Home > Photography Tips & Techniques > Ten Tips for Better Nature Photography

Ten Tips for Better Nature Photography

Ten Tips for Better Nature Photography

1.   Proper Technique Always Wins:  

You will hear photographers talk about “proper technique” until they are blue in the face.  You will also hear them say that without proper technique, even a top of the line $5000 digital SLR camera with a large $6000+ prime lens will not ensure that you get good photographs.  In fact, when using longer length prime lenses (300mm+), proper technique is even more important.  So what is proper technique?  I think of proper technique as referring to all of the things that you can do as a photographer to ensure that your camera is as stable as possible for every shot (ie. attempting to eliminate camera shake).  When doing handheld shots, it means making sure you have a comfortable, balanced, and stable stance or kneeling position, with proper placement of hands on the camera and lens, and proper placement of your arms and elbows with regards to your torso.  A proper stance will allow you to get better photos with less camera shake artifact and you will be less fatigued after a long day of shooting.   Another aspect of good technique is knowing when to use proper support tools like a monopod or tripod, and when to use features like wireless shutter release.   Many times, especially in lower light situations and when slower shutter speeds are required, a tripod or monopod becomes practically a requirement to get the best photo possible.

The group of photographers below all know the value of using a tripod when possible to eliminate camera shake.

2.  Composition/Point of View:

Before taking that next photograph, ask yourself “is there a more interesting angle I could shoot this from?”.  Composition and creative angles/point of views are part of the art of photography.  Some photographers master this more than others and as a result produce photos that stop people in their tracks.  Myself being primarily a nature photographer, I try to keep this in mind.  Many times this means that I will have to kneel or even lay on the ground to get a perspective that I feel will be more interesting or pleasing to the eye.   For example, lets say there is a bird on a low-lying tree branch in front of you.   If you take the photo from a standing position then you will be shooting down on your subject, a perspective that is a bit boring in my opinion.  However, if you were to kneel to the eye level of the bird, then you will end up with a more interesting photo.   The background is also something to remember to consider when choosing you shooting point.   It is difficult sometimes to remember to check your background before you take the photo when you are concentrating on the subject, but an awareness of background will improve your photos.   Of course some things can be removed in post processing by photo editing programs, but a severely cluttered background will detract from the photograph.  I took the photograph below while lying on my stomach in order to get at the iguana’s eye level.  This direct angle to the iguana’s eye makes for a much more interesting photo than if I had taken it standing and he didn’t seem to mind too much.

Below is a photo of a photographer, Tim Timmis, who isn’t afraid to get a little dirty in order to get an eye-level photo of his favorite shore birds.  His photos are pretty amazing and interesting because of this (in my opinion) but see for yourself at http://www.timtimmis.com/

3.  Look for the interesting photo:

This is sort of related to composition and point or view, but takes things a step further.  When photographing a subject like a bird or other animal, you can basically categorize photos into three types of shots.  The most basic, entry-level photo is the “identification” photos.  These are the pictures that anyone with a digital point and shoot camera could take and the ones that I quickly tell people “oh I just took that one so I could look the species up later”.   In other words, they are not very special photos but do prove that you saw whatever species the photo is of.  These photos will have average composition and average appeal.  The next type of photo, and probably a step up, are the portrait shots.  These are usually closeups of the animal’s face that will reveal details that are not seen by the unassisted eye.  For this very reason, there is an increased interest factor involved in portrait animal photography, since they reveal something that most people are not accustom to seeing.  Finally, the top-tier, grand slam, “once-in-a-lifetime” photos are the type that we should all strive for.  In order to get a top-tier photograph, you need to capture the animal in it’s natural environment (or at least without visible signs of human existence) AND capture the animal doing something interesting that most people would never have seen if you hadn’t captured it.   This top level of photograph take into consideration the subject, subject’s surroundings, the background, and how they are all related.  This is something to think about next time you are looking for your next best photo. 

