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The Basics of Nature Photography by Priyanka ,  Aug 10, 2013

Whether you’re taking a picture of a geranium in your backyard garden or a grizzly bear in the Rocky Mountains, capturing a great photo outdoors means working with Mother Nature, and not trying to impose your photographic will upon her.

So many factors come into play when taking a nature photograph … sun, clouds, wind, rain, sleet or snow … and if you’re photographing animals in their native habitat, you’ve got noise, odors, and movement to deal with.

"Close Up" captured by Heather

“Close Up” captured by Heather (Click Image to Find Photographer)

It can get complex, but the enjoyment you’ll get by taking nature photography seriously will far outweigh the extra time and effort you put into it. Rather than just clicking a snapshot of your sugar maple in all its fall glory, you’ll have a photo you’d be proud to hang on your wall as a piece of art. Or, you might even become so good that you’ll find yourself selling some of your better photos.

After all, everyone loves a great nature photo. It’s easy for viewers to put themselves into the picture. Even if they’ve never been to the mountains, people enjoy looking at pictures of mountains because it transports them, at least for a brief moment, to a peaceful place.

So in order to help you get the most out of the time you spend outdoors with your camera, here are five fundamental tips for taking better nature photos. As a photographer, I’ve learned that if you approach your outdoor photography with the right mindset, you are certain to succeed — oftentimes in ways you never expected.

Understand the nature of nature. There’s an old saying, “You can’t fight Mother Nature.” Plan on working with the elements of the natural environment you photograph. A backyard squirrel might not blink at the sound of your shutter. But a rarely seen black squirrel sitting in the woods 50 miles from the nearest road might run upon hearing the same click.

Animals, trees, bushes, grass … everything associated with nature functions uniquely in different weather conditions. If you’re looking for a “money” shot, you need to understand the conditions you’re working in, and the subject matter you are photographing.

"Fall's stained glass colors" captured by Michael

“Fall’s stained glass colors” captured by Michael (Click Image to Find Photographer)

I recall walking along a large pond in a forest clearing many years ago. I was looking up for a shot, but saw nothing remarkable. Then I looked down and realized there was a fantastic shot right at my feet. It was of some green algae that had formed in the corner of the pond. It was a beautiful color, and contrasted nicely with the water. It ended up being one of my most popular shots.

Be prepared. Study the area you plan on photographing, even if it’s your own backyard. Watch how the light plays on your flowers at different times of the day, and under different cloud conditions. Pay attention to the patterns of birds. Animals are creatures of habit, and weather and light is somewhat predictable.

The same goes if you plan on venturing out into the wilderness. Get familiar with the local surroundings by talking to locals, watching weather reports on the Internet or TV, and by just taking some time to familiarize yourself with your surroundings.

Know you’re equipment. If you’re trying to get a close up shot of a deer in the wild, even if you’re using a telephoto lens, turn off your autofocus, autoflash and motordrive. Get to know you’re camera settings, from the f-stop and shutter speed to the ASA and ISO settings.

Experiment at home and in the field. After buying a new camera, I like to take number shots just around the house, in a variety of conditions. Spend about an hour or so walking around your home and yard, instruction manual in hand, and try out all the features. Use different exposures and settings. Do this as a refresher from time to time as well. It is well worth the effort.

Be patient. Natural events happen when they happen. You are not going to rush that beaver out of his watery den any faster. The perfect glint of sunlight playing off your prize rose bushes will not happen any sooner or later than you want it to. Keep your camera at the ready, and don’t force the shot. You may arrive five minutes too late for a great shot, but you may be five minutes early for the perfect shot.

Have an outcome in mind, but be ready for the unexpected. If you go out looking for cardinals in the forest, you’re likely to find some. So be ready by having a telephoto lens, a tripod if necessary, perhaps a birding book to help with recognition, and something comfortable to sit on. Take food for yourself – don’t feed the animals! – and water. Picture the shot you want in your mind’s eye. You’ll often get something close.

