10 Nature Photography Tips

Don Orkoskey | December 20, 2021

Nature Photography by Don Orkoskey

I absolutely believe that nature photography is for everyone. That's why I'm posting these 10 Nature Photography Tips to help you become a better nature photographer. Most of the students I teach photography classes to come to me to learn nature photography. Everyone I meet loves taking photos of our incredible natural world.

There are a ton of websites with lists of tips for better nature photography but my 10 nature photography tips go more in depth and offer you a better understanding of what makes a great nature photo. In fact before we get to the 10 nature photography tips let's first talk about what makes a nature photo great.

Great Nature Photography

What makes great nature photography great? In other words, what makes a nature photo standout and grab attention? That's might not seem like an easy question to answer.

Exotic, hard to find, or rare animals grab a lot of attention. These photos might come to mind when you think about spectacular nature photography. However, the truth is you can create amazing nature photographs close to home no matter where you live.

What it takes to make amazing nature photos

Thankfully everyone can achieve what it takes to make amazing nature photos. Photography is both an art and a craft. You can learn the craft of photography. As long as you have love for what you're doing and want to be doing it the art will follow.

Great nature photography is all about composition, lighting, and great technical skills. If you can focus and expose your nature subject well and can capture them in great settings with compelling lighting then you can absolutely make great nature photos no matter what you're taking photos of. I promise that's true even if you're taking photos of rats or pigeons!

Of course learning how to expose, how to compose, and about lighting takes time. It also takes time to build up our equipment and experience with that gear to be able to use it properly. We shouldn't get frustrated with ourselves if our photos don't look how we want them if we haven't mastered the technical and artistic sides of nature photography.

All of that being said, let's jump into our 10 tips for nature photography because some of them will help us to improve our photography both technically and aesthetically.

10. Patience

Patience is critical in nature photography. We can't rush out to the forest and begin to snap away and expect to create photos that rival those of National Geographic. We've got to slow down, use all of our sense, and look at what is happening. Being in the moment can help us to see things we'd otherwise miss. It can also help us hear things we might not have noticed, like the calls of an unfamiliar bird.

Life is hectic. When trying to find great nature photos we must reset ourselves to the pace of the natural world. This means finding our breath, standing still and looking carefully around, and listening to what is happening. Feel any wind or rain, or the warmth from the sun vs the coolness of the side of your body that's in the shade. Getting more in tune with the forest before we enter it helps us to anticipate things and react to what nature is telling us.

Nature Photography by Don Orkoskey Feeling the wind and sun can lead us to warm or cool spots where we can find animals escaping the heat or cold. In the summer we can listen for small streams and may find bathing birds cooling off and cleaning up. I've lead walks through the forest where my companions wanted to rush quickly by. Often they miss opportunities that I don't. Over the summer one set of nature walk companions and I were lucky enough to see a redwing hawk land only 15 feet from us and only about 20 feet up in a tree. Had we rush ahead as some folks do we would have missed the opportunity to greet this beautiful bird and to watch it take off right in front of us. When it comes to nature photography patience is critical.

9. Declutter

Simple shots are often the most stunning which is why learning how to declutter your composition is so helpful. This is especially true if you're using equipment that doesn't have a long reach and a super wide aperture. Composing your photos so that the background is less busy allows the viewer to focus on the subject. It's helpful to have reference points like the hawk above with the tree that it was flying off of but it would have been an even better photo if the tree didn't have so many vines.

One way to declutter your shots is to use light to your advantage. Shoot your subject when they're in the sun and there is deep shadow behind them. Make sure to use spot metering or to correct your exposure so that those shadows turn black or nearly black.

Another decluttering trick is to find a good location where your subject is likely to come close to you. Try to find somewhere that your subject is likely to pass by where they will be close but the background is far enough away that you can get it nicely out of focus. Then just sit quietly (see point #10 above) and wait for them to come through.

