the course you either need to: 1) understand how not to piss off the golfers out there, and not damage their beautiful golf course, or 2) have a guide. I suggest a guide. Even though I own a golf course, and have played golf for years, when I go out to shoot, my mind is on one thing, getting the shot. I am not thinking about what kind of trouble I am going to cause for their clients or grounds crew. If I shoot in the morning I want someone from the grounds crew driving me around because then if we come to a hole where the maintenance crew is working, my guide can ask them to step aside while I shoot. If it’s at night and I don’t know the course I’d like someone from the proshop to drive me around.
4. Time of Day and Sunlight
- You need to shoot at sunrise or sunset for film and DSRL cameras. The only exception to this rule is infrared cameras. For infrared, the middle of a sunny day is best. But if you are shooting traditional color or black and white images, it needs to be during one of the golden hours, no exception!!!
5. Scouting is your best friend
- I scout the location at least an hour before sunrise or sunset. The day of the actual shoot I am on property about an hour before sunrise, probably 1 ½ hours before sunset, and in position to begin shooting 30 minutes later.
- It isn’t just the time of day that is important. The light from the sun has to actually be hitting the putting green, or whatever aspect of the golf course is your subject. So if the putting green is surrounded by trees that block the rays of the sunrise, I come back at sunset, and vice versa. I need to figure that out during my scout, not the day of the shoot.
- If you intend to shoot in the morning, the best-case scenario is to have the golf course Superintendent or assistant superintendent take you out on the course. That way if the maintenance crew is in your shot (which you don’t want) the superintendent can ask them to step aside while you shoot.
6. Get up as High as You Can
- Your images will be better if you are looking down on the fairway and putting green. You can stand up on a hill or the back of the golf cart.
- Do not try to climb up on top of the golf cart. I’ve even hired a cherry picker (also called a bucket truck) to get a good angle on the putting green.
7. The Subject of your image
- The putting green, when in doubt shoot the putting green! This is what gets golfers all excited. Make sure you capture the undulations in the green; you show these with shadows, one of the many reasons you need to shoot at daybreak or sunset.
- A shot from the tees into the green
- Approach shot into the green, that means you’re in the fairway and if you were a golfer you’d be hitting your next shot onto the green,
- Shots from across the water towards the green
- Par three holes because you can often get the complete hole from the tees. This makes for a really cool image.
- The sprinklers going off in the morning over the putting green
- From behind the putting green looking across it towards the fairway
- The Clubhouse
- Images that could have been taken anywhere like a park
- Weeds, and if there are ugly weeds in an otherwise lovely shot, get rid of them in post
- Backs of golfers
- Average wildlife images
- Power lines are best avoided. Sometimes you can strategically place a tree between you and the power lines to get the shot.
- Clear skies are boring. Cloudy skies add interest.
Don’t shoot golfers without their prior approval. If a golfer hears the sound of a noisy DSLR during their backswing you are going to have a problem.
Decide if you are going to shoot at daybreak or sunset, then figure out where the sun rises and sets over the course. Where can you frame the most intriguing sunrise/sunset?
- The good news is your gear does not have to be professional grade.
- You can shoot golf course landscape images with gear that costs less than $2,000. I started with a Nikon D90 (cost less than $700) and a Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 zoom lens (cost around $500) a basic tripod, and a cable release. I had a decent camera bag, a LowerPro Slingshot which cost about $45, and a couple of memory cards. But that was everything! Those images I took in my early days are still some of my favorites.
- The brand of camera does not matter. I now own and shoot with Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Lumix, Sony and sometimes even my iPhone. But I didn’t start out with all this gear; I acquired it slowly over the years. I use different cameras for different purposes. And I rarely sell my old gear because as soon as I do I realize I now need if for some special project.
- The camera body does need to the ability to bracket, shoot in raw, and offer high speed continuous shooting.
- Lens selection – a wide-angle lens is the traditional choice for landscape. As I said, I started with an 18-280mm f/3.5-6.3. I now often shoot with a 14mm fisheye, which I put on a tripod, and carry a second body with a zoom that I handhold. I remember the president of my 1st camera club pompously lecturing me “Expensive lens are what separates the landscape pros from the amateurs!” That’s hogwash. You can create beautiful golf course landscape images with an entry-level lens. It’s everything else like light, preparation and artistic vision that separates you from the pack. You can’t buy talent and hard work.
