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 Nature Photography :: Tutorials :: #11

Previously published in Digital Photography + Design magazine.

Most photography “How to” articles speak about technical issues like f-stops and shutter speeds, what I want to explain are some of the less technical and more down to earth aspects of photographing nature.

It is important to have good equipment and know how to use it, but it's equally important to be out there doing it, with whatever equipment you have.

Get in low
I said that I'd talk about the down to earth aspects of nature photography and I meant it quite literally. Almost every photo taken of a nature subject will have more impact if taken from a lower perspective.

In my pre-digital days I would carry one camera with a motordrive, and one without. The difference being that the motordrive raised the lens by about two inches, so having a body without one allowed me to place the lens directly on the ground.

"Motordrives" are built into digital cameras these days so that's not an issue, however some of the higher-end cameras, such as the Canon 1D, have non-removable battery packs which create the same problem.

For this reason (and the extra $5000 of course) I chose the 10D, and added a removable battery pack. If I have to get really low, the pack comes off.'

Fig 1: This butterfly was trapped by water tension holding its left wing to the wet slime surrounding a drying pool. My first shot was taken from a comfortable kneeling position, and it shows. Not happy with it I lay down on the ooze, placed the camera as low as possible and made the second image, one that I feel better captures the animal's predicament. And yes, I released it from its watery trap once I had my photos.

Image #23915


It can however be very uncomfortable squinting through a viewfinder that's 50mm from the ground, but not if you have a right-angle finder. I won't leave home without mine.

With a right-angle finder it's both practical and comfortable to lay the camera on the ground and look down into the viewfinder. And when it's easy to do something you're more inclined to do it, and in this case, more likely to make photos with impact.

While you may think I'm only referring to macro photography, that's not the case. The finder is also very useful as a tripod substitute when using long lenses. No I don't balance the camera on it, using the finder it's so easy to shoot from the ground or the top of a handy stump, that I take most long-lens photos that way. (See Fig 4)

Get in close
The human brain is extremely good at picking the “eyes” out of a scene, you look at a landscape with its untold complexity, but only see a single flower. This works well for brains, but not for cameras. Most novice photographers photograph what they see as a “yellow flower with a mountain in the background”, only to wind up with a shot of a mountain and a tiny yellow dot in the foreground.

Your camera will not single out the subject without your help, and you help it by getting in close, real close. As far as possible you should actually try to get close to the subject, don't be lazy and just switch to a telephoto lens.
Naturally there are times when a long lens is appropriate, say you want the compressed perspective, selective focus, or the subject is dangerous. But in general a photo that is taken close up with a wide lens has a lot more impact than the same composition with a long lens.


Fig 2: These two pelican photos, one taken from across a creek with a long lens, the other from within millimetres of the bird, illustrate the importance of getting in close. In both photos the pelicans are preening, but which has the most impact? Even enlarging the pelican on the long shot to fill the frame would not help much. There's just no substitute for getting up close and personal. Just watch out for the bird's beak, I have been whacked and pecked a few times.

Image #05330


Be there
Although I have actually made at least two good nature photographs in my lounge room, I can't recommend sitting at home as a technique. I will however almost guarantee that if you get outside you will find something to photograph.

Live on site if you can. I'm not suggesting that you sell up and hit the road as I have, but you do have weekends and holidays, spend them in the outdoors. With a camper, four wheel drive, or even just a tent you can live where the action is. There's little point staying in a motel 30k from the creek you want to photograph at dawn the next morning. That's not to say that you won't get up early enough, but it's much less likely.

Apart from that, things are happening all the time, not just at dawn when you plan to be around. If you're camping right next to the creek you'll be there when they happen. The light will change for just a few minutes, and you'll be there; a kangaroo will come down to drink, and you'll be there; a car will drive past kicking up the dust which looks great against the light, and you'll be there.