This can be frustrating at first. It's a bit like fishing, some days you don't get any bites, some times you get tantalizingly close but they get away, and some days you get really lucky. The truth is that good nature photography is often more about luck and patience than it is about knowing your subject and tracking them.

8.  Get Up Early

The early bird catches the worm as they say and the good nature photographer is there to get the shot of the worms demise so get up early if you want the best chance to create amazing nature photos. Mid-day is usually not a great time for nature photography with the exception of winter in higher latitudes.

There are two reasons for this.

First, the lighting is usually bad. It's overhead, it's harsh, it's cold, and just generally ugly. If the sun isn't shining and it's overcast the contrast is often not there which makes for ugly light for the exact opposite reasons. Of course if it's raining or snowing and overcast that can give you exceptional results. Just be sure your gear is weather-proofed.

Second, unless it's winter in the high latitudes where the short amount of sunlight means there isn't much time to find water or food all the wildlife you want to photograph will likely be resting. In the summer mid-day is nap time. Dawn and dusk are much more active times for most animals and the lighting, that warm golden angular light is so much more attractive to photograph with.

7. Light

Understanding light and how it behaves is necessary if you want to capture amazing nature photos. Light is everything in photography and while we can use flash or other artificial lighting in nature photography most often we're just working with the sun. There is so much we can do with just the sun as well. From backlighting, ring-lighting, or silhouetting our subjects to making them look any number of ways from menacing to cute - light is critical to photography.

The best way to learn to understand light is to play with it and then study your results. Look at your pictures and ask where the light was. Ask how high in the sky the light was and where in relation to your subject was it, (behind, at a 45 degree angle, directly behind your camera, etc.). Look at the color temperature of the light. Is is warm or cool? How about the contrast? Are the shadows deep and the edges of them sharp or are they fuzzy and light?

Learn to read and understand light and all of your photos, not just your nature photos will improve.

6. Perspective

Just as with the angle of the light your perspective to your subject can take your photos from so-so to amazing. It can be hard to lay on the ground if you've got mobility issues but getting as close to your subject's eye line or simply varying your approach to them from the standard view of a person standing straight up makes a big difference.

If possible lay on the ground. If not try to include some stuff in your foreground, (out of focus stuff is fine, usually better actually). Place your subject somewhere other than the center of your frame photographed from normal standing height. This can be a real challenge when photographing birds, especially those which don't visit the ground very often but I didn't say that these were 10 tips for easy nature photography did I? Change your perspective and you'll come away with photos that will look a lot different than what you're used to creating.

5. The Rule of Thirds

If you look at lists of nature photography tips or any type of photography tips you're bound to run into the tip about using the rule of thirds. The reason for that is because the rule of thirds has been an integral part of visual design for centuries. When we look at art within a frame (be it an actual frame or our computer screen) our eyes want to settle at the center of the frame and see the subject there.

The rule of thirds works because that is exactly how our eyes work. When we look at something we center it in our field of vision so we expect that subjects will be centered. When it's not our brain gets angry. We might not feel angry but there is tension there as our mind tries to force the subject to the center.

I've only included using the rule of thirds because I want you to be more aware of your frame. It's fine to center your subject, use the rule of thirds, place your subject at the edge of the frame, or anywhere in between those options. The important thing is that you think about where you're placing your subject in relation to everything else in your composition which brings us to tip number 4.

4. Framing

Why is framing so important? Because we don't have framing in real life. Think about it. What is just outside of your field of vision? Chances are you were not aware of things at the outer-limits of your visual field of view until I just brought it up.

In photography and other visual arts our view of the world is constrained into a box (or some other shape). In reality we can see somewhere close to 180 degrees in a horizontal direction (thanks to our two eyes).

Since we're so aware of the frame in photography it helps to exploit that frame. Use it to exclude things that you don't need in order to isolate your subject. You can do this by zooming in or moving closer, you can do this by moving your lens a bit until only what you want in the frame is there, you can even do it by adding stuff to the foreground that obscures stuff near the edges.