Below is a pretty regular looking, “entry-level” photograph that I took of a Brown Pelican sitting on a wooden piling.  Overall it is a nice, in focus shot but could have been taken by pretty much anyone who owns a camera.

Below is an example of a portrait shot of a Wood Stork which is a little more interesting than the one above it because it shows the details of the birds unusual looking head and beak that most people are not accustomed to seeing.  The photo was taken in a what to try an accentuate the beak.

I wouldn’t call the photo below a “once-in-a-lifetime” shot but it does have an increased interest factor, with the reddish egret looking as if he is auditioning for Dancing with the Stars.   I think it’s the tango.  A photo like this is harder to come by and suggests that the photographer (me) had to do at least some planning and preparation to capture it.  Overall, there is pretty good composition and the bird is in sharp focus.  One of my own criticisms would be that I wish I had use a larger aperture to more effectively throw the background out of focus.  This would have eliminate the wood pieces that are a bit distracting to the eye in the background.

4.  Shutter Speed:

Understanding shutter speed is important  for multiple reasons.  First of all, high shutter speeds can help offset small amounts of camera shake when shooting without a tripod.  This is especially important with longer focal distance lens (300mm+) since every tiny vibration  is amplified as the length of the lens increases.  More importantly though, shutter speed gives you the creative ability to control your subjects movement.  Fast shutter speeds of 1/1000 to 1/1500sec will stop most bird’s wing movements in their tracks, resulting in a completely still image. I say most birds because some species like hummingbirds may require shutter speeds greater than 1/1500sec to spot motion.  Most bird photographers expect to see sharp results and a lack of motion in bird photos.  Only when it is in the creative or artist interest of the photograph should motion be allowed to show into the photograph (in most cases).  The risk of allowing too much motion blur into your photo is that it  might come across as just a poorly shot, out of focus photo versus the artist masterpiece you were going for.  I think there is a place for motion blur though and one of my favorite photos from my recent Wyoming trip is a panning shot with slow shutter speed (1/80 sec) of a bald eagle in fast pursuit of an osprey.  In this photograph (below) the speed of the scene and motion is definitely visible in the photograph and would only be possible with a slower shutter speed.  However, since it was a panning shot, the head (focal point) is in focus.

In contrast to the photo above, the photo below was shot at a shutter speed of 1/1250 sec, which allowed for the Brown Pelican to be completely frozen in time (except for the very tips of his wings which show some motion blur).

5.  Aperture:

Understanding aperture is another important aspect of successful photography.  From a practical note, it is important to also understand the aperture strengths and weakness of your lenses.  If you own a large aperture lens, let’s say a f2.8, but the lens is a bit soft when shot wife-open at f2.8, then you may want to force the camera to avoid f2.8 when possible by shooting in aperture priority or manual modes.   Also, know what f-stop each of your lenses is the sharpest…many”sweet spots” of lenses are at f8 to f9 (this is true for my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII).  Now for some of the more technical aspects of aperture…  Overall the aperture is going to determine not only how large the opening (diaphram) will be that allows light to reach the sensor, but also it will determine the depth of field of the photo.   Depth of field is a key concept to grasp in order to better decide how to manipulate your camera’s aperture to give the type of photo you desire.  First, understand that larger the apertures are actually represented by a smaller f-stop numbers (for example f2.8 is a large aperture), and this large aperture will result in a smaller the depth of field.  In other words, if you are shooting with a large aperture like f2.8 then there will be a narrow depth range that will be in focus both in front of and behind your focal point.  Your distance to the subject will also play a role in this, but that’s another discussion (In general the closer you are to the subject, the more dramatic the aperture changes with affect the depth of field).   The opposite is also true about aperture…  That is that smaller apertures are represented by larger f-stop numbers (for example f20 or higher is a small aperture),  and this small aperture will result in a  larger depth of field.  In other words, if you are shooting with a small aperture like f32, then there will be a larger depth range that will be in focus both in front of and behind your focal point.  If you are new to photography then read this again to yourself a few times and then get you camera out and experiment for yourself.  That is the only way it will make sense, as this concept is a bit counterintuitive at first.  Mastering these concepts will give you more control over the final result of your photos versus using a wait-and-see approach.  An example below shows two photos of a college ring.  The first photo was taken at a  larger aperture of f4 which has a shallow depth of field.  You will notice that only the central focal point is really in focus, while the rest is rendered out of focus.

