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The Basics of Nature Photography

by Cindy Marple | August 1, 2006

© Cindy MarpleAre you new to nature photography? Feeling a little unsure of how to get started in your quest to make beautiful images? If you want to consistently make good photos, there is a lot to learn. Fortunately, there are a tremendous number of resources out there to help you, but these can also be overwhelming to sort through. Here is an overview of the topics you will need to learn about from a nature perspective, and some guidance on the different resources available.

Let me start with a very basic statement. There is a difference between making a photo and taking a snapshot. Maybe it’s because most of us have had access to a camera for taking family snapshots since we were young, that it can take a while before that realization and transformation occurs (and sometimes it never does!). Making good photos is a “whole brain” experience. A technically perfect (left brain) image can still be unappealing if the artistic part is overlooked. But to achieve your vision (right brain) you need to know how to make the tools work. And it takes time to thoughtfully put all of it together to make the photo. Simply pointing and clicking will rarely get you there.

The Left Brain Stuff

Equipment: Cameras

In selecting a camera, first define what you want to do with it. Nature is a broad genre and different subjects may require different equipment. Some categories to consider are macro / close-ups, scenics, wildlife, and birds. Fixed-lens (point and shoot) cameras can be used for the first two but are generally not well suited for wildlife and birds, and will have limitations for any subject that you may find frustrating as you progress. A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera with interchangeable lenses will give you versatility and the ability to grow and upgrade over time. The instant feedback provided by digital as opposed to film will vastly accelerate your learning curve.

Here are some features to consider when comparing DSLR cameras.

Sensor size or “Crop factor” (field of view multiplier)

DSLRs have physically different sized sensors. Sensors smaller than one frame of 35mm film have a multiplying effect on the focal length of a lens. On a camera with a 1.6 field of view multiplier, a 100mm lens would be equivalent to 160mm. For landscapes, where short focal lengths are used frequently, less magnification is desired. For birds and wildlife, greater magnification will extend the focal length of your lenses.

Frame rate

This is how many frames per second the camera is capable of exposing. This is useful for action but not important for still subjects. The buffer size in a DSLR is how many images are stored in the temporary memory before being written to the card. Generally this goes along with frame rate; the faster you can shoot, the bigger the buffer you need.

Mirror Lock Up

In an SLR camera, there is a mirror in front of the sensor (or film) which reflects the scene into your viewfinder, and moves up out of the way when the shutter is tripped. The mechanical vibration of this movement can cause blurring of your image at slower shutter speeds. A “mirror lock up” mode allows you to move the mirror out of the way first, and then trip the shutter to eliminate this vibration. This is a highly desirable feature for close up and scenic photography but is one that many current cameras do not include.

Equipment: Lenses

For an overview of what the difference is between lenses, two good resources are Canon Lens and Photo.net. Another tip to figure out what you need is to browse through the NatureScapes.Net forum featuring your favorite photographic subject and check the lenses and focal lengths people are using.

Equipment: Tripods

A sturdy tripod is a necessity for the serious nature photographer. For macro and scenic work, you need the stability for fine-tuning compositions, as well as for long exposure times. For wildlife and birds, you need the support for the weight and size of the lens to achieve the sharpest images. Look for a tripod that is capable of going low to the ground, i.e., that has no (or short) center column and no supports between legs that limit this ability. Ball heads are generally preferred for shorter lenses and gimbal-type mounts, such as the Wimberley head, are generally preferred for super-telephotos.

There are times for handholding, such as when shooting from a motorized boat to avoid transferring the engine vibration to the camera, or for flight shots of birds. For handholding, a general rule of thumb is to keep shutter speed faster than 1/lens length. For example, with a 200mm lens, shoot faster than 1/200 second. With vibration reduction (VR) / image stabilization (IS) technology you can go a couple stops slower than this. To achieve best sharpness, support the lens with your left hand under the barrel, tuck in your elbows, hold your breath and squeeze the shutter gently using the muscles in your finger and not those in your arms or shoulders.

Equipment: Filters

The camera store sales person will try to sell you a Skylight filter for protection of the lens front element. The filter itself has essentially no positive affect on the image. A cheap (<$10) piece of glass placed in front of a good quality lens can degrade image quality. But it can also protect from blowing dust, salt spray, and an accidental drop. Best to get a good quality filter if you choose to use one, but ask yourself if you really want any glass at all in front of your good lens when you are shooting. Most nature photographers go without.

