Five Tips for Amazing Nature Photography
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough!” This quote from the great photojournalist Robert Capa is just as true for nature photography. But how many times do you get your nature pictures downloaded onto your laptop or PC and think something similar? On the rare occasions that I do get to fill my viewfinder with the elusive animal I’ve spent hours searching for, I’ve been completely blown away by the image quality and level of detail that my pictures have. So how can I ensure that these rare events become more common? Is it just blind luck, or are there things that I can do to increase my chances of coming back with pictures I want to print out big and hang on my wall?
I’ve been photographing birds and animals for over 45 years and I’ve had my wildlife pictures published in photography magazines and online. I’d like to pass on some of the things I’ve learned in this short article – my 5 top tips along with a bonus tip (tip 6) that, I firmly believe, is the most important one of the lot.
Practice, practice, practice. “It’s funny, the more I practice, the luckier I get” – the great golfer Arnold Palmer reputedly said this in response to someone telling him how lucky he’d been to hole a tricky 50 yard putt – and this adage holds true for photography as well. I’m a frequent visitor to Lincoln cathedral in the UK. The cathedral has a resident pair of peregrine falcons and I regularly spend a few hours there once or twice a week trying to photograph them. A lot of the time, they’re perched high up on one of the towers, digesting their latest prey. Once you spot them, they’re not that difficult to photograph, but the resulting images are – to be brutally honest – a bit boring. There are only so many ‘long distance peregrine perched on a cathedral’ shots that you can take – and they all look the same!
However, from time to time, both birds get airborne and indulge in a bit of aerial dogfighting or pigeon chasing. These scenes can produce great images, but they also test my reaction times and photographic skills to their limits. If I haven’t been there for a while, I usually miss the action until I can ‘get my eye in’ and the muscle memory for photographing fast moving birds in flight kicks in again. So I need to get out there as often as I can and practice, practice, practice.
Get out there at the right time. Most wildlife tends to be at its most active at first light (in the morning) and just before last light (in the afternoon or evening). Time spent observing your quarry is never going to be wasted but, if you can only spend limited time with the subject you are trying to photograph, early morning is likely to be the best time. This is true for at least two different reasons:
- If you’re out early, you’re likely to be one of the first people there. Wildlife tends to be very wary of humans, so if you get there before someone else has had the chance to scare them away then you can wait there quietly in the knowledge that you have given yourself the best chance to see and photograph what you came for.
- Morning light is beautiful. You can’t take photographs without light, but you do get different qualities of light at different times of day. The great thing about morning light is that it tends to be soft and diffuse because the light source (the sun) is low in the sky. The amount of light is also going to be increasing all the time – and this is going to help you with obtaining higher shutter speeds (to freeze the action) without having to resort to bumping up your ISO and reducing image quality. Evening light is beautiful too – the sun is low in the sky again – but the downside of evening photography is that the light levels are going to be steadily reducing and you’ll be chasing the light. Don’t discount an evening visit but, if you have the choice of morning or evening, choose the morning.
There’s no substitute for local knowledge. If you can go out with someone with local wildlife knowledge, you’re really giving yourself the best chance possible to see what you came to see. I’m a keen nature photographer and I think I know the best places in my local area of the UK to take photographs of the indigenous wildlife. I’ve built that knowledge up over weeks, months and years. Some of that knowledge will stand me in good stead when I go to a new location in the UK.
I’m a regular visitor to the Isle of Mull – a beautiful spot for wildlife just off the west of Scotland and about a day’s travel – a long drive and a short ferry trip - from where I live in England. Even though I’ve been there about a dozen times in recent years, I’ll always try to secure the services of a reliable nature guide for the first day of my visit. This is going to cost me money but, as I’m only going to be staying there for one or two weeks, it’s a good investment because the guide will show me the current ‘hotspots’ for observing birds and mammals right from the get go. I won’t have to spend precious days building up my ‘non-local’ local knowledge.
If I’m travelling outside the UK, then it’s even more important to find a reputable local guide. I’ll do my research before I go and find out who has the best reputation for the location I’m going to be visiting. Then I’ll make sure that I book that guide for my tour!
Fieldcraft is invaluable. And the great thing about it is that it’s mostly common sense. However, it’s also worth remembering that common sense isn’t all that common! Make as little noise as possible. If you’re with a companion then it’s almost second nature to want to talk to them and to point things out to them. But making noise and waving your arms about is a great way to scare wildlife away before you even get a chance to see it.
If it’s at all possible, cover your hands and face in some sort of drab material. Hands and faces tend to be the bits of us humans that show up best against a natural background, so the more that you can get them to blend in the better. Lightweight camouflage gloves and hoods can be bought online for a few pounds. They take up very little space in your pockets and they work really well! Also think about the rest of your clothing. Your bright yellow Gortex coat will keep you warm and dry, but it will also rustle every time you move and stand out like a sore thumb – wildlife will give you a very wide berth!
The other great thing about blending in with the environment is that other people are less likely to spot you. The last thing you want when you’re in a great position to photograph wildlife is for someone to wander over and start asking you questions in a loud voice (trust me – it happens!). The only drawback I can think of to being invisible is that once a lady walking her dog squatted down to relieve herself just a couple of yards from the hedge where I had concealed myself!
Take the best gear you can get. If you can’t afford to buy it, hire it. We’ve all heard the saying that ‘it’s not about how good your gear is, it’s about how good you are as a photographer”. To a certain extent, that’s true. However, particularly for bird photography, you do need good quality gear to take good quality pictures. If you’re on your once in a lifetime trip to photograph a species that you’re never likely to see again, then you need to maximise your chances of getting great shots.
For my second trip to northern Finland to photograph brown bears, I hired a 500mm f4 telephoto prime lens. That’s a £12,000 bit of gear and there was no way I could afford to buy one. Hiring one for a week cost me about £140, but it was well worth it. Similarly, for a three-day trip into the Spanish Pyrenees to photograph bearded vultures, I hired the same lens again – I never once regretted it and it stayed mounted to my camera the whole time. It enabled me to get some superb images!
Also remember that it’s not just about camera gear. Always invest in the best footwear that you can afford – and make sure that it fits perfectly. You can endure an awful lot of bodily discomfort if your feet are warm and dry. And you can walk an awful lot further if your feet don’t hurt.
My final tip moves away from the purely practical to the almost philosophical. The tip is this - Never Lose Your Sense Of Wonder.
Being out in nature is one of the best things – perhaps the best thing - that we can do for our physical and mental health. Sit still in silence and enjoy it. If it’s a long wait, that’s great! Then you get longer to enjoy it. If the bird or the animal that you came for doesn’t put in an appearance, you had the rest of God’s beauty to look at and photograph while you waited – you have wasted no time at all.