Like many people, my first few years of photography were spent going out to shoot as much as possible and trying to learn everything I could about the subject. As my portfolio grew, and I started sharing my images with others, I also started to write about photography. While I did this to help others learn the craft, I admit it was just as much for me to improve my work. Writing helped me break apart the process and understand what went into the making of an image. One of my first articles was written back in 2006, titled “10 Tips to Better Nature Photos”. This was my first attempt to put down in words what made a great photo. Not just the elements in the frame, but also the steps that an outdoor photographer should take to capture that decisive moment. Because by writing it all down, I started thinking consciously about these tips in every situation, with every shot.
Looking back now, I am pleasantly surprised at how these original ten still apply. Sure there are a lot more things I could add, easily turning this into 100 tips, but I think these make a good foundation for any nature photographer.
1. Know your equipment. When it comes time to take a picture the settings and operation should be instinctual. If you are fumbling with buttons and settings, you will miss the shot. Read your manual, twice, and practice, practice, practice!
2. Take Control. Each generation of cameras that comes out tries to do more and more of the thinking for you. While they have become “smarter”, the best images are made when you take control of the settings. Know how to properly expose a shot, and when to override what your camera is telling you to do.
3. Know your subject. When working with wildlife there are certain behaviors that indicate what the animal is about to do. The better you know your subject, the more of these behavior cues you will pick up on. When you know what an animal is about to do, you can be prepared for the decisive moment to capture that behavior in your images. Whether it is a person, place or animal, knowing your subject will help you make more natural and dynamic photos, capturing the true personality and life of your subject.
4. See the shot before you take it. The word of the day: “Pre-visualization”. Although it seems when working with wildlife I am often purely reacting to what the subject is doing, in reality I usually have several shots in my minds eye that I would like to capture. By knowing your subject and their behavior cues, you can put yourself in a position to capture the “shot in your head”.
5. Get down to their level and engage your subject. Whether it’s a bird or a person, eye contact in a photo engages and draws the viewer into the shot. But eye contact is most effective if you are on the same plane as the subject. So the smaller the subject, the lower you will have to go. Changing your elevation also changes your perspective, and makes you think in different, creative, ways. Instead of taking a shot of the beach standing up, lay down in the sand and take at shot at water level. Change your viewpoint, and you will produce something different and engaging.
6. Compose your background first. Look for distracting elements. Slight shifts can hide or remove these from the frame. Whether it’s a light switch on the wall when you are taking a family portrait or a stick behind a bird’s head, slight shifts (sometimes just inches) can put that distracting object out of frame or behind your subject where it cannot be seen. As you compose a shot, scan the edge of the frame for background objects that intersect the edge of the frame or clutter the scene, those little things can really detract from your composition.
7. Wait for the decisive moment. Life is about split seconds. So many times we think about how a second made the difference between a missed opportunity and a perfect one. Photography is about freezing those seconds in time, the trick is to freeze the second that really captures the “decisive moment” of action, mood, and composition. When you know your subject and you have pre-visualized the shot, you will be ready to press the shutter at that decisive moment.
8. Give your subject room to be alive. If they are moving, give them space to move into. Pay attention to their body position and language. If they are looking to the left, give them space in the frame on the left to look into. Giving your subjects space to be alive will make your photos come alive.
9. Be objective at review time. One of the hardest parts about photography is separating the experience of taking the picture from the quality of the picture itself. It is okay to like and keep a photo for the memories associated with it, just remember other people did not have the same experience you had capturing it. They will be judging your work on the composition alone.
10. Have fun! When you love what you are doing, it will show in your work. Get out there, take some shots, and have fun doing it.