Other filter types used for nature photos are color correcting, graduated neutral density, and polarizing. The first two can be replicated in photo editing software and are therefore not as useful as they were in the film world. There is also software that emulates polarizers, but many of us still use the filter; it reduces glare, deepens the blue of the sky, and enhances rainbows.

Equipment: Flash

The need for flash, and type of flash, depends on your choice of subject. It is not commonly used for scenic photography or many wildlife subjects. Most bird photographers carry a flash along with a “Better Beamer” Flash Extender to increase the reach of the flash. For macro work, there are specialty flashes and flash brackets that are used to get light into very small, close objects. The pop-up flashes found on some cameras are not particularly useful for most nature photos. Learning to use flash well is a study unto itself, more info can be found on Moose Peterson’s site and in the article in this issue by Ralph Paonessa. Flash questions are frequently answered in the NatureScapes.Net photography forum.

Exposure: correct exposure

Achieving correct exposure is fundamental to making good photos. Most how-to books will cover the facets of exposure in great detail. The camera’s meter assumes the scene is middle-toned, not light or dark, and will give correct exposure for mid-tone. But nature is full of subjects that are not middle-tone, such as sunrises and sunsets, polar bears in snow, blackbirds, or white flowers. You must learn to identify these situations and how to compensate from what the meter indicates for settings. Compensation is done differently depending on what you are metering: the subject itself, a middle-tone object in the same light, or if you are using an incident (handheld) light meter. Pay attention to this when reading about or hearing about compensation; it will help you sort out seemingly conflicting instructions given by different people.

An incredibly useful tool on digital SLRs for validating your exposure is the histogram display. See Greg Downing’s article for more information.

Exposure: latitude

The other exposure problem you will encounter in nature photography is a scene that exceeds the exposure latitude of your film or sensor. If the difference in exposure from the brightest to darkest area of the image exceeds about 6 stops, a digital sensor will be unable to record detail in the entire scene because of the camera’s limited dynamic range. Either the bright or dark area will be rendered detail-less. If you can’t work around the subject to reduce this difference, in general you should expose for the brightest area and let the dark part go black. Artistically, it is more acceptable to our eye to lose detail in darks than in whites.

This issue is commonplace in landscape photography at sunrise and sunset where part of the scene is still in shadow and part is brightly illuminated by the sun. With digital, you can make multiple frames of the scene, each one with a slightly different exposure to capture detail in different areas. You then merge the frames together in your photo editor. See Royce Howland’s article on HDR. With film, the solution is to use a graduated neutral density filter. This is a piece of glass that is clear on one half and darkened on the other; by placing the dark area of the filter over the bright area of the scene you reduce the difference in exposure value to one which may be handled more evenly.

In some situations you may be able to reduce the difference with flash. If you have a subject in shade with a sunny background, you can use a balanced flash. With the camera in manual mode, meter the bright background and set the camera to underexpose it by 1 stop. Set your flash to no compensation. The flash becomes the main light to illuminate the subject, and the bright background is darkened by the underexposure, thus balancing out the difference in tonality.

Exposure: controls

Exposure is controlled in any camera by ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. Lower end point and shoot models may not give you access to these controls but SLRs do. These control settings affect the appearance of your image, ISO to a much lesser degree, as it is a rating of the sensitivity to light of the sensor or film. You change the ISO depending on the amount of available light, to give you the range in the other settings that you need. You may wish to set the ISO to steadily increasing numbers to increase the light effects, for example, as the sun goes down. The biggest impact with digital is that you start to get noise (speckles) at higher ISOs (low light). Usually you want to use the lowest ISO that will give you the shutter speed and f-stop desired. Shutter speed is how long the shutter is open, and varying this controls the amount of motion blur of a moving subject. F-stop controls the depth of field, or how much of the image front to back is in focus. These are critical in all nature photography; you will want to make these choices consciously in your image. Make sure you know how to operate these controls on your camera.