But don’t close your mind to other possibilities. The sun may be absolutely perfect at that time of day, and you could get a stunning picture of rays of sunlight piercing the forest canopy. Ansel Adams’ famous “Moonrise over Hernandez” was taken while he was driving down a highway. He stopped the car, jumped out, grabbed his camera, took one shot … and nailed it because he was ready for the unexpected.

"Wildflowers" captured by Heather

“Wildflowers” captured by Heather (Click Image to Find Photographer)

I had a similar experience. It was night, and I was just walking around my area looking for a good picture. I had been walking awhile, ready to give up and go home, when a flash of light caught my eye. I came upon a building site of a multi-story building. The welders were getting in some overtime, working on the 8th or 9th floor. The sparks from their welding were arcing out from the side of the building and down to the ground. It made for a beautiful picture, and one I would have never gotten if I hadn’t been ready for the unexpected.

When it comes to photographing anything in the great outdoors, don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking you can control your subject matter. All you can control is your equipment and your knowledge about the subject matter. So with the right camera, an understanding of nature, and some patience, you’re likely to get the recognition you’re looking for as an outstanding outdoor photographer.

o what's the secret to taking good pictures in the wilds of India? Here are a few tips to keep in mind for beginners starting out on the tortuous route of Nature Photography. I assume in this article that you already have appropriate photographic equipment available. If you do not, and are considering buying equipment, remember to read the excellent reviews on photo.net

Always shoot with slide film; take a vow to never touch print film. If you cannot understand why slide film is better, see a psychiatrist.

  1. The first thing is: Learn to see the light. .

    Look for interesting combinations of: color, light (and shadow) and texture. The best light is usually morning light (warmer, yellow), late afternoon, or evening light (warmer, a hint of red to full red). Mid-day light can make shadows and bright contrast that are difficult for the film to handle. In India, due to high levels of dust, smoke and water vapour in the atmosphere, beautiful light is seen rarely; the rainy season is your best bet. If landscape photography is you passion, learning to the see the light is the single most important talent you need to develop. In India, that also means that you need to make the most of every oppurtunity available.

  2. Try new perspectives

    Get up close to the flower or bark of a tree; maybe only inches away. Look up, look down. One great rule is to look behind you; sometimes the best photo is the one you just walked by but saw from the wrong side. Freeze the motion of a waterfall with a fast shutter speed, or blur it with a slow one.

    Don't always make the main subject the center of the photo. Try the rule of thirds, placing the main subject of the photo in the left or right third of the frame.

    When photographing landscapes, give the photo a feeling of depth by including close objects in the frame as well as the distant subject. These also add a sense of scale to the photo. Find situations where the close in objects frame the further object. Remember to use a tripod in such situations. That will allow you to use the smallest aperture possible, giving you the highest depth of field.

  3. Get as close as possible to your subject

    Really close. Closer. Fill up the frame. It's easy to be too far away from your subject, but hard to get too close. When in doubt, get closer.

    Many beginning nature photographers are amazed when they see their first wildlife photo's. The animal they found, and painstakingly stalked and photographed are small dots on the film, barely recognizable. Very often there is simply no way to get a frame filling photo without good telephoto equipment, but there have been instances when I could have got closer but did not. What happened? First, our eye doesn't need much to identify an animal, a bit of grey in a sea of green ... oh, it's a rhino in the grassland. When you saw the animal, it filled your entire attention; you blocked out everything around it and saw only that animal. But the camera can't do that, it shows things as they are with all their imperfections. Secondly, keep in mind that when you take a picture, you're reducing the image when you photograph it. You see a bird, that is only 4" tall up close, and reduce it to maybe 1/4" on a standard print, or maybe 1/32 of an inch on a slide or negative. That's not at all like the photo's you've seen in magazines. Why? Because the professional photographer got close enough to the animal to make a print that may be larger than life size (an 8-inch tall Purple Sunbird!!!). Proximity is what impresses the viewer.

