Nature photography is a unique discipline within our hobby. It’s kind of a hybrid between a slow, more stationary situation like shooting landscapes, and melding it with a more dynamic and interactive process like shooting portraiture.
This is because the gamut of nature photography covers shooting flora and fauna (plants, flowers, and animals) along with their immediate environments.
You will be presented with challenges because of the array of subjects, and the fact that many subjects will not be static.
The best way to enjoy shooting nature subjects and produce images you’ll be proud of is to follow an old saying from the Boy Scouts…always be prepared.
Let’s get you prepared by covering 12 tips that will help bring out the best in your nature photography!
Bring the Right Lenses for Nature Photography
Figuring out the best lens for a particular type of photography isn’t an exact science, as you may have different goals for different shots. In general, however, you’d do best to use a lens with a longer focal length, possibly a zoom lens, with a fairly wide aperture.
This is for two reasons; first, you’ll want the longest reach possible, since some subjects, such as animals, will require some distance between you in order to observe and photograph without disturbing them or scaring them away.
Second, we’ll want to provide a sharp image of our subject against a creamy, blurred background if possible to make the subject pop.
This is accomplished by understanding foreground and background distances, and using a lens with a wide aperture such as f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.0.
Separate the Subject From the Background
Since we’ve discussed choosing the right lens, it’s natural to next talk about what the lens selection can do for you in the field, namely, shooting for composition.
For nature photography, which usually features a subject such as a plant, animal of flower, that means separating that subject from the background of the frame.
To do this, you’ll need to evaluate the placement of the elements in the frame, and make a few adjustments. First, you’ll want some distance between your foreground and background to separate them in the shot.
Use a wider aperture (lower f stop number) such as f/2.0 or f/2.8. Focus on the subject in the foreground. The wide aperture should yield a softer, blurry background that will make your subject stand out.
Crop Close on Textures
Opening the realm of possibility in your photography is simple if you just know where to look. Nature is known to be where we draw inspiration from with many things in life, from colors, to sounds, to patterns.
Some of the most interesting subjects can be those right in front of us in the natural world, just not as we see them. Zoom in (with your feet if you’re using a prime lens) and crop close on your subject..tree bark, a leaf, the forest floor, a lizard’s skin.
There is a whole new world waiting for you when you look closer.
For an even closer look, invest in a macro lens; these lenses magnify even the tiniest details, and can produce some truly otherworldly images.
Learn About the Subjects You’re Shooting
It’s often said that as photographers, we shoot what we love. So I assume you want to shoot in nature because you love the subjects (plants, animals and the environments they live in).
It’s probably not a stretch to think you already know much about these things, or you are in the process of learning about them.
It’s very important to do this, for a few reasons. First, we can better capture images of things we understand. The knowledge we have of birds, plants, and other animals helps us to care more about them, and therefore respect their place in the environment.
It makes for a more enjoyable experience, and we leave at the end of the day better for it.
Keep Everything in the Frame Natural
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but rather, a guideline to shoot for. If you’re going to shoot nature photography, try to keep everything in the shot natural. As a purist, strive to have animals and plants in their natural habitat.
There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of the bird on a power line, or spider on the side of your house. But you can produce a more powerful image by shooting these subjects in their natural context; on a tree, a leaf, or in a body of water.
What Kind of Gear Do You Need
We’ve already discussed lenses, and later we’ll touch on camera bodies. But it’s easy to overlook other items that are necessary or even just helpful.
Again, this doesn’t apply to only nature photography. Since some nature photo trips can be equivalent to backpacking or hiking trips, some of the same gear will prove more than useful.
On the photography side, of course your camera bag with extra gear such as cards, batteries and lenses is a no-brainer.
But how many times do you think people have ventured into a remote shooting location without their tripod? More times than can be counted, I assure you.
Also, don’t forget to wear appropriate clothing for the location and season; it may not seem like weather for a jacket, but wait until the sun drops behind the horizon. Plan ahead. Hats, gloves, and different shoes could all prove useful.
