Nature photography – how does it work?

Before I show you my last photo’s I wanted to write a ‘small’ piece about what, I believe, is needed to become successful at nature photography (photo’s are below the text). Many people seem to think that the right gear will give you great shots, and this is true to a certain extent, but unfortunately a little bit less so for nature photography. What’s most important is being there at the right moment, at the right time to capture these moments (this is actually true for all things in life of course). You can have the best gear available but it’s useless when there’s nothing to take pictures of. It will give you a broader range of opportunities though (higher ISO, longer range (mm’s) etc) and thus a higher chance of a good shot or qualitatively better shots. Below you will find (in bold) some factors which I believe are essential to become a good nature photographer.

First of all, patience is key! You will often have to sit and wait for hours in your hide for something to photograph. The worse you are at choosing a correct site (and moment!) the more time you will have to spend in your hide! Things I often do when waiting for something to happen is playing Angry Birds, reading a book or just surfing the internet. Depending on your subject though, you will have to pay a lot of attention in order not to miss the correct moment. In general, decent preparations can lower your time in the tent. That’s where the next part of the puzzle comes into play:
Knowing your subject. The more you know about the behavior of your subject, the higher the chances are that you will be able to setup a ‘meet’ and get close. Often, you will need to read into your subject or observe them for some time. Know where and when they will be. For Kingfishers this comes down to knowing when and where they have a nest and also in what developmental stage their young are (how old is the nest). You can see this by the type of prey the adults bring into the nest (e.g. insects or very small fish means early development; larger fish means that the youngsters are just a few days away from leaving the nest). Same goes for Roe Deer. They mostly come out of hiding in the early morning or late in the afternoon/evening so you have to make sure you are present then and make sure that they don’t smell you (so check the wind direction and anticipate where the sun will be when your subject arrives). This last part has to do with:
Experience. The more failures you have, the more you will have learned. The more you learn, the higher the chances are of a successful encounter the next time because you should now know what not to do! An example would be to enter an area when the Roe Deer are already present. You will learn that they will see/smell you and run off or be very cautious. This leaves you with no opportunity to setup your tent/gear. The right approach into an area is very important (e.g. time and wind direction).
Know your gear. You will need to know which buttons to press. How’s my light? What ISO do I need? Do I expect action or will my subject be standing still most of the time? Does my bird have bright white patches or does it have darker colors (e.g. white spots on the cheeks of King Fishers will often be overexposed compared to the other blue parts, so take that into account when setting your exposure). Same goes for white swans or black crows… Do you need fast autofocus? If so, use the AF limiting dial for faster focus. And the list goes on and on…
Another important factor is the area you will spend your time in. Nature photographers generally invest most of their time in an area that is close to their home (e.g. within appr. 5-15 km from their house) because those are the area’s they will visit most often. There are area’s in which you can easily find roe deer when taking a walk but also area’s in which you have to invest a lot of time to get great (acceptable) shots (e.g. National Park the Meinweg; hunters like to keep the deer density low and their fridges well filled). And with acceptable I mean that you have to get the roe deer within 10-20m from you. A minor note about this range. You will often see shots of foxes that seem to have been made within 5m of the fox. This can either mean that a nature photographer has spend hours and hours observing/searching for foxes and made his ‘battle plan’ but it can also mean that the images were taken in an area in which you can approach the (domesticated) fox within 5 meters because they are extremely tame. This has nothing to do with nature photography! Don’t be fooled, no skill was needed to take these shots. Same goes for bird shows where you can find the most rare or endangered species. There is no skill in taking these kind of shots and many nature photographers refuse to even take their camera’s out (including me).
Next up is Luck. Sometimes you will get lucky if you just happen to run into a bird feeding on whatever. These encounters are rare and are never ‘controllable’ in that you can’t decide up front what kind of shot you want to have. For this, you will need to spend quality time with your camouflage tent ;). But your ‘luck’ can be increased when you have the right experience and preparations. Laying out bait (e.g. dead pigeon) in winter time at a place you know that is regularly visited by bird of prey will get you great shots. But again, you need the luck that one of those birds sees your bait, but you also needed to get the idea into your head to use bait, sit at the correct site, and at the correct moment. Many factors play a role, of which luck is most often just a small one.
Furthermore, you will need a lot of dedication. There are times that you will sit in your hide for hours and hours without seeing anything. Most often, this is a combination of bad luck, bad preparation, wrong time, wrong place. Dedication is needed to get into your hide the next day, and the day after that to get what you were looking for. I’ve spend over 30 hours in a tent for the last few weeks just to try and get close to Roe Deer, wild boar, a buzzard and so on. Nothing, Nada to show for it. So dedication and perseverance is needed! But I’ve learned from these failures and will try not to make them the next time.
In order to take great shots you will also need talent! You do need a good eye for taking the right shots. Make the right composition when in the field, and not while behind your computer at home. You need a feeling about how to make the picture speak. Talent is something which can be developed of course by experience/learning. A good base level of talent is essential though.
Craziness. You have to be somewhat nuts to sit in a tent in the freezing cold for several hours, waiting for that buzzard to come along. And then when it doesn’t, you have to be crazy enough to do the same thing again the next few days (perseverance, also see dedication above).
Another important factor is a social network. You alone won’t be able to see all that goes on in a specific area. Have a network of people that are also interested in nature and ask them to let you know when they see something special you might want to photograph. In the Netherlands we have for that. This is a website dedicated to nature observations and can be divided into specific sub area’s. Whenever a member goes into an area and spots wild life, birds, plants etc. they put that into the website’s database for all to see. This is a very efficient way to get to know an area. Other examples are joining a nature group that has regular field visits etc. The more people you know, the more information you will have, the more chances you have of taking great shots.

Now that’s basically what I wanted to share with your. Now time for the news:

Tips: know your area (bite marks on trees), be there at the correct moment (dusk), be a little bit lucky ;).

Hovering dragonfly:
dragonfly in flight
Tips: know where they are, when they mate, when they will hold still long enough for you to take a shot. Gear: use a macro lens with enough mm’s, choose a high F-number to get more depth of field, choose a high shutter speed.

Flower macro:
flower macro
Tips: know where to find these flowers, if the light is bad (which it was) use a flash and try to point it in different directions relative to the flowers.

I think I might start giving these tips from now on on how I took my shots and which decisions I made when taking them.

Until next time!


4 responses to “Nature photography – how does it work?

  1. Well stated Luuk. Most ‘nature photographers’ nowadays tend to rely on a social network, tame subjects and low gasoline prices…the other factors you mentioned are just for nutcases like you and me 😉

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