Today (15 June) is Nature Photography Day. What better day to share a nature photography post? Nature photography spans such an incredible range of subject matter, sub-genres, and techniques that there is something in there to appeal to most photography lovers, no matter what your interest, equipment, or current skills. Here are some quick tips from my studies and personal experience over the years. My top tip; however, is to just have fun! With the transition from film to digital and a camera in every mobile phone, experimentation has never been easier or more accessible. Why not play a little?
- Understanding Exposure. A ‘stop’ is a measurement of exposure, which is a combined function of your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings. The wider the aperture (bigger opening, smaller fstop number, shallower focus) the more light comes in for any given speed (how long it is open) or ISO (sensitivity of your film or digital sensor setting). Depending on your equipment, subject, conditions, and intended composition, how you use these will vary greatly.
- Aperture vs. Depth of Field. Larger apertures (smaller fstop) create a shallow depth of field, which can help to separate your subject from busy backgrounds. Smaller apertures (larger fstop) create a broader depth of field which keeps a greater portion of your image sharp and in the field of focus. This is particularly handy for landscapes, but is useful for including context with your subject in any style of image. Tip: You can also create isolation by using telephoto effect to help throw your backgrounds out of focus and alter the apparent depth in an image. Remember, fstop numbers get bigger as your aperture gets smaller - there is math behind that madness, but I'm not getting into that here!
- The Need for Speed. For still objects, with the exception of camera-shake for hand-held shots, you have the luxury of choosing a suitable speed for proper exposure based on your preferred aperture and ISO. For other nature photos; however, you may need to shoot fast to freeze moving wildlife or want to shoot slow to create motion blur, such as moving water.
- ISO vs. Noise. The more sensitive your camera settings are for incoming light to the sensor the more noise you risk picking up in your image. If you are working in low light, with fast-moving objects, or hand-held small apertures, you may need to compromise on having some noise to get the composition and exposure you want.
- Composition. What catches your eye? Look for interest and opportunities big and small, such as light, colours, patterns, textures, leading lines, etc. Not sure? Try experimenting with perspectives to find an interesting composition depending on your subject and vision. The human eye is naturally drawn to certain compositions, like the Fibonacci spiral or the traditional rule of thirds; however, rules are also made to be broken. Photography is after all, just another form of art. :)
Landscapes: Shoot wide angle for a sense of space, use a small aperture for a broad depth of field (clear both near and far), and keep steady to avoid shake. You may wish to use a lens hood to protect against flare and/or a filter for greater exposure control depending on your lighting conditions and subject. If your landscape includes motion, such as flowing water, consider slowing your exposure so blur can add a sense of movement to your shot. If opportunity allows, shooting early (or late) in low light can be particularly beautiful as well as help you beat the crowds in busy sites.
Wildlife: Telephoto lenses are handy to shot from a safer distance - better for you and for them! Shoot fast to freeze wildlife in motion and/or to minimise shake if shooting handheld using long telephoto. If you want both a broad depth of field and rapid exposure, you may need to compromise on ISO depending on your equipment options and the ambient lighting conditions. Just like you would with humans, if you are photographing an animal "portrait", try to ensure that eyes are sharply in focus. If you are taking high-motion action shots, switching to AI Servo mode (if available on your camera) can help track moving targets.
Plants: Plants are often best shoot in still conditions or in a sheltered location so that your subject is stationary, but you can take also advantage of windy days for bigger-picture images such as fluttering leaves or bending grasses. For close-ups, it helps to use a macro lens and, as always, keep steady to avoid shake. Still life is a great opportunity to experiment with angles and settings to find an interesting composition depending on your subject and vision. It is also a great subject for experimenting with manual focus (I know...) and this will be a must if you are keen to try add-ons, such as extension rings. The dandelion image shown above was one of my own initial macro extension ring manual focus experiments.
Want to know what I use? My camera equipment and software has evolved over the years, but, at present, my go-to is my Canon 5D and I also have a Canon 7D. Lenses vary, but for many of my plant and insect shots, I use a 100mm f2.8 lens. I will often take specific lenses for specific purposes - e.g. landscape wide angle, wildlife telephoto, etc or take a broad range zoom as an all-in-one compromise for travel or other multipurpose use. I have a fantastic Manfrotto tripod and I love the flexibility of a monopod for mobility, however, when I'm hiking I rarely carry anything other than the camera and one or two lenses. My Lowpro Slingshot backpack is perfect for that kind of photo excursion, and the single strap makes it super convenient to flip it to the front and safely access my equipment on the fly. So handy that my father bought one for himself after borrowing mine during a visit. :) The backpack is a good compliment for my Lowpro Passport Sling, which I use for a more discrete look whilst traveling and my ultra discrete "you'd never guess I have a DSLR in there" Kelly Moore purse-style camera bag. My husband gave me the B-Hobo Kelly Moore camera bag for my birthday several years ago and I love it (and it still looks fabulous!). In post, I use Adobe Photoshop for any edits, but often turn to Picasa (it's easy and free!) for making quick colleges. Don't let equipment stop you from experimenting with nature (or any) photography. It’s your vision and skill as the photographer that matter in making a great photo, whether it’s on a camera phone or DSLR, so play around and keep developing your underpinning photography techniques with whatever you have at your disposal. I'm always experimenting and learning! My iPhone gets quite a work out on random opportunity shots and I love the quick panoramas. The image below was taken on my iPhone during a morning walk with our dogs: