The fresh outdoors provide you with endless photographic opportunities. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. Where do you begin? Where are the best shots hidden? What equipment do you need?
Based on my past experiences in the outdoors, I’ve come to realize that nature photography isn’t all as complicated as it seems. It’s really all about patience, perseverance and following a few tried and true techniques.
Let me share these with you.
#1. Know Your Environment
You may love the beauty – the smell – of nature, but do you really know it?
Sure, rushing out into nature and snapping away will produce some good shots. Vast amounts of photo opportunities will be left undiscovered though.
The only way to find these treasures is with knowledge.
If you’re going out into the desert, why not grab a map and navigate through the topography first? This will give you key indicators of where the peaks and valleys are. It will also show you two vital readings: east and west.
Based on this you will know exactly how the sun will fall onto the landscape. This is golden information.
The sun, you see, is your best friend in nature photography. Knowing where it’s at and how it’s hitting your environment will fully dictate how you expose and compose.
If you plan to shoot a nature area at sunrise, you’ll know that the sun is coming in from the east . By viewing a map of your destination, you’ll easily see mountains or ridges that may block this sun.
This will keep you from arriving at a scene and realizing that the colors of sunrise are blocked by a 7500 ft eastern ridge.
Knowledge of your environment gives you a solid understanding of light and how it will be when you go shoot.
#2: Accept All Weather and Channel Its Power
Countless photography manuals say diffused light is best. Others say direct sunlight is worst.
I like to live by a different creed.
When you love sunny days and hate rainy days, what happens when it rains for two months straight?
Why not, instead love everything. The rain. The sunshine. Lighting.
For only when you love all types of weather will you open your eyes to the beauty and majesty of all the elements.
Overcast doesn’t mean you have a bad shooting situation. Nor does a mid-day sun beating down on you.
It just means the light is different. You have to search a little to find the objects that do look good.
Diffused light increases color saturation, making for a great time to shoot portraits or flowers.
Mid-day sun produces harsh, high contrast light making for great black and white photography.
If there’s one thing you need for great nature photography it’s flexibility. Adaptability. Unlike the studio where you’re in full control, here nature makes the calls.
The better you listen and respond to nature, the better a nature photographer you’ll become.
#3: Get Out Early, Stay Out Late
Follow the typical behavior of most tourists visiting natural parks and you’ll face more tourist photo bombs than you can imagine.
To avoid these crowds, aim to arrive on location earlier or later than the rest. You’ll also get the added treat of crispy warm sunrise and sunset light. Tasty.
#4. Make Your Tripod a Third Arm
As a nature photographer, your tripod will be the most utilized pieces of equipment in your arsenal. Low light from sunrise and sunset, expansive depth of field, and stunning night landscapes all require sturdy tripods for clear, crisp shots.
Make it not only a requirement but a literal impossibility to go out without a tripod. And always have a backup.
I’ve broken every single tripod I own except the one I have now. Every time I broke one, I was mid-shooting in spectacular low light and without a backup. I still wake up in the middle of the night terrified of the great shots I missed out on.
#5: Be OCD With Your Tripod Placement. It Always Pays.
Once you set up your tripod, it’s easy to stay put. Don’t.
Play around with your compositions. Move your tripod higher. Lower. To the left. Right. If it takes several hours to find the perfect spot for your camera, so be it!
It’s better to come home with a masterpiece than a mediocre shot you wished you had spent a little more time on.
#6. Trails Are For Tourists
When I first got into hiking, most of my nature shots came out just like all the others I saw – boring.
Then one day I ran into another photographer with a fancy SLR and tripod. He was doing just what I was doing. He’d walk along the trail, see something, then drop his tripod and shoot away – right on the trail.
From that moment on I realized shots taken directly on a trail are what everyone else is doing! By forcing myself to explore other area and find higher or lower points to shoot from, I not only improved my compositions, I had a better hiking experience.
#7 Pinpoint Exactly What You Want to Showcase
As you snap away at nature, realize this. You are creating a visual work of art. Something you can hang up on your wall and show to others.
What do you think others would see? What would you tell them you meant to capture?
Ask yourself these questions before you snap away at nature. So many beginners rush outdoors and just shoot everything around them. And then they wonder why none of their photos are great.
It’s because they never took the time to pinpoint exactly what it was they wanted to capture.
Nature is jam-packed with trees, leaves, plants, rocks, and all kinds of objects. If you just point and shoot at everything, you’ll end up visually displaying nothing.
And you’ll have robbed your subjects of something vitally important: care.
Rocks, trees, plants… these things are sacred. Give them the respect they deserve and compose a great, well thought out photo! Think of what you want your viewer to see. Note the light and how you want to best expose for it.
When you treat nature with respect and admiration in this way, you’ll have no problem taking great shots.
#8: Watch the Colors In Your Frame
Camera meters are easily fooled by colors outside of a medium gray tonality. Bright white birds, snow, sand, and dark forests can all fool our camera to give us wrong exposures.
Watch the colors within your frame and adjust your compensation for brighter or darker tonalities.
When in doubt, bracket your exposures up and down at least one stop. This will give you coverage you can work with later, a valuable thing that has saved several photos of mine.
#9: Increase Your Odds of a Sharp Image
When you find a great shot, make it impossible to come home with a blurry image.
- Set your aperture to the right number that will produce enough depth.
- Bracket your focusing, shooting several shots with varying focus points
- Take a few back-up shots with a larger and smaller aperture size
While these tasks take a bit of extra time, it’s well worth the photo insurance.
#10: Be Aware of Focal Lengths
I used to struggle with this one all the time. I’d set my wide angle lens on my camera and end up shooting most every shot with it. This made most all of my photos look the same. There was no visual variety.
Looking back, I realized the cause.
I would walk around, see a beautiful scene and then decide I wanted to take a picture. I had no definite idea of what I wanted to capture, just that I wanted to shoot something.
So I’d pull out my camera with its lens on it and start scanning through my viewfinder for a good shot.
I was letting my camera lens pre-dictate what I wanted to photograph! This limited my creativity. It blinded me of other great shots around.
To avoid this from happening to you, try instead instead to see the picture before you pull out your camera.
Carefully pre-visualize what you see and how you want it captured.Once this is done, then find the right focal length for the job.
You are, in essence, putting the creativity fully in your eyes, not the camera’s lens.
#11: Just Get Out There and Explore
Your front door is the biggest obstacle you’ll ever face to taking great nature shots. To improve you really just have to be out there.
Only when you’re immersed in the wild will you see how nature works.
You’ll get a first-hand experience of light and how it changes ever so subtly as the day passes.
Each and every hour you’ll be forced to adapt your exposure to compensate for changing light. The colors of objects will morph from vibrant to cool. Horizons will go from blue to a spectrum of magnificence.
As you explore the wild, you’ll become bored of the popular trails and seek further, more remote explorations. And you’ll discover true wilderness. Untouched. Pristine.
Just get out there and shoot.
The more you practice and immerse yourself in the wild, the better you’ll get at finding and capturing beauty.
The outdoors are a challenging, difficult subject to photograph. Wild and unkempt, it’s up to you to find the right angle that augments the scene. It’s up to you to arrange and find structure out of chaos.
And the more you do this, the better you’ll get.