    How do you get that close? Part patience, part technique. A telephoto lens is almost a must. For professional looking wildlife photo's, you really need a 400 mm., 500 mm. or 600 mm. telephoto lens (which are equivalent to 8-power, 10-power, or 12-powers binoculars, respectively). These lenses are out of reach of almost all of us. But a 200 mm. telephoto (which is typically what most beginners have) can work well with deer and other big animals. But for smaller wildlife, a 200 mm. lens is not enough. You need to save money for a 300 m.m. or higher focal length lens.

    In addition, many photographers use a hide, a camouflaged hiding place. It may be a tent, a bush, a wall of camouflage material, a car, or even a window. The point is, the photographer lets the wildlife come in close to him or her. While using hides, remember that the welfare of the animal comes foremost. Nesting birds are very sensitive to intrusion, so be very careful.

    The one obvious exception to this get close rule is landscapes. While a telephoto can give you an interesting up close perspective of a mountain or a stream, a wide angle lens will most closely recreate what you're seeing. Your eye is able to take in an entire landscape at once, but your camera can only capture part of that view.

  • Use a tripod whenever you can.

    This is the advice that all beginners ignore, but you should not. When beginners in the art of photography meet, they fight over camera bodies. Pro's fight over tripods and heads.

    Take a tripod with you whenever you photograph. Many telephoto lenses are difficult to hold still. Telephoto's also cause you to lose some light gathering ability, so you frequently have to use slower shutter speeds. At any shutter speed slower than the focal length of your lens (for example, slower than 1/50 sec. with a 50 mm. lens or 1/200 sec. with a 200 mm. lens), you'll risk blurring the photo. You can minimize this by bracing your camera hand against a solid object like a tree or a rock, but that will usually only gain you one stop slower than normal.

    For the beginner, most any tripod will do. But the lighter the tripod, the more likely you are to take it with you. American nature photographers tend to carry heavy tripods, but that is only because they all have a car as an extension of their body. In India, where you have to walk everywhere, you need a light tripod. I find the cheap light ones made by Slik are quite adequate.

  • Travel as much as you can

    The best photo oppurtunities present themselves, only during certain times of the year, at any given place. So be ready to travel, to catch every place, at its most oppurtune time. The Valley of Flowers is the place to go to in August and September, Bharatpur in winter and Kanha just before the rains. Although you might want to go to the same place again, in a different season, to build a more representative portfolio, make sure your first visit falls within the best time to visit.

  • Take a lot of photographs

    Most serious photographers take several shots of the same subject, trying several different angles and exposures. Film is your cheapest investment, when compared to time and equipment. When you get your photo's back, you're looking for a couple in each roll that came out just right. iYou could give away the not so good ones to one of your local nature clubs, which are generally very happy to accept contributions of slides. A complement to this rule is to always have extra film with you.

  • Take notes

    Like cooking, if you can't remember the recipe you used the one time you got it right, you'll never learn enough to do it again. Try to note film type, location, time of day, lens used, aperture and shutter speed. Try making a standard form that you can fill out as soon as you take the photograph.

  • Practice with your camera

    You do need to use your camera enough that it becomes second nature to you. Many opportunities in nature photography are fleeting; you don't want to miss it because you couldn't remember how to over-ride the auto-exposure setting, etc. So don't limit your photography to nature; use your camera where ever and when ever you can. Marriages (not your own) are a good time to hone your photographic instincts and reflexes.

  • Enjoy your photography

    Don't get so wrapped up in photographing that you forget to enjoy what you're seeing. A photograph is a poor substitute for being there, so enjoy it while your'e there. Make photography part of the overall fun, not an end in itself. As you progress in your work, you will need to share your ideas and experiences with others - the photo.net Nature Photography Pages provide the best resource on the Web.

  • Read books

    There are many good books on Nature photography available. But my favourites are the four books by John Shaw, to whom many of the ideas mentioned above, owe their origin. If you must buy only one book on photography, buy the first one listed below. It is worth the price, just for the photographs.

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