Tips for better nature photography. Shoot like the pros!

Nature photography is challenging, but with these few simple tips and techniques, you’ll be shooting dazzling photos soon.

Our definition of “nature photography” includes geology, plants, flowers and animals in their native environment. We’re ignoring landscape photography, choosing to cover that in a separate blog soon.

What is our single most important tip for great nature photos?

Nature photography best tip
Barnacles on driftwood are made beautiful by the warm color and soft shadows of "golden hour" light.

It’s all about the light! Get up and out early and stay out late

Generally, nature photos look best when taken in morning or evening, especially during the golden hours just after sunrise and before sunset, when light has a softer, warmer quality.

Your subjects illuminate more evenly, without the harsh shadows common midday. Cameras can only capture a limited range of detail between the lightest and darkest areas. That’s why your eye views a midday scene with beautiful blue sky and dark green leaves, but the camera likely captures this scene with the sky an expanse of white nothingness and the leaves completely black. By eliminating the dark shadows and harsh highlights, you’ll capture the beautiful detail your eye sees.

Sometimes you can’t control time of day. In that case, use your camera’s HDR setting. HDR (High Dynamic Range) extends the ratio of detail between light and dark by capturing three different exposures and combining them via processing software. Presto! What once was the magical realm of pros and serious amateurs (who did this meticulously in editing software) is now a tool for all to use.

wildlife photography tips pros
Get out early or late... that's when most animals are out and active.

Other advantages to shooting early and late

There are other advantages to shooting in the early morning or late evenings. Popular areas are less crowded, especially high-traffic state and national parks. We tried twice to visit Banff National Park’s Lake Louise during the day last summer, only to be turned away for lack of parking. We returned at 6 p.m. and had the place to ourselves. Being July, the sun did not set until nearly 11 p.m., so evening arrivals became our plan for seeing popular park areas if we missed the early morning alarm. Midday we hiked in more remote areas, enjoyed lunch and shopping in Banff, and napped on occasion.

If animal photography is your goal, aim for mornings and evenings. You’re more likely to score a great shot because generally animals are more active morning and evening, becoming harder to find during the heat of the day.

 

What lenses do you need for nature photography?

You don’t have to invest in specialty lenses to get great nature photos, but if nature is your thing, you will ultimately want to branch out with a wide angle, macro or telephoto lens. This does not eliminate those who prefer shooting with their phone. Many phones come with a separate telephoto lens built-in. It’s rumored that Apple will release an iPhone this fall with a wide angle lens. And many phones offer macro (extreme close-up) capability.

For DSLR shooters, a telephoto lens is likely your first purchase when acquiring nature photography gear. They have two big benefits: First, a telephoto lens gets you closer, allowing you to capture nature and animals from a distance without disturbing them. Zoom lens work great for this. Thorny’s go-to lens zooms 18 (wide angle) to 140 (telephoto) mm. If we’re shooting animals and need more reach, we’ve got lens that go up to 600 mm. They are a beast to carry but deliver dramatic images not possible otherwise. Second, telephoto lenses have less depth-of-field (amount of area in focus) than standard lens. This helps nature photographers separate their subject from its background. More on this later.

You can use digital zoom on your phone or point-and-shoot camera to get closer, but as you zoom the image quality degrades because essentially the software is just cropping. For decent quality, optical zoom is always best. Extend the capability of your current phone with third-party lens attachment. They are cheap and pretty good quality.

nature animal photography secrets
Try different angles. We plopped down on the ground to get eye level with this cutie.

Point and shoot cameras for nature photography

 Phone and DSLR cameras get the most attention, but point-and-shoot cameras can be great for nature photography without breaking the bank.

We use some combination of phone, point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras to capture nature images, depending on weather, weight considerations and what else we might be doing on a particular trip. For our winter trip to Yellowstone we loaded up the heavy camera and big telephoto lens. For hikes where we want a camera in case we see something worthy, but photography is not the primary goal, we rely on point-and-shoot.

The disadvantages over DSLR are a slight lag between the time you press the shutter and the image records and difficulty seeing the screen in bright daylight. The advantages – lightweight, waterproof, shock resistant – often make this our go-to camera for hiking or a city walk day. Another consideration: point-and-shoot cameras are inexpensive compared to DSLR. We’ve bashed our nice cameras into rocks more than once, and cringed as we assessed at the dents and dings.

We love the Olympus TG5 for point-and-shoot. In addition to the benefits already listed, this camera is great for underwater snorkeling photos and extreme close-ups of flowers and insects with the focus stacking function. The camera alone is less than $400. There’s a great kit on Amazon that includes wide angle and telephoto accessory lens and much more for just a few more bucks.

 

Do you need a tripod?