- You need a decent tripod that has legs where you can vary the length. If I am on the side of a hill, I need to be able to have one leg be short and the other two longer. I also like a reasonably light tripod. I’m already carrying so much gear I don’t want my tripod to be an albatross.
- A cable release is essential.
- Get your sensor cleaned, and check your lens for dust. If you end up combining your bracketed images with an HDR program every imperfection in the sky will show up. You will save yourself a lot of post processing time if you take care of your sensor and lens ahead of time.
9. Camera Settings (We Photographers love our technical stuff)
- I shoot at the lowest native ISO my camera supports. For my current camera it is ISO 100.
- I shoot in raw, with my backup memory card set to jpeg fine, just in case something goes wrong with my primary card.
- I set my white balance to cloudy, this can be changed in postproduction, but I put a lot of thought into my starting point and I want it to best my chance of success with the least amount of work.
- I set my picture control to either portrait or vivid, I know some snob out there just gasped out loud when I said I use Vivid. Well I’ve tried them all, and I like the two extremes you can get from portrait and vivid. Portrait will give you the image with the least contrast and vivid will give you the image with the most vibrant colors. (You can also change this in postproduction).
- I set my camera to aperture control with an F-stop of f-11 or higher. I’ve played with f-2.8 and a long lens and I HATED it. I stick to the classics now. If I want the sun, or lights on the clubhouse to create a star effect, I’ll go to the smallest aperture available on my camera lens body combo supports like f-22 or f-32.
- I use bracket mode, one stop separation for each capture, and a minimum of three exposures. Sometimes I go as high as nine exposures with a one-stop gap between each. The downside to the nine exposures is on the overexposed side can take a long time, and I have messed up a series thinking it had finished.
- I use high-speed continuous shooting mode so that when I hit the cable release the camera to shoots the entire series. If I don’t have it set to high speed continuous it just shoots the first bracketed exposure, and I have to count and keep clicking the cable release, and make sure I don’t mess it up.
- Bracketing is crucial to my golf course photography. The dynamic range between the sky and golf course is often more than my camera and postproduction software can handle with one exposure. I’ve experimented with a lot of different bracketing settings. Today I use a minimum of three exposures with at 1 stop difference between each exposure. If I like the sky on the darkest exposure I will use just 3 exposures.
- I’ll go to 5, 7, or 9 if I don’t like the sky. I’ve read and heard some speakers say they want the underexposed image to go almost to black. I don’t do that, I just want a rich sky with lots of detail. Over bracketing is really time consuming. I don’t want to waste my time.
11. The Night Before the Shoot
- Charge your camera battery
- Make sure you have freshly formatted memory cards in your camera, and backups in your camera bag
- Pick your lens, and make sure it is properly attached and clean. The traditional lens for landscape is a wide-angle lens. Btw, I never change my lens out on the course, too much of a chance that dust will get on my sensor.
- Select your camera settings so you don’t have to be fooling around with them in the dark if it is daybreak. I pick the lowest native ISO my camera offers, aperture priority, an f-stop somewhere between f-11 and f-22. I use f-22 if I want to get a star effect from the sun. I set it to bracket a minimum of 3 stops, and high speed continuous shooting so that when I hit the cable release it will shoot the whole bracket.
- Pack a tiny flashlight, or if your phone has one that can work too.
- Set out water repellant boots because you are going to be walking in wet grass
- Take Kleenex, the cold morning air often makes your nose run.
- Pack a bottle of water
- Plan on wearing layers, it often starts out cold and gets warmer as the sun rises.
- Get your tripod ready, and attach the quick release plate to the bottom of your camera or lens.
- Attach your cable release to your camera. Since it’s daybreak, you’re going to be shooting in low light part of the time. It may seem obvious, but don’t swing the cable release, or yank on it or jiggle it. You want the camera to be very still.
- Get a good night sleep and set your alarm clock so you are on time.
12. The Day of the Shoot
- Wear bug spray,
- Waterproof or water resistant boots,
- Tuck your pants into your boots. You may be hiking in tall grass, and I have personally ended up with creepy crawly bugs up my pants because I didn’t want to look goofy. Suck it up and look goofy, it will be worth it because you will be comfortable and safe. I have also heard snakes inches from my feet. If there is tall grass, there is wildlife that you don’t want to take home with you.
- Be at the course early, and in position to shoot at least 30 minutes before you expect to start shooting.
- Get to your location, set your tripod up, make sure the cable release is attached properly, frame the shot and wait.