It’s 5:30 AM. The alarm rips you away from a pleasant dream with a series of piercing beeps. You slam the snooze bar down and steal another ten minutes of sleep. The alarm wrenches you awake again, driving you from your warm, comfortable bed. A cup of coffee and you head off to the woods.
Upon arrival a quick scan confirms your hopes of a productive morning. You’ve been rewarded with a blanket of thick fog and plenty of dew. Perfect conditions. You begin hunting for subjects and happen upon a dew covered butterfly situated on a delicate flower petal. You already have similar images in your file, but you stop anyway to snap off a few frames. You resume your search, scaring up a deer, who scampers away into the fog before you have a chance to lift your camera.
The sun’s floating above the horizon now and you decide to photograph some wildflowers. They’re backlit with golden sunlight dancing on tiny dew drops that cling to the petals. You have just enough time to make the photograph before the sun starts to become more of a hindrance than a help. A glance at your watch surprises you; it’s already 9:00. Time for some breakfast.
Is this a typical day in the world of nature photography? No. Commonality and nature photography rarely collide. That’s what draws so may people to this type of photography. There’s an exciting new challenge with each subject. It allows you to stretch your creative muscles and share with others what you experience firsthand in the outdoors.
One universal question budding nature photographers seem to ponder regards proper equipment. What is really needed for creating exceptional imagery? Surprisingly, the answer lurks as near as your camera bag. A significant portion of the equipment you’ll need is probably already in there.
Let’s start with the camera. Before I elaborate on the myriad of different gizmos and gadgets you should look for, let me mention the camera you already own is a very capable one. Great nature photographs are routinely taken with very modest equipment.
That having been said, I’ll explain what I look for when purchasing a new camera. I prefer an autofocus camera over the manual focus variety since the accessories are generally easier to locate. In addition, I favor a camera that incorporates a depth of field preview, spot meter, and mirror lock up. If my wallet allows, I go for a 100% coverage viewfinder and quick motor drive.
In order to get crisp images, you need to couple your camera with a good lens. Lens quality can determine if an image is sent to your permanent file or the landfill. Thankfully, modern manufacturing techniques produce extremely sharp lenses that offer a broad focal length range. A pair of zooms can easily cover a range of 28-300. Perfect for most types of nature photography.
Macro opportunities abound, and few nature photographers can resist the urge to attempt them. If you become serious about it, you may want to invest in a macro lens. For now, experiment with an extension tube (extension tubes allow your lens to focus closer) or a two element close-up filter (Nikon and Canon both offer these). It’s an inexpensive way to start shooting macros.
If I had to select the most important accessory for the nature photographer, I’d have to cast my vote for a sturdy tripod. The best equipment in the world is useless if it’s placed on a less than adequate support. The more stability the better. If you’re shooting 35mm, consider purchasing a tripod beefy enough to support a medium format camera.
The flash unit is an accessory often neglected by novice nature photographers. With the TTL flash capabilities of modern cameras, you can produce some stunning photographs. If you’re shooting small, fast moving insects or frogs, is can freeze their action and allow you to bag a prize photo.
Most modern cameras have automatic TTL fill flash control, helping you to achieve some incredible photographs that were more than a little difficult just a few years back. When used properly, fill light can make a close wildlife subject “pop” from the background or add a catchlight to a frog’s eye.
What goes into your camera is as important as what you attach to it. You’ve spent a small fortune on your equipment, so make sure the film you’re using will deliver the image you expect.
What ISO should you use? The slowest you can get away with. I shoot slide film and normally select 50 or 100 ISO. If you’re shooting print film, 100 or 200 ISO would be a good choice, 400 ISO if night is falling.
If you’re debating between print or slide film, remember your end usage. If you’re shooting for publication or group presentations, slide film is your best choice. If you’re showing off enlargements to friends and family, print film makes more sense. Don’t shoot slides to make prints or vice versa.
Experimentation is the key to film selection. Photographers frequently experiment with several types of film in order to decide what to use for various situations.
As exceptional as your film and equipment may be, they’re worthless without good technique. The most expensive equipment money can buy will produce only mediocre images if your technique is poor.
Crisp images are spawned from steady cameras. You must keep your camera still. A mirror lockup and sturdy tripod serve as your first line of defense against vibrations. To avoid jarring the camera during exposure, use a cable release or the camera’s self timer.
If you’re thinking of hand holding the camera-don’t. If there’s one constant in nature photography, it’s slow shutter speeds. Almost without exception, placing the camera on a tripod will improve your final image.
Once you encounter a good subject, you have to capture it on film. Success depends on accurate metering. The concept you need to understand is that a camera tries to produce a middletone from everything it’s pointed at. If it sees white snow, it tries to make it middle gray. If it sees black rock, it tries to make it middle gray. It wants everything it meters to be middletone gray. That’s the key to understanding metering.
If your subject is middletoned, you have no problem, just meter and shoot. Unfortunately, you usually won’t be that lucky.
Let’s say your shooting mouse tracks in the snow. Everything is white. Your meter wants to make it gray. What do you do? Add light. In this situation 1 1/2 to 2 stops. You can do this by means of an exposure compensation dial or switching to manual mode.
Proper metering alone will not generate a great photograph; it needs to be combined with an interesting composition. Avoid placing your subject smack dab in the center of the frame. Try using the rule of thirds, where you mentally divide the viewfinder into three lines vertically and horizontally, positioning your subject at the intersection of those lines.
Another compositional hint is to study your subject from all over. Rarely is the angle you first saw your subject from the best. Try examining it from a high prospective. Try a low perspective. Pay attention to the background as you consider your composition.
If it’s still not coming together, try a different focal length. Would a wide angle lens be better? Perhaps a telephoto lens could isolate a particular area. Remember, wide angle lenses tend to make things look further apart than they really are. Telephoto lenses make subjects look compressed and closer together.
Depth of field (the zone of sharp focus in a photograph) is always a concern. The smaller your lens opening, the more you have. How much is enough? Check your depth of field preview. When activated, the lens will stop down to the aperture you have selected. The viewfinder will darken, but concentrate on the focus zone, not the light levels. Adjust the aperture until you’re satisfied with the range of sharpness.
Thus far we’ve discussed the tools and techniques of nature photography, but not the primary ingredient – light. Without light, it would be more than a little problematic to get an image on film. Great light is the secret to great photographs.
Some of the most stunning images are created during the “golden hours” that occur an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. The light is very warm and directional, breathing life into an otherwise sterile scene.
Overcast conditions have appeal as well, producing soft, wrap around light that saturates the scene. Hard shadows and highlights are non-existent. The light is even and easy to photograph with.
Don’t neglect less than perfect weather. The soft light is often augmented by fog, rain, and snow. Some of my best images have been created under these conditions. Just remember to take precautions to keep you’re equipment dry.
The outdoors presents some of the most demanding, difficult, and rewarding of subjects. The best piece of advice I can give you for nature photography is to go out and do it. The more time you spend in the outdoors, the more opportunities you’ll have. As your experience grows, so will your selection of quality photographs.