Out of all the tips in this article please, take note of this one. Be there! '

Fig 3: If I had been camped in the nearest caravan park I still may have seen this tree while walking along the river during the day. However it would not have looked good enough to warrant an early-morning trip, and I certainly wouldn't have seen the way the dust enhanced the background. Because I was living on the river, it all happened right in front of me when a car drove past just after dawn.

Image #25396

Wear old clothes
Forget the designer photo jackets, nature photography is not a fashion parade, the goal is to get good photos, and anything that gets in the way is to be discarded.

One thing that does get in the way is a reluctance to get good clothes dirty. If you have to lie in the mud to photograph a spider then that's what you do, if you don't lie in the mud, for whatever reason, you miss the shot. And if you miss the shot you're just that little bit less a nature photographer than you could have been.

Wear old clothes, or at least clothes that don't matter. I usually wear overalls, they're not old, but I don't care about their appearance. Overalls have other advantages. For one, they have enough pockets to hold my spare extension tubes and my right-angle finder. With these objects in my pocket I can “work” a small area without lugging my camera bag. Overalls also have fewer openings for ants to crawl into, useful when lying on the ground.

But one of the interesting side affects to wearing overalls, one that I would never have thought of, is that people assume that someone wearing them is working. Therefore, as I'm “working”, and I'm taking photographs, I'm obviously a professional. This is great for the ego of course, but more importantly it reinforces the idea that you are working “professionally” and this helps create the nature photographer mind set.

As with all endeavours it's important to have the right mind set, just thinking that you are a nature photographer puts you well on the way to being one.'

Fig 4: If you are at least half serious about nature photography you'll wind up in the dirt before long.  

Learn about your subject
Animal species have peculiarities, as do the individuals within a species, just like us really. There are obvious things to know, like the time of year a particular species of migrating bird arrives at Lake Whatever.

But there's smaller tidbits of knowledge to. For example, when a coot raises itself from the water it's about to dive, and if a damsel fly rests on a particular reed, it will probably do so again within the next minute or so.

Knowing these things won't help your eye for composition, or give you a better colour sense, but it will tend to put you in the right place at the right time, or cause you to take up the slack on the shutter release button just a millisecond before the action.

Fig 5: This dragon fly flew away as soon as I approached. I waited, and sure enough it returned in just a few minutes.
Image #28282

Unlike most nature photographers I'm not a big fan of tripods. I do own several, but seldom use them.

Conventional wisdom has it that all photos will be sharper when taken on a tripod or other sturdy support, and that is true, but with many subjects tripods just aren't practical.

I would rather have a fairly sharp photo of a beetle than miss the shot entirely because I was fiddling with my tripod. However, for more static subjects, like multiple shots for panoramas, or an available-light shot of a flower at dawn before the breeze springs up, it does make sense to use a tripod.

The best types of tripod are those that allow you to place the head as close to the ground as possible. The original “nature photographer friendly” tripod was the Benbo 1, it's unique design made it easy to put the head, and therefore the camera, just about anywhere.

Benbo now have other models of which the Trekker is the easiest to carry around. There are also other brands with a similar design, and some of the better-known brands have recently made modifications to allow more flexibility. For example one of the newer Manfrotto 190 models allows the centre column to be positioned horizontally, it's more cumbersome to implement than the Benbo, but the end result is the same.

This is very important, a horizontal centre column can be poked right into a bush while the legs remain out in the clear. If you've ever tried to insert some tripod legs into a bush without disturbing the dew drops, you'll understand why this is so important.

One reason I seldom use tripods these days is flash, I now use flash for most macro work.'

Fig 6: I noticed the light on these mountains at the last minute, it was fading fast and the exposure was 1/60th @ f5.6 with a 640mm lens. There was no time to set up a tripod, so I quickly placed my right-angle finder on the camera, lay on the roof of my motorhome, and made a few exposures using the stable surface to steady the camera. Within seconds the colour had dulled, the shot was gone.

Image #23255

Get used to using flash, mainly for macro, but it's also useful for lighting trees before dawn, filling in the shadow details of a bird in a shady tree, or adding catch lights to an animal's eye.