The photo below is a photo taken of the same ring but this time with a  very small aperture of f51 which results in a  large depth of field.  As you can see, now the entire ring is practically in focus.

6.  Know Your Subject:

I think this is true for all photography but especially true for wildlife photographers.  Knowing your subject and understanding their behaviors will allow you to capture more “once in a lifetime” photos by giving you better ability to anticipate the shot before it happens.   You will hear this said for sports photography too…obviously it would be important to understand the sport before you try to photograph it.   It’s also important to know how skittish your subject(s) are by nature in order to get a better idea of how to approach and photograph them.  Most of the time this knowledge comes with time, patience, and observations.  Over time you will start to recognize patterns in behavior that can help you know what action might be coming next.  When trying to capture a truly unique photo, any advantage is helpful.  In the photograph below, I was able to capture about 20 in focus continuous frames of the juvenile yellow-crowned night heron catch lunch (from the initial strike of the water to the final gulp).  I attribute this photo to the fact that I was ready and waiting to start shooting when the action started mainly because I have watched these birds behaviors enough to know when their eyes are fixed on their next meal.  the sort of observation will also make you appreciate you subjects more as you learn the little quirks in their behavior.

7.  ISO:

Friend or Foe?…it all depends on how you use it.  In a nutshell, the ISO refers to the sensitivity of you sensor.  You have the ability to turn this sensitivity up from a baseline of ISO 100-200 on most cameras, all the way up to ISO 102,000 on cameras like the Nikon D3s.  The positive aspect of increasing ISO is that you have more flexibility to shoot in lower light situations.  The negative aspect of increasing ISO, is that you will see the effects of higher ISO as noise or graininess in your photographs.  The higher the ISO, the higher the noise.  This noise becomes more apparent especially if you need to crop your photos, and instead of a tack sharp image, you will start to notice grainy haze of the photo’s pixels.  Overall, it is important to find the useable limits of ISO for your specific camera model that will give you results that you are happy with.  Typically, larger sensor full frame camera bodies do better at higher ISOs compared to smaller sensored DX format cameras.  However, there is enough variation between each camera model that a photographer should discover his or her own ISO boundary for their camera.  Also, don’t forget to reset you ISO each time you are done shooting.  There is nothing more annoying than shooting at ISO800 or high all day in good lighting simply because you forgot to lower from the previous evening’s low light shoot.

8.  Understand your lighting conditions:

Know where your light is.  Sounds basic but this is probably one of the most important things to remember during every shot.  People have written entire books on lighting and how to use it to your advantage.   For practical purposes as a nature photographer, front lighting is what you strive for most of the time.  Front lighting is when the sunlight (or other light source) is shining on the surface that you are photographing.  When shooting outdoors, this typically means that the sun is behind you (photographer) and shining on the front aspect of your subject that you are facing.  This is the lighting I strive for in 99% of the situations.  It is also important to be aware of where the light will be during different parts of the day.  Depending on the access to various locations, you may need to plan a photography session based on the time of day that the sunlight will shine in the “right” direction.  Backlighting, on the other hand is when the light source (sun) is behind the subject and shining in your face.  In addition to being really annoying to have the sun blinding you and unpleasing lens flare that will likely results, backlighting is usually only preferred for silhouette work or to show the sun shining through a translucent object.  Most of the time though, back-lighting will lead to underexposed photos because you camera’s sensor is fooled into thinking it is extremely bright and choose the exposure accordingly.  Below is an example of “soft & warm” front lighting in the early morning hours.  In this particular photo (below) the knowledge of the location with respect to the sun was very important since there is only one direction you can shoot from (ie. there is only water on the other side).

