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10 Tips to Improve Your Nature Photography Skills

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Nature Photography - butterfly

Introduction

Unlock the beauty of the natural world through the lens of your camera with the captivating art of nature photography. From awe-inspiring landscapes to mesmerizing wildlife, this article explores the essence of capturing these remarkable moments.

As a landscape or wildlife photographer, your role is to embrace spontaneity, adapting to the settings that nature unveils before you. Like a seasoned Boy Scout, always be prepared for the unexpected.

This guide provides valuable nature photography tips, highlighting the significance of the right equipment—because nature’s magnificence demands lenses as diverse as its subjects.

Embark on a journey to refine your skills as a landscape photographer or wildlife photographer, and discover the secrets that unlock the wonders of this captivating art form.

Nature Photography In a Nutshell

(Nutshells are natural too)

1. Preparation

15 mule deer bucks in a hayfield
15 mule deer bucks in a hayfield

There is a long-standing adage in basketball that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. It’s the same in photography. Always be prepared. Have your camera battery fully charged, an SD card installed with ample space for stills and video, and have that camera resting in the passenger seat of your vehicle, in a bag at your side, dangling from your neck, or better yet, in your hand. There is no substitute for being prepared when that shot arrives.

I was driving west on US Highway 26 on August morning on a fishing trip to Union Pass, Wyoming. The sun was still behind the foothills when I spotted them, a herd of 15 mule deer bucks in a hayfield. I slowed the truck, so I didn’t spook them, rolled down the passenger side window, and clicked away with a 70-300 zoom telephoto lens. The image took first place for outdoor photography in the Wyoming Press Association that year.

Preparation, it is imperative.

2. Location

trying to capture an elusive wild subject

Location, location, location, it’s something you hear in sales, in real estate and it’s an absolute when it comes to nature photography. Location determines your chances of failure or success when trying to capture an elusive wild subject. Location ties with preparation in finding a setting with the proper lighting, a great backdrop, cover for you as a photographer to not interfere with the shot and hopefully, the arrival of your subject.

Game trails exist because deer, elk, moose, and antelope walk those trails, creating the path. As a photographer, you need to understand the habits of wildlife if you’re going to photograph them. Setting up near a waterhole is where you’ll see most African wildlife photos taken. You see the same thing with ducks on isolated ponds, pheasants near cover in the early morning, and bull elk on crisp, late afternoons in autumn.

A good setting doesn’t make the shot, but it greatly improves your chances.

3. Subject

understand the natural subject you’re setting out to shoot.

You need to understand the natural subject you’re setting out to shoot. If it’s wildflowers, you must know when they’ll bloom. The window for flower and bloom photography is tight, it only lasts a few days. The same is true if you’re trying to photograph salmon on their annual spawning run. They won’t be there all year, so you have to know when to arrive at your location, be prepared, and get ready to shoot.

One of my favorite subjects to shoot are hummingbirds. They are flighty, incredibly fast, and hard to shoot, but setting up and being ready for their timely arrival each day opens a window of opportunity. Studying your subject, scouting their habits, and learning their routines enhances your chance of capturing them with your camera.

4. Time

Time includes timing the shot, being there when the time arrives for a shot

Knowing your subject is one thing, photographing them when they arrive on the scene is another, and the final aspect is time. Time includes timing the shot, being there when the time arrives for a shot, the time of day and how that affects everything about your shot, and how much time you can spend on the subject before the opportunity is gone.

Time can be a friend or foe for a photographer. If you’ve followed the steps to be prepared, be on location, and know when the best chance for a photograph will occur, you’ve managed your time and you will get the image you’re after. If you ignore these steps, you might still get an image, since in the world of photography, the adage, “even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while,” is still true.

5. Background

Background

Nature provides the ultimate backdrop, but it comes at a price. You don’t have the luxury of setting up a shot like you do in a studio. The backdrop is often “busy” meaning there are distractions to the image, and even the focus of the lens can be affected by complicated backdrops.

Some of the best shots are skyline images of wildlife juxtaposed on a hilltop against a clear blue sky. A nature photography background can be as simple as the natural blue of the heavens above.

A blurred backdrop with a fox, wolf, bear, or other large mammal, provided by the depth of field setting on your lens will get the subject in crisp focus while the background is beautifully blurred to enhance the subject of your shot.  

6. Lighting

pre-dawn sunlight reflecting off a massive ice cycle one morning.