What about navigation? Don’t depend on just your phone. Bring along a current map and a compass, and learn how to use them.
But Don’t Think You Must Have a DSLR…
Having went through the appropriate gear recommended for nature photography, I’d append this with…shoot with what you want.
I’m sure some of us are tired of the phrase “the best camera is the one you have with you”, but there is definite truth in that statement.
With the incredible advances in mobile phone technology, amazing smartphone photography can be created with an iPhone or Android device. Smaller apertures, dual-lenses and optic zooming are all becoming commonplace features.
These allow you to create some pretty compelling photos even without a DSLR.
To see what’s possible, check out our article here, and see what others have done with minimal gear and tiny camera sensors.
Leave Nothing Behind
Another important tip is to be mindful of not just what you bring in, but what you leave.
It’s impossible to explain this without using the phrase “leave only footprints”, but as cliche as it is, it couldn’t be more accurate.
Be sure to bring bags with you to take any garbage or other waste with you, even if you think an item is biodegradable. For example, an orange or banana peel can take up to 2 years to decompose.
Respect the Animals and Environment
Some of these last few pointers have focused on more general observations about the experience of shooting photos of animals and their environment.
They all lead up to this one simple yet important requirement; respect the environment you’re shooting.
You don’t have to be a card-carrying tree hugger to understand the importance of not disturbing natural environments. Photographers are absolutely no different.
We should remember that we are photographing a sensitive world that is the home of many living things. We should also make every effort to have a minimal lasting impact on that world.
Use Natural Light to Improve Your Photos
As is the case with any natural light photography (outdoor photography using direct or indirect light from the sun or moon), nature photos benefit from the superior light available to you in the mornings and evenings in general, and during the golden hours in particular.
This light just after sunrise and just before sunset has a softer, hazy quality. It illuminates your subjects more evenly, and eliminates the midday harsh shadows.
Imagine a small bird in a tree, or even the leaves of that tree, if that’s your subject, softly lit with the golden hues of a setting sun.
This type of light can provide an emotional overlay to your images that is hard to reproduce otherwise. You can prove this by taking similar photos of similar subjects from the same angles and distances at two different times of the day.
Try one in the morning or evening, and one in the middle of the day.
You’ll immediately notice the difference in effectiveness of the shot. You might even notice a difference between morning and evening shots, with colour temperature changes.
In addition to the better light in general, there are other advantages of shooting in the early morning or late evenings. This includes the likelihood of the area you’re shooting being less crowded.
This is especially important in high-traffic “tourist” areas such as popular national parks and other landmarks.
Finally, if you’re shooting animals, you’ll more likely score a great shot during the mornings and evenings; many animals escape the heat of the day, and are much more active when it’s darker and cooler.
Try Different Angles and Perspectives
Photography isn’t about pleasing someone else, or appealing to someone else’s sense of style; it’s about shooting what makes you happy.
Maybe what makes you happy is making images that don’t stand out from the crowd. If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But if you do want to stand out, take the time to study other photographer’s work. What angles do they tend to use? What colors do they coordinate within the frame? How close do they get to their subject?
Try to do something different. Go against the grain, use a different angle, shoot a closeup where others would shoot wide angle. Nature offers us unlimited beautiful setups. Go out there and take advantage of them!
Bring Your Crop Sensor Camera Body
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If you have both a full-frame and crop sensor camera bodies, consider leaving the full-frame beast at home; lenses have a more pronounced effective focal length on crop sensor cameras.
This is especially useful when shooting animals. That’s because there is a distance you must maintain to avoid frightening or interacting with them. A 50mm lens on a crop sensor camera body will show a 1.6x effective magnification over a full-frame camera.
Are you a certified nature photography lover? What other tips would you give a beginner just starting out? And what are some of your favourite subjects and environments in the great outdoors to shoot in?
Join the discussion and comment below!
For more great nature tips, check out our articles on high and low key wildlife photos, seascape or desert photography.
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