Most things we read are a resounding “yes” to carrying a tripod for nature photography. Our advice: only when necessary. We like to shoot multiple angles. A tripod tends to lock us to one spot. And we’re minimalists when in nature with regard to bulk and weight. Experiment with pushing up the ISO (sensitivity of the image sensor). Lower ISO is better quality, but we’ve pushed it to 3,000 and above in low-light to avoid motion blur. Experiment at home to determine what your tolerance is for high ISO versus quality. Thorny is okay with low-light images looking bit grainy. It reminds of the days of film (his youth). Others deplore any grain and would use a tripod to avoid pushing the ISO too high.

When a tripod is essential

  • Pre and post-sunrise photos that require long exposures
  • Daytime long exposure shots such as blurring the water in a stream or waterfall.
  • Video. One day we will purchase a handheld camera stabilizer. Meanwhile, a tripod is helpful to avoid video so shaky it causes motion-induced nausea. Because video does not have to be absolutely still, Thorny carries an Amazon tripod that weighs a mere pound and collapses to 16.5 inches.
flower photography tips
Look for a contrasting background to separate your subject from its environment.

Separating the subject from the background

Nature photos often feature a plant, animal or flower as primary subject. Separating these from the background means the difference in ordinary photos versus magnificent.

There are several ways to achieve this:

  • Move around until there is contrast between the elements in your frame. Maybe you need the sky as the background or maybe find a darker or lighter spot in the tree canopy.
  • If possible, create distance between your foreground and background.
  • Use a wider aperture (lower f-stop) such as f/2.0 or f/2.8. Focus on the subject. The wide aperture should yield a soft, blurry background. For point-and-shoot cameras without manual settings try the sports mode or action setting. Many phone cameras offer portrait mode. This accomplishes the shallow depth of field through software.
  • Use a telephoto lens. They inherently have less depth of field than normal and wide-angle lenses.
  • Game animals blend into the landscape, so be careful about your background. Wait to shoot a deer, for example, until it is outlined against the sky or a distant light-colored field.

 

Go slowly, softly. Stop and observe.

When it comes to nature photography, let these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson guide you: “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Patience is something that most of us don’t do well. We rush to see “everything” and walk right by the most amazing things.

It’s best not to disturb animals in their habitat, so be patient to get your shot. Waiting a few extra minutes can really be worth it. Study the animal or do research before you go out to better understand its behavior.

We’ve encountered a lot of birds and mammals when we paused, sat on a stump, listened and surveyed our surroundings. Many times, a movement or sound will reveal an animal’s location.

 

Small-scale photos: Moving in closer

It’s easy to get swept up in the majesty of all that surrounds you, but don’t neglect the small details. Each rock, leaf, petal or tide pool offers opportunities to photograph the minutiae. Be patient and soon, you’ll begin to notice all manner of interesting details.

There is a whole new world waiting for you when you get closer. This is where nature photographers differ from many other disciplines. When photographing details, try different angles to find the most interesting composition.

close up nature photography tips
Move in closer for amazing nature photos.

Capture your subject in their natural context

If you’re going to shoot nature photography, try to keep everything in the shot natural. There’s nothing wrong with taking a picture of the bird on a power line or spider on the side of your house. But if you’re after a powerful nature photo, photograph animals and plants in their natural habitat.

 

What else should the nature photographer carry?

On the photography side, a waterproof bag with extra cards and batteries are a no-brainer. Study the weather in advance and dress appropriately. It may not seem like weather for a jacket, but once you get in the woods the weather can change. Dress in layers. Hats, gloves and proper shoes can all prove useful. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

What about navigation? Don’t depend on your phone. Bring a current map and a compass, and learn how to use them.

 

Don’t ignore mobile duck and wildlife blind

In addition to hiking, we drive wilderness area roads meandering between ponds and fields. When visiting national parks, we hike during the day and take an evening drive looking animals. So, why is this important? Your vehicle acts like a mobile duck and wildlife blind. Most wildlife is conditioned to vehicles; it’s humans they’re more concerned about. Several of my favorite wildlife photos have been captured from our SUV. Drive with your windows down to increase the chances that you’ll hear wildlife before you see it.

 

Don’t get discouraged

Patience is key for nature photographers. Photographing just the right moment in nature can be frustrating. With lots of practice, you will start to notice improvements in your photos. We still learn every time we’re in the field!

 

Parting thoughts

Nature is incredibly vast and abundant for photographers. Having a sense of curiosity, adventure and willingness to get dirty all contribute to capturing magnificent nature photos. Respect for nature is paramount, however. It may be tempting to trample over vegetation to get just the right angle, but a good nature photographer leaves things as they were found, and never, ever feeds the wildlife.

Bring bags to take any garbage or other trash with you, even if you think an item is biodegradable. An orange or banana peel can take two years to decompose and eating these may condition animals to seek out human food.

Good luck out there!