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Nature Photography: Equipment, Settings and Tips

by Amber (follow)
Blog (8)      Tutorials (3)     
Nature photography is an umbrella term for a broad range of photography subjects; from landscapes, to flora and fauna. Itís arguably one of the most enjoyable genres of photography, and a great excuse to get out there and enjoy the big outdoors.

But where to start?

There is a whole world full of amazing nature photography, so if youíre hoping to improve your shots, the ideal place to start is to consider what you want to actually photograph. Perhaps you want to create studies of flowers, or capture photos of birds. The first thing to do is to do your research:

The season
Spring is the perfect season for capturing an array of fresh, new life. Branches and stems are slowly blossoming, and chicks are hatching from eggs.

Fast forward to Autumn and itís all about capturing the last moments of colour on the trees before everything becomes bare again. Adjusting your photography to suit the current season will make you think about the photographs and subjects that youíre capturing.

The time of day
By general rule of thumb, the best times to be photographing outside is either around sunrise or sunset. These are regarded as the Ďgolden hoursí in photography. The sunís rays are not as harsh as midday, and can produce some magnificent colours.
For example, the photo of the pelicans on the left has been taken during the day when itís been quite overcast, and produces a rather flat and dull image. The photo on the right was taken during the Ďgolden hourí and you can see the effect it has on highlighting all the texture on the feathers, creating interesting contrast.

Note how the 'golden hour' light picks up the texture of the feathers on the right.

Lighting really can make or break a good photograph, so take your time to consider the best time to capture your shot. A benefit of getting out at sunrise is that less people will be around!

Itís also important to remember that some animals may hide and sleep during the day, or only come out to feed early morning or evening. Youíll get the best shots of wildlife when they are most active.

The weather
Although it can be hard to find motivation to shoot when itís wet weather, rain transforms nature into an entirely different scene, and can create some amazing opportunities. Raindrops sitting on a leaf, or hanging from a spiderís web are things to look out for after itís been pouring down. Rain on animalsí fur or feathers can also be great to photograph.

Overcast days can be great if youíre in need of a neutral, soft light that doesnít create any distracting shadows. This is because if you think of the sun as a giant studio light, then the clouds act as a giant softbox, or light diffuser.

Finding a location
The idea of being a nature photographer can conjure up ideas of travelling to exotic lands and photographing as equally as exotic subjects. But that neednít always be the case! There are so many fascinating things to be found in your backyard or the local park. Challenge yourself to discover something local to you, and youíll probably be surprised at what you find.

Your cityís botanic gardens are also a fantastic place to start, as these often feature plants that originate from all corners of the globe.

Photograph unusual textures, and use macro lenses to get up close and study details.

What equipment to use?
As the genre of nature photography is so vast, it can be tricky to decide what equipment youíll need. Itís always best to start with a versatile zoom lens, such as the kit one that usually comes with a camera when you purchase it. If you decide photographing flowers is your forte, you could invest in a macro lens to get up close. If wildlife and fast moving animals are more your thing, you could add a telephoto lens to your camera bag.

Telephoto lenses are great for wildlife shots as they mean you can capture expressions and behaviour without ever having the need to get so close to the animal that they run away - or bite you! A common focal length is 70-300mm. Telephoto lenses can be heavy, so bringing along a sturdy tripod will help you to avoid any camera shake. Tripods are an important piece of kit in nature photography, as they will help you capture sharper images when having to use a slower shutter speed.

Waterproofing for your camera can be a lifesaver when youíre out exploring and the weather quickly changes. They are relatively inexpensive to buy, or there are heaps of DIY tutorials available online.

What settings to use in nature photography?
As always, the camera settings will largely depend on your environment and your subject, but here are a few general rules to consider:

Using a wide aperture
A wide aperture such as f2 or f2.8 will produce a lovely, smooth background behind your focal point, ensuring that visual distractions are minimal. This can also result in bokeh; a soft, blurring effect of elements that arenít in focus.

The image above is a great example of using a wide aperture to create a Ďcleaní image that heroes your chosen subject.

Select a fast shutter speed
This generally applies to situations where you are photographing a fast moving animal, such as a bird or lizard. 1/125th of a second is a great place to start, and anything below that may not give a sharp image. Remember that if you choose a very fast shutter speed, such as 1/2000, you will need to compensate by having a wider aperture.

When using telephoto lenses, a general guide would be to match the focal length with the shutter speed, so if youíre using a 200mm, you wouldnít want to shoot below 1/200th of a second if you want to keep images sharp.

Keep your ISO down
The higher the ISO, the grainier your image, so if you can keep it down to between 100-400, you will take a crisper photo. Grain is especially noticeable if you crop into an image in post production.

Shoot in RAW
As nature photography often celebrates colour and textures, shooting in RAW will allow your camera to capture more of this information, and will give you more freedom in post production. RAW file formats make it easier to make colour adjustments and correct white balance, which can be important when photographing flowers and plants.

Choosing a focus mode
Manual focus is usually best when shooting flowers and details, as you can choose a very specific area to showcase in your photo. Remember that the main focal point doesnít always have to be in the centre of the frame! It gets a little trickier when it comes to animals though, as their movements can often be unexpected.

Using autofocus on AF Continuous/AF Servo will be a huge help if you are trying to capture a sharp image of a bird flying. This mode tracks your focus to an object travelling through the frame. Youíll just need to select an area of focus and engage your camera by half pressing the shutter button.

Tips for nature photographers

Be patient and always keep your eyes open for any interesting details
This photo perfectly captures that moment when the rising sun light breaks through the trees

Explore new levels by looking up above you, or get down to animal height for a different perspective on your surroundings
The image on the right works best as the upwards angle highlights the sun hitting the delicate petals

These are great examples of both looking up above you, and also getting down low to photograph the life beneath your feet.

Donít rely on something being there tomorrow, always make the most of the current moment

Get close to your subject, and then try to get even closer again for that perfect shot!
Think outside the box about details that could create interesting images.

Always consider your background
The photographer of the image on the right has carefully considered their framing and background to compliment the swan.

Have you got any nature photography tips of your own? Share them with us on the Photoh Facebook page.

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