The other great thing about flash is that you are in control, if you want the light behind the subject for a more dramatic look just move the flash, in front for a standard record shot, move it again. You can't do that with the sun.

In macro work flash is also a softer light source than the sun. The larger the light source the softer the light, and, when held close to a small subject, your flash is a very large light source indeed.

The other advantage to using a flash is that it makes you independent of the ambient light, it doesn't matter if it's sunny, overcast, or even raining, you still get the shots.'


Fig 7: While quite happy with the silhouetted tree in the first photo I did feel that it needed a lift so I reshot, using my flash to fill in some details.

With modern flash guns, and auto-everything cameras, this kind of fill flash application is a no-brainer technically. But you still have to make the aesthetic decisions for yourself.

Image #21663


Be adaptable
You've got up before dawn specifically to photograph the swans on a nearby lake, but while walking along the shore you see the fantastic light on some reeds.

Do you,

a. Ignore the reeds and continue in
    search of swans.
b. Stop and photograph the reeds.

Unless you specialize in swan photos it's more important to photograph what's available, not what you're looking for.
While it is a lot simpler to be single minded (I know, for years I specialised in large format, black & white landscapes), I really feel that it's important to be adaptable and always on the lookout for subjects.'


Fig 9: While photographing a cormorant drying it's wings I looked down at my feet and noticed this tiny spider in the mud. Within seconds I had swapped a long tele for my macro, flash and right-angle finder. Be opportunistic, and be ready to handle a completely different subject at a moment's notice.

Image #22623

Use good lenses
Probably more than it ever was with film cameras, it's important to place good glass in front of your digital camera. But when I say use a good lens, I also mean use an “appropriate” lens.

For example, with macro work, it is possible to shoot at roughly 1:1 with a 28mm lens mounted on a 25mm extension tube, but the working distance (distance from the font of the lens to your subject) will be so small as to be unusable, almost no wildlife will let you get that close, and those that do want to attack their reflection.

Also, non-macro lenses are not properly corrected for such close work and often show some unpleasant effects, especially in the out-of-focus areas. For years I did use “normal” lenses mounted on a variety of extension tubes, and to be honest I was happy with the results. But my change over to digital required me to buy new lenses, so while the credit card was out of mothballs I purchased a 100mm macro lens.

The results just blew me away. Not only is the quality amazing, but I can photograph the tiniest of bugs at 2:1, and still be 70mm from the subject.

Of course not all of nature is tiny bugs, there are mountains as well, and everything in between, so you do need another couple of lenses, probably a mid range and a long zoom. But it's far more important to have good glass, instead of a lot of glass. One top-quality lens is better than three coke bottles.


Fig 8: This Canon 70-200/2.8 IS is arguably the best lens of its type in the world, and it cost me a small fortune. But boy is it sharp.

My old manual-focus lenses where the equivalent in their day, they also cost me a fortune, but I used them for over 20 years. Good glass is money well spent.


What equipment do I use?


Every time you react quickly and catch an expression you strengthen your photo neurons; every time you analyse a scene and pick the best angle you strengthen your photo neurons; in fact just thinking about taking photos will strengthen your photo neurons.

It's becoming obvious that humans can grow new brain cells and also strengthen the connections between existing cells by thinking. I've read of studies conducted with three groups, one did nothing, another performed an activity, and the third simply thought about performing the activity.

As most of us belong to a subset of humanity closely aligned with the third group, it's comforting to hear that even just thinking about an activity will grow the part of the brain related to that activity.

But not as much as actually doing it.

One reason professional photographers get good photos so often is that they are always taking photographs, every day. Of course this means that they have more opportunity, but it also means that they make better use of that opportunity.

Practice, practice, practice; it won't make you perfect, but it will get you a lot closer.

In a nutshell
So there you have it, if you learn about your subject while living on site, practice being adaptable with your flash, get in low and close with the right lens while wearing overalls, your nature photography will improve.

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