Speed © Cindy Marple

Depth of field © Cindy Marple

The Right Brain Stuff

Composition

Composition is the purposeful arrangement of the elements of a photo. Although it is highly subjective, there are some basic rules of composition that should be learned. These are tried and true methods (some are centuries old painting rules) that will give good results. Once you understand these rules, intentionally breaking them can give dramatic results. This website gives an excellent overview of the basic rules of composition: Fodors.com.

For nature photos, here are some additional considerations for composition.

  • Focus on the eyes. If your subject has eyes, the viewer will be drawn to the eyes as a center of interest of the image. As such, the eyes should be in crisp focus, even if other parts of the subject are not due to depth of field or motion.
  • Give room for the subject to”move into.” If your subject is moving, and you place it near the edge of the frame in the direction it is moving, the viewer’s eyes are taken right out of the image. Leave space in front of the subject, not as much behind it. An exception here could be if there is a trail behind the subject that is interesting, such as dust clouds or water splashes. Similarly, with a static subject, leave space in the direction the subject is looking, rather than having it looking out of the frame.
  • Pay attention to the background.
    • Avoid white spots. The eye is naturally drawn to the brightest area of an image. If that is not your subject, the eye will be drawn away from the subject to that bright spot. Look for white or bright objects in the background and try to eliminate them by changing your point of view.
    • Avoid horizons cutting through the subject. When there is an abrupt color transition or horizon line, try to place the subject entirely above or below that line or eliminate the line all together by raising or lowering the camera.
    • Watch for unwanted objects in the background creating a merge with the subject. An example might be a tree that appears to be “growing” out of the subject’s head. Try moving slightly, or waiting for the subject to move, to eliminate the merge.
  • Don’t clip the edges of your subject. If you’re going to crop in on the subject, crop in far enough so that it is intentional, don’t just leave the tip of a leaf or wing out of the frame. If your subject is standing in something where the feet are hidden, include enough space at the bottom to include the “virtual feet.”
  • Shoot at your subject’s level. This is particularly true for animals or birds, and will achieve a more intimate feeling than shooting down or up at the subject. It may mean getting down on your belly or up on a hillside. Of course the inverse of this can also be used! Dramatic angles, subjects photographed at a different perspective than normally viewed, can be extremely effective.
Backgrounds © Cindy Marple

Pay attention to the background. Avoid white spots, as the eye is naturally drawn to the brightest area of an image. Watch for unwanted objects in the background creating a merge with the subject.

Light

Light is another element that has a profound effect on the outcome and artistry of an image. The type of light and color of light are important factors in your image.

Backlight © Cindy Marple

Light can come from a point source such as the sun or a flash. This type of light has direction and casts shadows. The direction has a huge impact on your photo. When the light comes over your shoulder and directly illuminates the subject, it is called front lighting. This type of light renders the most detail in your subject and is commonly used for birds and wildlife. Light coming slightly from the side adds depth, dimension and texture and can be very effective for landscapes or to create a mood in the image. Backlighting is the trickiest to deal with in terms of exposure but creates drama and mood and can give very artistic results. (Backlit example, left.)

Rim lighting, that bright outline of an object that can enhance fur, spines or other textures, is obtained with backlighting when the sun is at a low angle. A starting point to expose backlit subjects is to underexpose a middle tone object by 1 stop. Then bracket (shoot at different exposures just above and below that) like crazy.

Diffused light, such as that on an overcast day or in open shade, casts no (or minimal) shadows and so has no apparent direction. This type of light is ideal for a situation where you want detail, as nothing is obscured in shadow. Close ups of flowers, leaves and other objects, as well as waterfalls, forest and fall color scenes are a few examples where diffuse light works well.

A more subtle aspect of light is the quality or color of the light. Light is constantly changing throughout the day, and can even change minute to minute in conditions where storms are a factor. You can greatly enhance your pictures by paying attention to the light and how it is (or isn’t) changing.

The time of day also matters. In midday, cloudless conditions, the light is bright and harsh. There are few shadows. Pictures taken at this time of day tend to look flat and lifeless. However, at the more northerly and southerly latitudes particularly during winter, the sun may never get high enough for this to be a problem.

