How to be a good nature photographer for little effort

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What-the-duck, Equipment doesn't make the photographer. © whattheduck.net

How to be a good nature photographer is a short article providing some tips and insights into what you can do to improve your skill base to be a good nature photographer.

No matter where in the world you live you will be close to nature and this is why so many people take up nature photography. In fact, worldwide, nature photography is the most common genre practiced by photographers. In short, more photographs of nature are taken than any other subject. This is a testament to our fascination with nature. National parks and nature reserves are filled with photographers trying to capture either the grandeur of a scenic or the wildlife which calls the park home. Yet, why do so many photographers struggle to make the images they really want? There are many reasons why this happens, some are complex and others are relatively easy to correct.

Before we get to the “good stuff” about how to be a good nature photographer and what you need, I want to cover what many might think is “the boring stuff” (mind you all my tips is “good stuff”!).

Correcting some of the myths

  • Equipment makes you a good nature photographer

Have you ever been to a location where other photographers are gathered, say for a sunrise shoot. You are all standing around waiting for that golden light to appear. You start talking amongst yourselves. Does the conversation turn to what camera you have or what lens are you using or perhaps what settings are you using? Rather than talking about the image itself, how the light plays on the subject, the clouds inter play in the scene.

What someone else is setting their camera to or what camera or lens they are using should be irrelevant to you because what they hope to achieve may not be the same as you, they may not see the same scene as you.

Have you ever been on location and a passer-by stopped and said “you must get really good photos with that gear?” As if the equipment goes out and finds an interesting subject and photographs it all by itself!

Yes quality equipment is important (without it you will find it difficult to make images) but having the latest and greatest (according to the salespeople at your local camera store) won’t make you a good nature photographer, just someone that has lots of expensive camera gear. Having that super telephoto lens for wildlife photography makes a lot of  sense but if you don’t know how to use it properly you will find your images are often worse. Using a super wide angle lens incorrectly has the same results. Each piece of equipment is just a tool to enable you to achieve certain aspects of photography, without the know how of the basics of  photography you are just carrying around expensive gear. The equipment itself does not makes you a good nature photographer.

  • You need to go to some exotic location to get the best shots

To put this bluntly, what rubbish! Think of it this way, you save up for that once in a lifetime trip to some exotic location, you have all the latest and greatest equipment, you arrive at your location and there is wildlife or scenic’s everywhere, every which way you look is picture perfect. You are all excited and you start to smoke your motor drive, filling your memory cards with wonderful images. You get home and discover you forgot to change a setting in your camera and all your images are under exposed. Perhaps it rained the whole time you were on location.

I often have people ask me “What is there to photograph?” or “Where is a good location to photograph?” If you need to ask either of these questions, then you will most likely take images that lack any emotional content. Without emotional content the image is really nothing more than a snapshot of time, void of any sense of discovery or wonder. If you can’t get excited about the image, why should anyone else? We should try to emphasise one part of the world, show what we have discovered and try to convey how it has emotionally involved us. Most photographers have difficulty in the technical aspect and how to convey what we see in our mind.

There are many exciting subject to be found locally if you look. The advantage of starting off locally is that it costs you little money, you can visit the location regularly over the different seasons, you can spend time becoming familiar with the behaviour of the animals or the play of light on a scenic subject.

By practising close to home, you learn more about your photography. You learn how to use your equipment at little cost.  Therefore when you do take that once in a lifetime trip you are well prepared.

It all comes back to the simple element that you have to understand the fundamentals of photography first, location in itself does not make you a good nature photographer.

Getting back to the basics

You are probably thinking “I know the basics, why are you telling me to go backwards when I want to go forward”. Well the reason I am saying go back to basics is because to be a better nature photographer or any photographer for that matter, you need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of photography. It’s that simple! Do you understand exposure well? Do you understand light and how it affects the image? Do you understand the interaction of aperture, shutter speed and ISO? Do you understand the principles of good composition?

Have you noticed I haven’t said anything about which camera or lens to use? That’s because understanding the fundamentals of photography is not about what brand of equipment is used or how much you paid for it.

Take Ansel Adams (probably the father of modern nature photography) as an example, he didn’t have a Nikon D4 or a Canon 1Dx camera, he didn’t have auto focus or image stabilization or auto exposure. What he had was a understanding of the fundamentals (the art and act) of photography.

