The natural world, with its artistic flora and fauna, fascinating ecosystems, and endlessly inspiring biological occurrences, is a phenomenal world for photographers to explore. With a dizzying array of patterns, insects and animals, bodies of water, and geologic formations to document, nature is one of the most ubiquitous subjects found in photography. Nature photography is not just for the pros, however; armed with the right tools and a few simple tips and techniques, anyone can easily and beautifully photograph the earth.
Nature photography encapsulates anything that shows elements of the natural world in situ. Think: breathtaking vistas in national parks, a single plant sprawling out from within a concrete jungle, or even a nicely landscaped front lawn. The intent of nature photography is varied, depending on the photographer. Some choose to show the progression of plants in a personal backyard while others hike to hidden oases and show off the wonders therein. Nature photography is used to document the change of seasons in different regions, as well as call to attention environmental concerns like melting ice caps or areas suffering from drought. Whatever the intent, a strong sense of curiosity and wonder at the natural world is key to capturing those epic National Geographic-style shots.
Since nature photography is both about scale and about the details, a DSLR camera paired with wide-angle and zoom lens (about 50mm) is ideal, though it is also possible to capture beautiful images with a regular camera or smartphone, too. Tripods are a handy addition to the arsenal of equipment since they stabilize the camera and provide a valuable assist during long periods of downtime spent waiting for interesting critters to appear in the frame. Tripods are also a useful tool for capturing the same shot over a period of time, to create long exposures of things like cascading waterfalls, to show how the weather affects the scene, or to capture growth or decay.
Vast and impressive, landscapes are the most immediately striking subjects, be they flowering fields, staggering mountain ranges, or endless deserts. Terrain can vary from flatlands to rocky cliffs, overgrown forests to burnt hillsides. Nature, with all its abundance, can be overwhelming for novice photographers who are beginning to distinguish the many colors, textures, and shapes that occur seemingly at random. Making sense of a grove of forests with tangled branches or a range of boulders jutting into each other is the photographer’s job.
When focusing your wide-angle lens on such sweeping vistas, compose your image according to the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is a composition technique that helps a photographer position points of interest along an invisible grid. When looking through the viewfinder or screen, envision two horizontal lines and two vertical lines; placing your subject along the points where these lines meet will, in theory, yield the most aesthetically-pleasing and balanced image. Some cameras provide grid camera mode, which overlays the 3x3 grid onto the screen to assist photographers in getting that perfect frame.
While landscapes constitute the big picture in nature photography, there is also an entire world to explore that focuses just on the details. Each rock, leaf, petal, tide pool, or branch offers endless opportunities to photograph the minutiae of the biological world. Let your sense of curiosity lead you to seemingly unassuming spots. Be patient and soon enough, you’ll begin to notice all manner of interesting details. A tripod is particularly useful in these scenarios, since you might discover the perfect frame, but might want to wait to see what insects, birds, or other critters might scurry in or out.
Graphic patterns, like contrasting colors on a single leaf or the hypnotizing rings of a tree trunk, will also create visually arresting, if slightly abstract, close-up representations of nature.
Photo Credit: Dave Huth
Since nature photography is primarily focused on the outside world, lighting is one of the more important factors to consider. Direct, unfiltered sunlight creates harsh tones and lots of shadows–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on how creative you get with your shots. Most photographers prefer to shoot in the golden hour, which is just before the sun rises and just after the sun sets; the natural light is soft and indirect with a dreamy, romantic quality, which allows true colors to pop. Overcast skies provide mood and drama to images while natural phenomena, like storms or tornadoes, provide even more depth to nature photography. (Just make sure to stay safe!)
Nature is an incredibly vast and abundant subject to photograph, with ever-changing landscapes and cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. A sense of curiosity and adventure, and the willingness to get a little dirty, will go a long way if your goal is to capture magnificent images of nature at work. Respect is also key, however; while it may be tempting to trample over vegetation to get the right frame, a good nature photographer knows to leave things as they were found, and to never, ever feed the wildlife.
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