Know Your Subject Intimately and Render it Uniquely

by Gloria Hopkins | September 29, 2011

© Gloria HopkinsEditor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Gloria’s photography eBook, Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers.

What is the key to making your nature photographs unique—to rising above today’s oceans of spectacular nature photographs? How do you get noticed in a saturated market? It’s simple, and for many artists it happens well before the camera is pulled out of the bag. It is the art of observation.

There is one person in this world who sees nature through your eyes, and that’s your edge. Nobody can see exactly like you, so it stands to reason that nobody can render your vision exactly like you. That’s the easy part. It is up to you to develop and nurture the skills required to make your unique vision a reality.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned for making images that stand out can be summed up in one sentence: know it intimately and render it uniquely. This is a simple yet tremendously valuable insight that makes perfect sense for painters and writers. It also happens to be very true for nature photographers.

It is common practice for many visual artists and writers to study their subjects intensely so they may most effectively portray their unique and special interpretation. For example, when walking along a trail, instead of remarking on the particularly pretty shape of a leaf, stop and look at it. Don’t pluck it out or harm it, but observe it. Turn the leaf over and look at it from different angles. Is it the same color on both sides? Anything living or growing on it? Is it rough, slick, wet, dry? Does the color or texture invoke any significant feelings or memories for you? Does that give you an idea for a photograph? There can be dozens of photo worthy things about the simple leaf, but would have you known had you not stopped? Surely you wouldn’t have seen them!

The ability to look for that which others would never see, and to look from creative perspectives are critical skills for the wants to give their audience something unique. Getting into the habit of really examining your subject is also very healthy for the artist within and helps develop your sense of visual awareness.

Image design © Gloria Hopkins

Photograph It Well

While photographing Sandhill Cranes from the back of Arthur Morris’ car one morning, I got a very nice close-up portrait of a rare Whooping Crane. He asked me, “Did you photograph it or did you photograph it well?”

Not wanting to sound dumb I said, “I photographed it well!” However, I hadn’t a clue as to what he meant.

He went on to explain that with birds it is important to understand their behaviors so that you can anticipate their actions. By learning about their migrations, feather molts, etc., you will better know when and where to photograph them. I went on to study Whooping Cranes a bit and the next time you can believe that I photographed them very well indeed.

How can you expect to photograph something well if you don’t know it intimately; if you don’t look at it from every angle; if you don’t explore and understand its relationship to the environment and to you? You need to view and photograph your subjects at various seasons and in different lighting conditions while creating a wide variety of compositions and images.

Natural Design eBook

Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers
Photography eBook by Gloria Hopkins

In early 2000 Gloria created visual aids for nature photographers called Composition Maps. These maps were received enthusiastically by her peers and proved to be highly effective tools for learning photographic design. They are featured in her first book Natural Design: Image Design for Nature Photographers. Natural Design has been studied at McDaniel Art College in Maryland for three years, and it is considered essential reading for the beginning nature photographer.

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About the Author

Gloria Hopkins is an award-winning nature photographer who has been designing visual art for more than 30 years. Her articles on composition have been published on the web’s largest photography sites and are reproduced regularly for educational purposes.

Gloria is currently working on her second book, Composition Maps, a book comprised entirely of maps of the photographs of world renowned photographer Arthur Morris. Gloria also reviews photography books and book proposals for Focal Press, an international photography book publisher.

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