Most people who appreciate the beauty and restorative benefits of nature eventually pick up a camera at some point or other in their lives. Whether it’s a way to record a favorite travel moment, a stunning landscape or the spotting of a particular species of wildlife, taking photos can help you share your experiences with friends and family members or become a hobby you enjoy for the technical skills you gain.
While I don’t consider myself a professional photographer by any means, I do enjoy photography as an aid to storytelling. And, I like to choose photography tours when I do have the opportunity to travel.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a few tips from some of the best nature photographers around. Whether I’ve traveled with them, worked with them on a project or interviewed them for an article, I never tire of picking their brains to learn how to make the pictures I take just a little bit better.
Enter “photography tips” into a Google search, and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results. Common tips include advice such as “fill the frame,” “get eye level” or “use leading lines.” Below, however, I’ve gathered together 10 of what I think are some lesser-known tips from three pros that just might help you improve your images of nature.
Tips 1–3 from professional photographer Patrick J. Endres, Alaska Photo Graphics:
1. Go for the light. People often think that good quality photos are the result of expensive equipment. The key to good photographs, however, is not higher megapixel counts or the most costly image-stabilization lenses. It’s all about light.
Professional photographer Patrick J. Endres says that if possible, scout the area where you’ll be shooting ahead of time and know its lighting conditions: when, where and how the morning and evening light and shadows fall. Then plan to be there when the light is just right for the photo you want to take.
2. Experiment and broaden. When shooting wildlife, a telephoto lens can help you capture a close-up shot of an animal’s face or the detail in a feather. But while such photos are captivating, don’t forget to back off once in a while to take an image of the animal in its environment, too. Context can say a lot. Step back and look around. Attempt to place wildlife in a space, in time and place. Include some of the environment to help tell the story of where this particular individual lives.
3. A compelling foreground brings wide-angle landscapes to life. When taking photos with your wide-angle lens, Patrick suggests that you:
- survey the area and look for a foreground that is uncluttered,
- find a diagonal line to include in your foreground and
- get low, if necessary.
Tips 4–9 from professional photographer Rick Sammon, Rick Sammon Photography:
4. Eye contact with the subject can have an impact on the viewer. Rick Sammon says that if you look at Old Masters’ paintings, you’ll notice that in many of them the subjects are looking directly at the viewer. Whether you’re shooting people or wildlife, use this technique in your own photos to make them more engaging.
5. Covet the contours. This one is quite simple but effective: contours are pretty and make for attractive photographs.
6. Beware the background. Rick warns that it’s not enough to just concentrate on your subject; you have to look at what’s happening in the background, too. The background can make or break a shot. Basically, it should be there to enhance the subject. Focus and brightness are of the utmost importance, as well as separation between the background and the subject.
If the background is part of the story you’re trying to tell with the photo, changing your position is often enough to replace a cluttered one with one that attractively complements your subject. If the background isn’t part of your story, suppress it by using a wide aperture to throw it out of focus.
7. Negative space can be nice. Negative space is defined as the empty or open space around an object. In other words, it is the breathing room around a subject that helps determine how appealing that subject looks. When photographing moving subjects, Rick recommends leaving space into which a subject can “move.”
8. Dead center is deadly. When you’re first learning about photography, it’s tempting to put whatever you’re shooting smack-dab in the center of the frame. But, cautions Rick, that forces the viewer’s eye to get stuck on the subject, producing a static, boring picture. In contrast, when the subject is off-center, the viewer’s eye looks around the frame to see what else is in the image area.
9. Horizon line laws. When you have an interesting foreground, Rick proposes placing the horizon line near the top of the frame and vice versa.
However, when you are photographing a beautiful reflection, try placing the horizon line dead center in the frame—which is against most rules of composition (as in tip No. 8!).
Tip 10 from Natural Habitat Adventures Photo Expedition Leader Eric Rock:
10. Eric Rock’s rule of thirds. The well-known photography “rule of thirds” could be called the Golden Rule of composition. The basic principle is this: imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have nine parts. Studies have shown that people’s eyes automatically go to one of the intersection points in this grid, rather than the center of the shot. So, if you place your subject (or points of interest) in these intersections or along any of these lines, your image becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer to interact with it more naturally.
Eric Rock’s rule of thirds has a bit of a twist: he claims that you’ll finally get the shot you want the third time something passes you by!
Bonus tip (no. 11) from me:
11. You only have to please yourself. Sometimes when I’m out in the field and a wild polar bear or spectacular mountain range is right in front of me, I feel so awed and overwhelmed that I just pick up my camera and shoot. And I shoot a lot. I forget every tip I ever heard. And in the middle of all that mad clicking, every now and then, I get an image that I’m happy with.
And that’s good enough for me.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,