It’s all about the light, you know that if you’ve spent any time with a camera. Long, afternoon sunlight produces the best contrasted images, and direct sunlight overhead around noon is a photographer’s nightmare.

In nature, you don’t get many chances to use artificial light, but there are occasions. Most of the time the sun, clouds, and time of day all work for or against you. You must adapt with ISO, shutter speed, and white balance to compensate.

I caught the pre-dawn sunlight reflecting off a massive ice cycle one morning. By setting up my camera on an angle, adjusting the white balance, and then snapping images at different ISO settings the clear ice reflecting the sunlight became gold. It was fabulous.

7. Equipment

Equipment

Photographers are often hard to separate from hoarders when it comes to their equipment. They’ll spend thousands of dollars for a nature photography camera, hunt for one-time usage lenses and clutter up their bag, truck, and office with all sorts of gadgets. You don’t need to do that to be a successful nature photographer, but you do need a few key lenses.

The three most important lenses you can have as a nature photographer are: 1. A close-up macro lens, 2. An 85 to 105mm prime lens, and 3. A zoom telephoto, preferably 70 to 300mm.

After the focal length, you’ll need to look at the aperture. If you’re a daylight photographer it’s not as important as it is for those who capture subjects in dimly lit settings. If you’re going out in the early morning or after sunset, look for a lens with a fast aperture of 2.0 or better.

Related:
The 7 Best Nikon Lenses for Nature Photography in 2024!
The 7 Best Nikon Lenses for Wildlife Photography in 2024!
11 Best Canon Lenses for Wildlife Photography in 2024!
10 Best Nikon Lenses for Landscape Photography in 2024!
Best Canon Lenses for Landscape Photography in 2024!
10 Best Sony Lenses For Landscape

8. Setting

The setting makes all the difference in whether a photograph is bland or pops when it hits the eye

It might seem misleading, but setting and location are different things. Location is simply where you and your subject, with the background in place, are arranged, setting is how you stage the photograph. The setting makes all the difference in whether a photograph is bland or pops when it hits the eye. The setting incorporates the subject, the background, the lighting, and your shooting location and blends them all into a visual narrative. Setting generates the concept that a picture is worth a thousand words. A good photographer can tell a story in the proper setting. It is an esoteric concept, but the setting makes all the difference in the drama of a shot.

Drama, how an image affects the viewer is what you seek as a photographer.

9. Atmosphere

Nature provides that atmosphere quickly but capturing it on a still image or even a video is a challenge.

You can call it ambiance, but atmosphere is a better word to describe the scene when a photograph is taken. Nature provides that atmosphere quickly but capturing it on a still image or even a video is a challenge. The atmosphere makes the shot come alive.

An osprey captured as it breaks the surface of a lake with an unwary trout in its talons is an example of atmosphere. A fox kit enjoying the morning sun outside its den is also a natural ambiance in action, creating an atmosphere.

As a photographer, you’re often called on to capture not just the image, and the subject or to conquer the mechanical aspects of handling a camera, but the atmosphere as well.

Atmosphere separates the great from the good.

10. Lab

Lab

Our final category takes place far from nature. After you’ve traveled to the site, done all the proper preparation, and then captured a group of images it’s time to return home. Pull out the SD card, put it into a reader, and download the images to your computer.

Related:
How To Use Lightroom (An Intro To Lightroom)
How to Import Photos Into Lightroom
How To Export Photos From Lightroom
How To Remove Shadows In Lightroom
How To Batch Edit In Lightroom Classic
A Guide To Lightroom Color Grading
How To Blur Background In Lightroom

Cropping images is an art, but so is slightly improving, or possibly glaringly improving them with a quality photo enhancement program. The biggest improvement you can make with most photographs is in adjusting contrast, clarity, and light levels.

Too many adjustments and your images can become garish, and unnatural. These won’t sell in the world of nature photography. Be subtle and make just a few light-handed enhancements while trying to retain the pure image as it was taken.

Conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list and found some tips for nature photography that can help you on your next photographic adventure. The 10 practices listed above are far from the challenges you’ll face in the field, but they’ll give you a jumping-off point to follow. If you like this list, please comment on it.

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AUTHOR
Hey there, my name is James and I am the creator and editor of this site. I have been photographing for the past 20 years and my mission is to simplify this misunderstood art of taking and processing photographs I love. I invite you to say “hey” on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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