9.  KNOW your equipment:

For some people who are a bit technologically challenged, this may be the hardest tip of all to follow.  Thinks of it like online dating…

First, you need to do your homework about the person by reading their profile carefully.  This is equivalent to reading your camera’s manual with the camera in hand or buying one of the many third party books that are published on your specific camera model.  If you don’t like to read then there are also instructional DVDs that will walk you through every function of you camera. These resources can really help you get to know the functions and features of you camera (ie. your camera’s potential).

 Next, you need to actually go out on a date with the person you are interested in to get to know them.  This is the same as taking your camera out and actually putting those functions and features you learned about to the test.  When I first got my camera, I actually made a list of objects/features that I wanted to test out with my camera.  Practical experience with your camera will help you remember what features are available and how to access them when needed.   Personally, I tend to forget things if I am not actively using them from time to time.  I think this is especially true of functions on your camera that may be buried in the menus…Speaking of menus, many cameras allow you the ability to customize your menus and function buttons to better suit you most frequent photography  needs or shooting situations.  Take advantage of these options!

Finally, if you like the person you start dating then at some point one thing will lead to another.  If “it” does happen then you will want to practice, practice, practice to make sure you are good at what you are doing.  This concept is the same with photography.  Going out to shoot only when conditions are perfect or only on certain days of the week will limit your progression as a photographer.  When possible, challenge yourself.  Make a point or even schedule  times to take photographs every day if possible, regardless of the conditions.  Obviously, this is almost impossible for most people who work, have families, etc (which covers most of us)…but it is still work striving for.  If nothing else, the more you shoot in different situations and conditions, the better you will understand how to manipulate your camera to suit those conditions and thus give you the results you want.

10.  Introduce yourself to photo editing software

Few photographers, none that I know, are complete purist and refuse to do any post-processing or photo editing on their photos.  On the other hand, the vast majority of serious photographers understand that at least some minor post-processing is a necessary part of the photography process.  Much of this need to edit your photos can be related to your in-camera settings.  Almost all digital SLR cameras today give you the ability to set values for options like saturation, hue, contrast, sharpening, etc.  Also different camera manufacturers have different ways of rendering the final image file that can lead to differences in features like image sharpness.  So, I would suggest that any beginning photographer find a program that he or she is comfortable with and use it when needed.  I think Adobe Lightroom is a pretty good and easily usable program that will allow you to do many edits to your photos.  On the other end of the spectrum of complexity would be Adobe Photoshop CS5, in which you to use for years and still not know every feature.  Personally, I find that most of my images will end up with at least a touch of sharpening and contrast adjustment before they are considered “finals”.   I tend to keep my in camera sharpness level at about the middle of the range, because I notice less noise/graininess when shooting in RAW than I do if the sharpening is maxed out.  AS far as my post-processing workflow, I tend to compare similar photos at 100% crop to find the sharpest image from that series, and then I edit that one photo.  I actually rename the image file after processing and designate it with a “F” for final and then a description like “ORIG” for original crop or “crop8x10” for an 8×10 cropped photo.  So after editing, I end up with one unedited file (ie Image2006) and one file with the added tags (ie Image2006F ORIG) that I store on an external hard drive and backup to burned DVDs every few months.  Then at the end of each year, I make a “year in review” photography book using Blurb.com (though any book printing service would do).  Each year’s book has a pictorial story of the years events and can be used as a coffee table book.  It becomes a real conversation piece when you have guests over. 

Well, I hope that some of you reading this found it at least a little bit helpful and learned something.  I know that many of the concepts were basic and perhaps common sense at time. But, when I first started in photography, I read numerous reviews, blogs, books, etc in order to learn from other people’s experiences and expertise.  Happy shooting!

For a pdf  (printer friendly) copy of this article click here: Ten Tips for Better Nature Photography by Eskue 

For more photos, check out my website at:    http://ksqphotography.zenfolio.com/


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