Early or late in the day, when the sun is lower in the sky, more of the blue color is scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere and what comes through is more orange / reddish, or “warmer.” Between this warmth in the light and the dramatic shadows you get this time of day, photographers refer to these times as “magic hours.” The further away from the equator you are, the longer this special time lasts. Many landscape and nature photographers organize their day so that they are taking pictures early and late, and midday they nap, travel, or scout new locations. It may be a little extra effort to get up and get out early, but it can be well worth it. This has benefits if you like to photograph in popular parks or tourist locations, as these times will be much less crowded than midday!

There are also some situations where the light is noticeably cool, or blue. This happens in open shade, in overcast conditions, and at higher elevations, for example. This cool cast can be an important mood setter for your image. However it tends to be less desirable than warmer light for many nature images. You can “correct” this blue cast out of an image several ways. A warming filter (81A, B or C) can be employed when you take the photo. On digital cameras, you can set the white balance for cloudy or shade conditions. Or you can correct in photo editing software in several different ways.

Resources

There are many resources available for learning about nature photography, from the basics to advanced techniques.

Web sites

Of course, you’ve already found the best web resource for nature photography here at NatureScapes.Net! Check out articles and the online forums.

  • Fodors.com has short articles that cover the basics extremely well. It is travel photography oriented but has plenty of information pertaining to nature subjects
  • Photo.net under the Learn / Tutorials tab also has some good basic information. There is also some information about more specialized nature subjects like underwater and star trails.
  • Many of the pros have websites that offer articles and tips. They often also publish newsletters that are full of current information and updates. Also look at the websites of your favorite NatureScapes.net contributors.

Books

  • John Shaw’s Nature Photography Field Guide. This is an outstanding basic resource. It covers all of the subjects mentioned in this article in detail.
  • Joe McDonald’s The New Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography. Another basic resource with a focus on wildlife. This book includes an excellent section on flash.
  • Arthur Morris’s The Art of Bird Photography. A must read for those interested in bird photography.
  • Joe McDonald’s Digital Nature Photography- From Capture to Output. A new book on cd, intended for use in the field, it covers the basics with an emphasis on digital, including basic digital workflow.
  • See also the books section on NatureScapes.Net.

Classes

General photography classes may be available in your area. Check with camera stores, parks and recreation departments, and community colleges. Sometimes even zoos or gardens or other organizations in your area that provide adult leisure learning type of courses may include photography. These should be modestly priced but will not likely be strictly nature photography. There are also web-based classes available, here is one example: Betterphoto.com.

Seminars

A seminar is a lecture, typically to a large audience. Many nature pros put on seminars in major metropolitan areas from time to time. They are often day-long programs that cover all the basics. There will be a lot of information and examples but typically limited time for questions or personal instruction.

Workshops

Workshops are typically multiple day sessions with a low student-to-teacher ratio (less than 10 students per instructor, often far fewer). There will be both classroom time and time in the field. With digital there should also be ample opportunity for review and critique. This type of setting is probably the best for rapidly advancing your knowledge and abilities.

Photo Tours

Don’t confuse a photo tour with a workshop. A photo tour is designed to get you to a particular destination at the right time. Although the leader should be very knowledgeable and helpful, this is not typically intended to be an instructional event. The exception may be for some highly specialized technique to be employed. If in doubt, ask questions before you sign up. These are usually not cheap trips and you don’t want to be disappointed.

Camera Clubs

Most major metropolitan areas will host one or more camera clubs. Local camera stores may be able to help you find out about them. A few may be nature oriented but most will be more general. Clubs vary a great deal in terms of what they offer and their meeting format and frequency. Most, if not all, welcome beginners (new members are life blood!) Many will have field trips; some will have workshops or other instructional events. All will give you an opportunity to talk with other photographers in your area.

About the Author

Cindy enjoys photographing a variety of nature subjects, but birds are a current favorite. She loves to travel to see and photograph the amazing sights our planet offers. To share her travels with others, she regularly presents programs to local camera clubs and other organizations. Cindy supports the education and outreach programs of her local Audubon chapter with photos for a variety of uses such as a "Bird Bingo" game for children to play on bird walks. She writes a regular column and contributes photo essays for their newsletter. Cindy has been an active member of NatureScapes forums from the start, and has published articles on the site. She is currently serves NatureScapes as a member of the Editorial Team and as a Moderator in the Wildlife Forum.

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