Few things awaken the human spirit more than stunning nature photography. Whether a tiny succulent struggling for survival in a sand-dune, an albatross in flight or a thunderstorm over the ocean; great images awaken in humankind a sense of profound curiosity and deep appreciation for beauty, in all its multitude of forms and colour.
Getting that perfect photo though is often disappointing as what the eye subjectively sees, and what the camera’s lens objectively captures are almost always 2 very different things. Taking great photo’s is thus a matter of story telling, and that story can best be told by following these 7 tips to create truly immersive nature photo’s:
1. Rules of photography
A basic understanding of the rules of photography will go a long way towards getting the best composition; exposure and clarity from your photo’s. The rule of thirds is one such technique for getting the “proper” composition for your photo’s. Knowing how to correctly manage your aperture, shutter speed and ISO are also essential elements in getting a photo that is “correctly” captured. Just know that the “correct” settings and rules are guidelines and dependent on the image being photographed. Some rules can be bent, others can be broken.
Find the amazing in the mundane.Take for instance, a puddle of water in an empty parking lot which can be taken at ground level to resemble a vast lake amid a barren grey wasteland. Capture a person or animal in the background and it may appear that the subject is walking on water – use your imagination. Actively seek new perspectives, don’t be afraid to get on your belly in the sand to get that photo of a seagull next to an oil tanker that makes the gull look like an extra from a Godzilla movie…
Consider the sheer enormity of photo’s available online these days.To capture your viewers attention you will need a subject that truly stands out from the crowd. There are, for example, hundreds if not thousands of photo’s of the African Lion and, while the king of the African savanna is definitely a symbol of strength and power, it is arguably an all too common and overdone subject. There are however; exceptions – a fellow conservationist, big cat biologist and NatGeo cameraman recently captured footage of a pride of tree-dwelling lions in Uganda – an unusual behaviour for lions and thus of great photographic interest (for further reading, visit www.alexanderbraczkowski.com). Consider something less obvious but potentially even more visually striking e.g.a mottled and scaled agama lizard perched on a rock, a sprawling flower hanging precariously from a crevasse or a landscape comprised of stark contrasts.
Avoid taking a photo with multiple focal features as this may distract the viewer and put into question the original focal point of the photo – unless of course that is the intention. Use a framing object in a landscape photo, such as a shrub, curving branch, and so forth to give your image that little extra “kick”. Use natural or artificial leading lines, such as a river, clouds or a log that helps draw you into the photo. Whatever you photograph, always ask yourself, what is the subject of this photo, what do I wish to convey with this image? Close one eye. Does the photo still look immersive? Some of the scenes that I initially thought were amazing to the eye, came out as flat and uninteresting when taken through the single lens of my camera.
Using a shallow depth of field or wide aperture (f2.8 or wider) creates beautiful blur called bokeh. This serves to draw attention away from the background and creates a visually compelling image.Avoid a cluttered background with too many subjects, animals or people, especially if shooting narrower than f2.8, as this detracts from the overall feel of the photo.If shooting a landscape ensure that the foreground is interesting, and the background is beautiful. I find that a stunning blue sky and rolling green field behind my wildflower adds to the photo – provided I’ve kept clutter to a minimum. Again this rule can be broken if it serves the purpose of highlighting the clutter.
Ever heard of the “Golden Hour”? This is that hour or so after sunrise and before sunset where the most attractive warmth, greatest contrast and subsequently greatest depth can be added to your photo’s. Avoid shooting at midday as this is when images appear lacklustre and flat,and large amounts of blue light often permeate a scene. A polarising filter can be used to bring back contrast and reduce blue light, and lens hoods can be used to remove unnecessary glare from a scene. Thunderstorms where a stray ray of sunshine casts a golden hue on a rock-face can make for very compelling images, so be on the lookout for these weather events.
6. Be prepared
You’ve heard that old adage “the best camera is the one you have on you”, well this holds true. Mobile camera’s are becoming more powerful as the hardware and software that governs them continues to improve.The lightweight and compact form factor also makes them highly portable and ofttimes preferable since they live right there in our pockets. Keep your camera in your car, or on your person when safe to do so. Missing that Southern Right Whale breaching entirely out of the water can be a huge disappointment, especially when considering that it may mean missing the photo of the year!
There are times when we simply don’t have the time to take that perfectly composed or exposed shot. Good imaging software, such as Adobe, PhotoDirector and Coral Paintshop Pro help get the most out of our photo’s, and can either be used to restore photo’s or enhance photo’s beyond what was initially observed. Just make sure to correctly label, store and maintain your database and use sufficiently large file sizes (MP) and photo resolution (dpi) to retain the greatest amount of data for future use. A resolution of 600 dpi combined with a 12MP or greater file is great for large prints (A2, A1), 300 dpi for A4 prints while 72 dpi is often sufficient for web content. Make sure also that the image itself is large enough for the intended purpose or pixelation and grain will quickly become apparent.
Not only is this a near essential part of the contemporary photography process, but it is also where a great deal of creativity and artistic expression comes into play. Keep posted for another article where I’ll be discussing some common editing mistakes that nature photographers often fall prey to.
Nature photography not only opens up a whole new world of photographic possibility and artistic expression, but offers us the chance to reconnect with the natural world, break away from routine and enjoy the fresh air and great outdoors.
Follow these 7 tips to take your nature photo’s from so-so, to spectacular and remember, that any camera is only as good as the photographer behind the lens! Feel free to engage and comment on this blog and remember – practice, practise and more practise!