No matter how you do it reminding the viewer of the frame can make it feel more like they're peering through a window into a completely different world.

We can even place frames within our frame by shooting through things. In nature you can do with with trees or branches, cave openings, and a bunch of other ways. This frame within a frame is a great way to add focus and isolate your subject. It can also show size or perspective.

3. Contrast

The last compositional thing I want to talk about in nature photography is contrast. Contrast is your friend. Deep dark shadows remind us that the natural world can be dangerous. We never know what is hiding in the shadows and the darker they are the scarier they can be. Humans are rightfully still scared of the dark because we lived for generations without the assistance of powerful artificial light which has only illuminated our settlements for less than 200 years.

The benefit of contrast is that it gives your images a richer and deeper feel. They can seem more three-dimentional if the contrast is deep enough. We can also use contrast to control for unwanted stuff in our frame as mentioned in tip number nine.

2. Exposure

Exposure is how we transform the light we're given from a recording to something altogether magical. Learn to expose for your subject and your scene. Learn when to favor one over the other and when to ignore each one. I always use either manual exposure with auto-ISO or aperture priority when creating nature photos. This is so I can more easily control my exposure with the exposure compensation buttons and dials.

Exposure compensation lets me tell my camera to add or subtract just a bit of light compared to what the camera itself believes is the correct exposure. Understanding how much and when to use exposure compensation takes years of practice but shooting RAW images gives me a bit more room for errors.

You're probably not going to nail your exposure each and every time. That is especially true if your subject is moving a lot between sunlight and shade. When you add in a background that changes as they move you're going to need some help to get your exposure set right.

By shooting subjects that are in the light with backgrounds that are in shadow we have a better chance of getting our exposure closer to perfect. That said, shooting in RAW will give us more leeway for adjusting that exposure after we get home. Just make sure you've got a program that can read RAW files and allow you to make those edits before you save your image as a JPG.

Exposure really has an effect on color. If you want nice rich deep vibrant colors to appear naturally you need to under-expose the stuff you want to be high in saturation in order to have those colors appear more vibrant. You don't have to do this by a wide margin and if your subject is in the shadow and has dark coloration you need to be careful when doing this but it's something to keep in mind as deep rich colors help make photos more interesting too.

1. Play

When we're kids we learn everything through play. Play leads us to discover things we enjoy doing. When we discover those things we experiment and learn how to do them over and over and improve our understanding of them until we master them. That instinct to play is slowly driven out of us so that by the time we reach puberty we largely stop playing in order to learn.

Never stop playing. Playing is the most natural way to learn. Play with your settings, play with your focal length, play with your perspective, and play with your exposure. You're probably going to create a bunch of stuff you don't like. So what! You can just delete that stuff and it didn't cost you anything but a bit of time. The rewarding thing about playing is that you'll not only create a bunch of files you need to delete but that you'll learn how to do some really magical stuff too.

Play also brings us closer to nature. If you watch wildlife you'll see how much they play. Being closer to nature teaches us more about where to find and how to photograph nature and wildlife than anything else I've ever discovered.

It can be hard as an adult to bring yourself to play but it is so rewarding when you do. This is especially true if you don't worry about others judging you. Let them, they're only doing it because they're jealous. They wish they had the bravery to play, to "waste their time" and to risk coming away with nothing usable. Know that is the risk but the rewards are far greater than the average and boring nature photos that they're going to create by playing it safe.

Keep It Natural

Good luck to you and remember to keep it natural! I hope that you found this post useful. If so please feel free to share it. You can even repost it as long as you link back to it here. If you liked these tips and want to learn more about nature photography consider signing up for one of my classes or contact me to talk more about photography. I know that you'll create amazing work if you follow these tips. If you do please share it with my on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook by tagging me in your post.

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