What is Nature Photography or being a Nature Photographer? It may surprise you.
When people talk about nature photography as a style of photography, what do they actually mean? As a nature photographer myself, in this short article I want to explore what I believe is the true genre of nature photography and why I feel committed nature photographers get the short end of the stick in the wider public view. I also would like to explore why I feel that nature photography is possibly one of the hardest genres of photography to master well and some of the complexities it involves.
Wikipedia describes nature photography as;
Nature photography refers to a wide range of photography taken outdoors and devoted to displaying natural elements such as landscapes, wildlife, plants, and close-ups of natural scenes and textures. Nature photography tends to put a stronger emphasis on the aesthetic value of the photo than other photography genres, such as photojournalism and documentary photography.
For me personally, I believe this definition is fairly close but it doesn’t hint to the complexities involved in capturing “great” natural history images. I firmly believe nature photography is one of the hardest genres to master and can take years to accomplish consistent results.
From Wikipedia’s definition, I would break down this genre into sub genres, as the sub genre are in many ways a speciality in their own right. I would define nature photography as;
Nature Photography is a genre of photography which depicts elements of the natural world in a photographic process which can be broken down into speciality fields.
That is to say, within the nature photography genre, you as a nature photographer could specialize in any of the following sub genres and yet not practice or be skilled any of the others areas;
Generalist Nature Photographer
Someone who photographs all elements of the natural world and specialises in no particular sub genre
Someone who specialises in wide scenic images such as those made famous by Ansell Adams or Ken Duncan to name a few.
- Within this genre I believe there is also a sub genre, Scenic Photographer:
Someone who specialises in scenic images, such as general scenic images which aren’t comprised of the broad wide scenes generally associated with landscapes images.
Someone who specialises in photographing subjects in high magnification (greater than life size or 1:1).
- Within this genre I believe there is also a sub genre, Close-up Photographer:
Someone who specialises in photographing subjects between 10:1, down to life size (1:1). This is where most photographers are referring to themselves as macro photographers.
Someone who specialises in photographing birds including waterfowl, waders, shorebirds and songbirds.
Someone who specialises in photographing wildlife including mammals, amphibians, reptiles and the like.
Someone who photographs the marine environment and the creature which live below the water.
So now we have a list of sub genres to nature photography, what does it all mean?
Well if you were to take any of the above examples, you would find it hard to be an expert in all of them. Each has its own unique skill sets to master.
As an example, if you were an avian photographer specialising in small birds, the equipment you may require is expensive, such as super telephoto lenses. These lenses are somewhat difficult to master by themselves. They are heavy, easily vibrate in the slightest breeze or movement, they pick up heat haze. So to use a big piece of glass like this isn’t like using a “standard lens”.
Birds can be difficult to get close to, so it is an advantage to understand the birds behavioural patterns you are targeting, so you can plan to be in the right place at the right time. Becoming a better naturalist!
This all takes time and practice and even then there is no guarantee your subject will co-operate.
You can’t really control the weather. You might go out for a morning session and the clouds roll in and your light is gone to a dull flat light. What do you do? Come back another day when the light is more favourable.
I couldn’t count how many times I have gone to a location, scouted the place out, and come back the next day only to find the subjects I wanted to photograph aren’t there any longer. It is disheartening for sure but we can’t control what nature does. We can only come back another time.
There is an old saying that goes something like this “nature photographers rise early, stay late and sleep at midday”. There is a lot of truth in this, the best light is early morning and late afternoon. The wildlife is most active early morning or late afternoon. So if you sleep in until 8 am or come home at 5 pm then you are missing the best opportunities. A friend and diehard avian photographer often quotes a phrase “You snooze, you lose!” Very true when it comes to nature photography.
These are just some of the “norms” of nature photography that anyone that has persevered over the years will relate to all to easily. There just isn’t any quick fix that will turn you into a successful nature photographer overnight.
Nature photography or being a nature photographer isn’t about what equipment you own. Whether you have the words nature photographer on your business card or website. It’s a lifestyle which commands a lot of hard work, early morning rises and staying late when you’re hungry. It requires persistence, patience, knowledge of the natural world and a separate set of skills for each sub genre (specialty) of nature photography.
Even then there are no guarantees that you will come home with memory cards filled with wonderful photos of nature. Nature can be a hard teacher sometimes but it will reward those that look after it and are persistent in their endeavours.
Be a role model to others and practice ethical nature photography.
I believe what a friend and fellow wildlife photographer, Doug Gardner, always says “it’s not just about the photograph, it’s about the outdoor experience”. That’s the difference between nature photography and other genres of photography. Nature photographers do it as a lifestyle choice, where they get dirty, tied, often cold and wet, battered by all sorts of things nature can throw their way but they get up the next day to do it all over again!
So maybe it’s time we try to understand and appreciate a little more the dedication and commitment nature photographers put towards all those wonderful photos you admire.
Thank a nature photographer next time you see their photos online or see them in the field and appreciate it’s not as easy as it looks!
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May your viewfinder be filled with wonderful images of nature and I hope to see you in the field.