To quote John Shaw “The act of photography is the capture of optimal data. The art of photography is the capture of optimal vision.”  What this means is that photography is a two part process, you need a good understanding of the operation of the equipment to enable you to capture optimal data but you also need a good understanding of things like the play of light and composition. This is the art of photography….your vision and what and how you want to capture that vision.

How to be a good nature photographer

  • Slow down and think about what you are doing
  • Simplify your images, the more you simplify your vision, the stronger your images will be
  • Use a quality tripod and head
  • Know your subject, read and observe as much as you can about your subject
  • Take notes of what you learn about your subjects
  • Be a better naturalist to be a better nature photographer
  • Get close to your subject except when it puts you or the subject in danger
  • Get up early and stay late to be on location at the optimal times
  • Don’t have tilting horizons
  • Don’t centre your main subject in the frame in most cases
  • Practice good ethics in your photography
  • Handle your camera often. If you don’t use your camera you will forget how to use it
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different techniques
  • Learn to use the gear you already own, rather than buying something new
  • Look at other photographers work and ask yourself how did they achieve the image
  • Don’t just make one image, try portrait and landscape formats, try different focal lengths
  • Practice what you learn

Now that you have some tips on how to be a good nature photographer, what else can you do?

If you find yourself still struggling with understanding the fundamentals you could seek out a local workshop or class which covers the areas you need help with. Don’t expect to come away knowing everything about nature photography at once, use it as a starting point. The quality of any workshop or class and what benefit you get from it will depend on a number of things. You will learn more  if the educator specialises in nature photography as opposed to someone that just takes pictures of nature. You need to find a person or business that is dedicated to the craft of nature photography and truly wants to see you excel at your own photography. This could be things like being there with you at daybreak or sunset to assist you. Does their style of teaching work for you? Are they able to give you  personal time to answer your questions. Do they offer you after workshop support?

For some, a photography tour can be a great help especially if you already have the fundamentals down pat. A tour should provide you with many opportunities to photograph subjects you normally wouldn’t have a chance to photograph. Again, who you choose is a personal choice. To really get the most from a tour (that to many would be a  once in a lifetime adventure), there are things you should look for in the provider. Are they a legal business that carries all the required licensing and permits? Do they have liability insurance? Are the leaders knowledgeable about nature photography and the location they are taking you to and the subjects you are expecting to photograph? It is very important that you feel comfortable about the leaders that will guide you during your tour. It’s guaranteed to spoil any outing if you don’t feel comfortable with the leaders. Do some research about the company you are thinking of using, check their expertise,  ask yourself whether they inspires you. Does their vision appeals to you? Would you like to take similar images or share similar experiences. Check their testimonials for what others have said about them (be careful here as what you read isn’t always what it appears to be). Are their tours inclusive of accommodation, meals and transport (many tours aren’t fully inclusive, you need to read the fine print)?

James Doyle Photography is one business which is solely about nature photography and takes pride in seeing my clients achieve their goals and aspirations and guide them on how to be a good nature photographer. Each activity I run is woven together to provide  photographic opportunities and an adventure in nature photography that will put you in the right place at the right time to produce great images and give you a set of personal experiences guaranteed to make you fall in love with nature photography and the different locations visited. You will come home with some images and a better understanding of the diverse ecosystems and fascinating natural history of each location visited. Each nature photography workshop, fieldtrip, tour or tuition session is about you, the client and helping you to excel. ( A shameless plug I know but I do really believe I provide quality over quantity).

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out my other posts and share with your friends.

Happy photographing and I hope to see you in the field sometime.

4 Comments

  1. Christine Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    Some great tips here…Thanks for sharing James.

    • James Doyle Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 6:28 pm - Reply

      Thanks Christine glad I was some help! :-)

  2. Tim Cray Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 4:57 pm - Reply

    A good subject is not the only requirement for a good or award winning photograph. There are various other elements that go in the capturing of a masterpiece. A majority of the photographers tend to concentrate on a few elements and ignore a few others that are quite crucial in getting the best shots that can be showcased by an individual in order to promote his or her photography skills.

    • James Doyle Tuesday, 26 November, 2013 at 6:23 pm - Reply

      Very true Tim. I wrote an article about Visual Chaos which talks somewhat about this, you can read it under the Nature photography Tips section.

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