Quick Tips for Improving Your Nature Photography

Macro of dandelion seed puffball

Today is Nature Photography Day. What better day to share a nature photography post? Nature photography spans an incredible range of subject matter, sub-genres, and techniques. There is something to appeal to most photography lovers, no matter what your interest, equipment, or current skills. Here are some tips from my studies and personal experience over the years.

Have Some Fun!

Before we start on the technical details, I’d like to share my top tip for improving your nature (or any) photography. Have some fun!  Play with your camera, get comfortable with the features, learn through doing how different settings alter the performance and appearance of your images.

With the transition from film to digital and a camera in every mobile phone, experimentation has never been easier or more accessible. The more we experiment with photography, equipment, settings, and composition, the more we learn. Keep it fun and enjoyable, and grow as you go.

Bee on bright orange flower

Photography Fundamentals

Understanding Exposure

The exposure of an image depends on how much light you capture.  Not enough and the image will be dark or underexposed. Too much, and the image will be bright or overexposed.  How much light is collected when a photo is taken is a combined function of your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings.  Let’s look closer at each of those functions.

Aperture

Aperture is the opening of your lens. The size of this opening is controlled by blades within the lens based upon your camera settings. Different lenses will have different aperture limits based on their range of adjustment.

The wider the opening, the more light can pass through in the same period of time. Aperture is is measured in fstops, but (confusingly for many beginner photographers) the smaller the number, the larger the opening. For example, f32 is very narrow and f1.2 is wide open.

In addition to light, your aperture setting affects the depth of field, or how much of your image can be in sharp focus. The smaller the aperture, the broader the depth of field. We’ll talk more about depth of field, aperture, and other factors below.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how quickly the camera shutter opens and closes to let the light through to your sensor. The longer it is open (slower speeds) the more light passes through to the sensor. It is a measured based on seconds. You see this on your camera display as either a fraction (e.g. 1/100 = one 100th of a second) of a whole number (e.g. 1″ = 1 second).

For still objects, with the exception of camera-shake for hand-held shots, you have the luxury of choosing a suitable speed for proper exposure based on your preferred aperture and ISO. For other nature photos; however, you may need to shoot fast to freeze moving wildlife or want to shoot slow to create motion blur, such as moving water.

ISO Settings

ISO is the sensitivity of your sensor (or film) to light. The higher your ISO setting, the greater the sensitivity. Adjusting it up (increasing sensitivity in low light) or down (decreasing sensitivity in bright light) can help you get better exposure without altering your preferred aperture and shutter speed.

The downside of cranking up your ISO is the risk of noise. The more sensitive your camera settings, the more digital noise you risk picking up in your image. If you are working in low light, with fast-moving objects, or hand-held small apertures, you may need to compromise on having some noise to get the composition and exposure you want.

How Aperture, Speed, and ISO Combine for Exposure

The wider the aperture (bigger opening, smaller fstop number, shallower focus), the more light comes in for any given speed (how long it is open) or ISO (sensitivity of your film or digital sensor setting).  Depending on your equipment, subject, conditions, and intended composition, how you use these will vary greatly.

Autumn leaves on tree glowing in the sunshine

Depth of Field

Aperture vs. Depth of Field

Wider apertures (smaller fstop) create a shallow depth of field. This is a handy composition tool for many types of image, especially when you want to visually separate your subject from busy backgrounds.

Smaller apertures (larger fstop) create a broader depth of field. This keeps a greater portion of your image sharp and in the field of focus. This is particularly handy for landscapes, but is useful for including context with your subject in any style of image.

See the image below for an example of the same flowers taken at f2.8 and f32, with all other settings identical. Notice how the plane of focus changes as the fstop is incrementally increased from small (wide aperture, shallow depth) to large (narrow aperture, broad depth).

Using Perspective to Alter Perceived Depth

You can also use perspective distortion to alter the apparent depth in an image. Technically, in most cases it’s not actually because the image is significantly optically distorted (unless you are using a curved lens). It’s just the way things appear in the resulting image due to subject, position, and composition.

With a wide angle lens, you can make the subject appear further from the background than reality. Shooting a subject near the camera with a wide angle lens can give the appearance of additional distance. A curved lens, like an ultra-wide or fish-eye can take this even further. I also have a lens ball that does the opposite, which is a fun photography toy to play with.

A telephoto lens on zoom can create the appearance that the subject is closer to the background than in reality.  See the roses in the below for a side-by-side example. The same rose bush was photographed up close (left) and from a distance (right) using a telephoto lens at identical apertures. 

