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 Nature Photography :: Publications :: Backyard Safari

Ran by Digital Photography + Design magazine, Feb 05

Most nature photographers dream of flying to the world’s exotic places in search of great nature photos, when in reality they need go no further than their own backyard.

Now anyone who knows my circumstances may say “That’s all very well, but your backyard is the entire continent of Australia”. That’s true, and I admit that it doesn’t do any harm to go far afield, but it’s not necessary for the production of good photographs. The average Australian backyard has millions of creatures, flowers, and abstractions, all just waiting to be captured on silicon.

I’ve been saying this for years, recently however I felt the need to test the point. Could I really make good photos within the restricted environment of a suburban house block?

To do this I had to find a backyard. Fortunately I was staying with my father at the time, so his yard was the obvious choice. For three weeks I only photographed around his house and in the immediate vicinity. Once or twice a day I would venture from the safety of the lounge room into the wilds of his veggie patch, or paw paw tree forest, hunting some of the world’s fiercest creatures.

I returned only when I had a full CF card, it got too hot, or lunch was ready. Not once did I fail to capture several good photos; the diversity of plant, animal and insect life, and my willingness to look, saw to that.

In fact I was taking so many photos that I had to take some days off to catch up with the cataloguing. It seemed that everywhere I looked I saw something worth photographing. Which brings me to my tips for good backyard photography. To take a good photo you have to see it first, and to see it you have to look.

Look up
Most of us walk around looking at our normal five-foot-something level. Try looking up into the branches. Don’t have any branches?, what about the house eaves, I’d almost lay money on there being a spider in residence, or a mud wasp nest clinging to the Hardiplank.
If your mobility allows, and you have appropriate trees, get up into them. You would be amazed at the number of critters hiding for the day in a dark nook.

Look down
What’s under your feet? Maybe a single dandelion seed has landed on a bright green leaf. The radiant patterns formed by some weeds look great as well, take a few shots, then pull them out. Once pulled out, maybe the large tap root will look good when backlit.
Stand and look at the grass for a moment, does anything move?, if so it’s probably your next subject.

Look under
Now it’s time to get dirty. Lie on the ground and look up at the underside of some leaves. How do the veins looks when backlit by the sun? What insects are hiding from the birds? With your camera on the ground, photograph a daisy with the blue sky and an out-of-focus tree in the background. Is this how a mouse sees the world?

Look closely
Look very closely, and take your time. Decide to spend ten minutes examining a small shrub. Look at every leaf. It’s likely that you will still be there an hour later, photographing the patterns and bugs you see.

Just look
Are you getting the idea? Photography is mostly a process of seeing “things”, a leaf is not just a leaf, it’s an interesting shape, and it’s a shape that changes texture and form depending on where you view it from, and how the light strikes it.

Get the neighbours involved
There are two reasons to get your neighbours involved with what you’re doing. Firstly they are less likely to call the police when they see you acting “suspiciously” in the bushes on the nature strip.
Secondly they can make good “spotters”. Once they see how interested you are it’s quite likely they will phone you with news of a lizard that’s basking around their pool, or tell you when their rare plant that flowers only one day a year is blooming.

Naturally it’s good manners to slip a few prints their way.

What equipment do I need?
The good news it that almost any modern digital camera is capable of producing fine close up photos. Naturally, with close subjects, you must be able to see directly through the lens, or parallax problems will be an issue. For this reason your camera must at least have a real-time view of the scene on the LCD screen.

A flip-out screen or right-angle finder is also extremely useful for low- and awkward-angle shots, just lowering your camera to the ground will provide a perspective that will add interest to your photos.
Focus is very critical, I use an SLR and I’m not entirely convinced that non-SLR cameras are up to scratch in this regard. That said, I have seen some fantastic results lately from such cameras, Canon Power Shots for example.

Another issue is shutter lag. It’s very important when photographing wildlife that the shutter fires exactly when you press the button. Half a second later is just not on. This is also important for so-called “static” subjects, even a flower can sway alarmingly in the breeze, and you will often have to anticipate when it will swing into focus.

An off-camera flash is also very useful. Flashes mounted on the camera will give a somewhat flat and boring light, especially as all your photos will be lit the same way.

With an off camera flash you can…

  • Simulate bright overcast light one minute, and moonlight the next, by simply moving the flash.
  • Fire it right through a leaf or petal to illuminate the inside of a flower.
  • Make multiple flashes during a long exposure (flash painting).

I used my flash with every photo I made during the three-week period.

Now your mileage may vary according to the type of yard you have, you may not even have a backyard, but there’s bound to be a park just down the road. What I’m really trying to demonstrate here is that good photos can be found anywhere if you take the time to look.

We all dream of making that classic lion-pulls-down-wildebeest shot, and I can certainly recommend spending some time in a place like Africa. But lets face it, most of us can’t afford a trip like that, certainly not for long enough to gain the experience necessary to produce great photos there. If we do a trip like that at all it’s a one-off, what will you do for the rest of your life?

Almost every nature photography book you read, and every interview with a well-known nature photographer, will emphasize the importance of photographing what you know and have access to.

They have a point.

If you only want to photograph lions, and you live in Sydney’s western suburbs, you’re going to be a very sad and frustrated nature photographer. Broaden your interests to bugs, flowers and abstract patterns, and you will have a lifetime of enjoyment ahead of you.

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