Everyone loves a good nature photo. Whether it’s capturing the majesty of a bear catching a salmon as it jumps from a stream, the grace of an eagle skimming across a mountain lake, or simply the beauty of long, rolling hills in the afternoon sunlight, there’s peace and beauty in these images that can inspire and leave us in awe. It’s enough to want to try your hand at it yourself sometimes.
However, many people feel that they don’t have what it takes to be able to take amazing nature photos, either because they don’t have the right equipment or education. This couldn’t be farther than the truth. In fact, nearly anyone can learn to take the most breathtaking nature photos ever – all without having to spend years studying the art or spending hundreds of dollars on expensive, high-tech camera equipment. In fact, all you need is time, dedication, and to keep just a few important tips in mind.
The Rules of Photography
Pretty much anyone can take a picture, and sometimes you might stumble into one or two situations where those pictures turn out interesting, artistic, and enjoyable to look at. However, there are ways you can approach your picture-taking with an eye towards producing a higher number of better quality photos overall, and all it takes is to keep a few “rules” in your head while you’re lining up a shot. Luckily, they’re all fairly simple and easy to keep in mind.
One of the simplest rules – and the most versatile – is to try to avoid putting the subject of your photo in the center. This might seem like an odd thing to do, especially when it comes to nature photos – but you need to remember that the subject of your photo isn’t going to be the only thing in it. This isn’t like you’re taking a posed picture in a portrait studio with a nondescript background behind your subject; you’re trying to capture the entirety of the world as it exists around whatever it is you want to showcase, and one of the best ways to do that is to photograph your subject off-center. This will draw the viewer’s eye much better.
You can adapt this rule even in situations where you’re trying to take a picture of something far-off or in the background, like a sunset or a mountain range. Cleanly bisecting your photograph in two with a horizon line isn’t nearly as visually compelling as offsetting that horizon line either closer to the top of your image or closer to the bottom. Many photographers find it beneficial to separate the photo into thirds before clicking the shutter, placing the sky in the top two thirds and the horizon and the ground in the lower third – or vice versa.
There are other ways to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject that go hand-in-hand with things like offsetting your subject in the frame, and these techniques involve positioning yourself in ways that take advantage of your surroundings. If there’s a squirrel perched on the handrail of a footbridge crossing a mountain stream, for example, you can compose your shot so that the stream runs from one corner of your image to the opposite side, where the footbridge sits. A rising or falling diagonal line that stretches across a large part of your image will draw the viewer’s eye right to the bridge – and by extension that little squirrel sitting there – much better than if you just take a photo of the bridge by itself. It’s little tips like these that can make the composition of your nature photos interesting and exciting.
Quantity Leads to Quality
The old saying is “quality over quantity,” and for most things this rings true. However, when it comes to photography of any kind, the number of photos you take are going to be much higher than the number of photos that turn out well. There’s a secret when it comes to producing professional-grade nature photos: the absolute best pictures are the select few that a photographer actually got right. For every fantastic image of a rolling hillside, a babbling brook, or a family of deer through the trees, there are dozens of blurry, uninteresting, or poorly-compositioned photographs that never made it off the cutting room floor.
This might seem counter-intuitive to less-experienced photographers who simply assume that catching that perfect shot is a function of being at the right place at the right time. There is a measure of that involved of course, as some of the best photographs ever taken are extremely candid shots that were taken almost by accident. However, the pros know that part of being in the right place at the right time is to be prepared to capture the moment. Conditions change so quickly – especially out in nature – that if you’re not constantly snapping pictures you’re likely to miss something.
This used to be a major problem before the advent of digital cameras, as replacing rolls of physical film in a camera is a time-consuming, cumbersome, and expensive process, but digital photography makes it easy to continue to shoot dozens or even hundreds of pictures without having to swap out your camera’s internal memory card for a fresh one. With microSD cards reusable and incredibly inexpensive, your ability to take nature photos while out in the field is practically limitless, so don’t be afraid to take several pictures at a time. The more you take, the higher your chances of getting that one spectacular one; not only that, but the more you take, the better a photographer you’ll become! Practice does make perfect, after all.
You Don’t Need an Expensive Camera
Finally, you need to get something right out of your head now: you don’t need an expensive digital SLR camera to take fantastic nature photos. While it’s true that these highly advanced professional-grade cameras provide you with the ability to take incredibly high-resolution photos and to swap out general lenses for built-to-purpose ones like telephoto or zoom lenses that can help you capture grand vistas as well as the tiniest details, in the end the camera is just a tool: the photo is only as good as the photographer.
This isn’t to say that these advanced features don’t come in handy from time to time. A macro setting enables photographers to take highly detailed close-ups of flower petals, tree bark, or blades of grass, while a zoom lens can bring a little speck in the distance into focus as a raven atop a tree branch or a fox skulking through the underbrush. However, many of these features aren’t exclusive to expensive DSLRs. Many point-and-shoot cameras have at least a rudimentary zoom or macro feature, and even some cameras built into smartphones aren’t terrible either.
The fact that these inexpensive options exist has a democratizing effect on the nature photography world. While before you needed the skills to operate a DSLR – and the deep pockets to purchase one – now anyone with a reasonably-priced point-and-shoot or smartphone camera can take incredible nature photos in their own right. This doesn’t mean that eventually you can’t switch to a more expensive camera with more bells and whistles; if you enjoy taking nature photos and you’ve begun to take some truly breathtaking shots, it may be time to up the ante a bit to continue your growth as a photographer. Every professional nature photographer started as an amateur, after all – and even if it isn’t your goal to get yourself published in National Geographic that doesn’t mean that a nice camera isn’t out of your grasp for good.
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