Changing your physical position and/or focal object can also allow you to alter perceived depth in an image as a composition tool.  (Read more about composition below). For example, you can take a photo looking upwards from the the base of a tall tree to exaggerate the height or down an infinitely long road that seems to vanish into the distance. If you’re having fun composing, you can also play with forced perspective and other optical illusions.

Using upwards perspective when taking nature photographs to accentuate the tall trees

Composition

Composition is where we get to be our own creative selves. Put all of those technical tools and techniques together and have some fun!

What catches your eye? Look for interest and opportunities big and small, such as light, colours, patterns, textures, leading lines, etc. Not sure? Try experimenting with perspectives to find an interesting composition depending on your subject and vision. The human eye is naturally drawn to certain compositions, like the Fibonacci spiral or the traditional rule of thirds; however, rules are also made to be broken. Photography is after all, just another form of art.

Wood pigeon sitting in a magnolia tree

Different Genres of Nature Photography

Photographing Plants

Plants are often best shoot in still conditions or in a sheltered location so that your subject is stationary, but you can take also advantage of windy days for bigger-picture images such as fluttering leaves or bending grasses. For close-ups, it helps to use a macro lens and, as always, keep steady to avoid shake.

Still life is a great opportunity to experiment with angles and settings to find an interesting composition depending on your subject and vision. It is also a great subject for experimenting with manual focus (I know…) and this will be a must if you are keen to try add-ons, such as extension rings. The dandelion image at the beginning of this post was one of my own initial macro extension ring manual focus experiments.

Photographing Landscapes

Shoot wide angle for a sense of space, use a small aperture for a broad depth of field (clear both near and far), and keep steady to avoid shake. You may wish to use a lens hood to protect against flare and/or a filter for greater exposure control depending on your lighting conditions and subject. 

If your landscape includes motion, such as flowing water, consider slowing your exposure so blur can add a sense of movement to your shot. If opportunity allows, shooting early (or late) in low light can be particularly beautiful as well as help you beat the crowds in busy sites.

Photographing Wildlife

Telephoto lenses are handy to shot from a safer distance. Better for you, better for them. Shoot fast to freeze wildlife in motion and/or to minimise shake if shooting handheld using long telephoto. If you want both a broad depth of field and rapid exposure, you may need to compromise on ISO depending on your equipment options and the ambient lighting conditions. Just like you would with humans, if you are photographing an animal portrait, try to ensure their eyes are in focus. If you are taking high-motion action shots, switching to AI Servo mode (if available on your camera) can help track moving targets.

Unlike the more stationary and patient subjects above, finding and then photographing wildlife can be a rapid activity with hit and miss results. For a lower stress approach to learning and refining, enlist the kids to action model or experiment with photographing your pets. You might even end up with some fabulously fun family photos in the process. Confession: Our pets are one of my favourite photography subjects!

Ball of relocating bees resting in box hedge

Don't Let Equipment Stop You

Great equipment helps, of course, but it’s just a tool in the hands of the user. Don’t let equipment stop you from experimenting with nature (or any) photography and having fun. 

As noted in the photography section of our Resources and Tools, I often use my phone. Although I have the good fortunate of being well equipped, heavy camera gear is usually reserved for special outings. My iPhone gets quite a work out on random opportunity shots and I love the quick panoramas. The photo below was taken on my iPhone during a morning walk with our dogs. It’s one of my favourite photos and memories.  

Two Dalmatian dogs running on the beach at sunrise

What's in My Camera Bag

Want to know what I use?  I’ve created a section in our new Resources and Tools page for photography, but here are some of the main items I use in my nature and garden photography.

My camera equipment and software has evolved over the years. At present, my go-to is my Canon 5D and I also have a Canon 7D.  Lenses vary, but for many of my plant and insect shots, I use a 100mm f2.8 lens. For outings, I often take specific lenses for specific purposes, such as a landscape wide angle, wildlife telephoto, etc. Other times, I’ll just take a broad range zoom as an all-in-one compromise for travel or other multipurpose use.

I have a fantastic Manfrotto tripod and I love the flexibility of a monopod for mobility, however, when I’m hiking I rarely carry anything other than the camera and one or two lenses. I have several camera bags, but my Lowpro Slingshot backpack is perfect for that kind of nature photo excursion. The single strap makes it super convenient to flip it to the front and safely access my equipment on the fly. So handy that my father bought one for himself after borrowing mine during a visit! 

Tips for Improving Your Nature Photography


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