Branch Out: How to Find Success in Nature Photography
Pelican Flyer | June 18, 2020
Love photography? Love the outdoors? Why not combine your passions by taking up nature photography? This endlessly fulfilling hobby combines creativity, fresh air, exercise and serenity, providing an enjoyable experience for all kinds of photographers. Indeed, the outdoors offer ample subject matter to keep all personalities engaged. From rare wildlife to stunning seascapes and mountain vistas, nature’s beauty awaits you.
Whether novice or seasoned, many photographers turn to nature at some point in their careers, and it’s not hard to see why. Photographers, by nature, hold many of the same characteristics as outdoor explorers. They’re adventurous, patient and used to dealing with a ton of gear (we’re here to help with that part). So it’s only natural that many of them meander out into the wilderness to snap a few pics from time to time.
Start with this great guide from Pelican if you’re new to nature photography or photography as a whole. To us, finding success in nature photography means capturing magnificent, natural scenes without putting yourself in harm’s way. For safe, spectacular photography outings, you’ll need to prepare before heading out. Here’s how to prep for a successful outing.
Pack for Success, Dress for the Outdoors
Being prepared for the unexpected is crucial to your safety as a nature photographer.
We can’t stress this enough: Before heading out, take the time to think through the gear you pack and the apparel you sport. You’re not shooting in a temperature-controlled wedding venue or a comfortable, dry studio. Being prepared for the unexpected and the risks of the wilderness is crucial to your safety and success as a nature photographer.
- Invest in a Waterproof Camera Backpack — You’re heading out on rugged terrain, so you need a rugged camera case. Always look for one that’s watertight and lightweight. You’ll also want a case with interior foam or soft lining to keep all of your expensive equipment safe against drops and scratches. If you plan to hike to your destination, use a camera backpack rather than a hard-sided or wheeled camera case to lighten your load. When it comes to nature photography, it’s important to transport your gear as efficiently as possible. Those heavy-duty, hard cases come in handy when traveling or heading to the beach, though.
- Pack Rain Gear, Even if It’s Sunny Out — Rule number one of any outdoor adventure: anticipate all weather. Even if the weather calls for clear skies and sun, make sure you’ve got a packable raincoat or poncho and a rain sleeve for your camera. Rain gear also comes in handy when you’re shooting around waterfalls or rivers with spray. The reverse is true here, too. Even if it’s cloudy and rainy outside, don’t forget your sunblock and sunglasses.
- Hiking Boots are Required — Your regular, everyday sneakers aren’t going to cut it when you’re heading outside to shoot. If you plan to be anywhere with rough, uneven or wet terrain, make sure you wear your hiking shoes. Pick a pair with high-traction soles if you like to shoot on slick, wet surfaces or around water.
- Keep a First-Aid Kit in Your Backpack — A first-aid kit is one of those things you pack and hope you never have to use, but having it could be a literal lifesaver in some scenarios. You really want to keep your pack light (more on that below), so find a compact option with only the basics, like bandages and antibacterial cream.
- Bring a Tripod — Did we mention that patience is crucial to a good outdoor shoot? If your goal is to capture rare shots of wildlife, waiting for the perfect shot is commonplace. “Still-life” shoots also demand lots of waiting for the right light. A rugged, outdoor-friendly tripod is your best friend in these scenarios.
- Keep it Light — To be successful when shooting in rugged, natural environments, you need to be as agile as possible. Moving briskly from spot to spot to capture the best lighting or keeping up with fast wildlife requires you to be quick on your feet. As a result, it’s crucial that you pack ultralight wherever possible, from your camera pack to your boots to your camera itself. Stick to only the essentials and consolidate where possible.
- Bring Multiple Lenses — A different lens can mean a totally different view on a specific subject, and you want to have the option to switch up the view as needed. A wide-angle lens is amazing for broad-scale landscapes — open fields, mountain ranges, valleys, etc. — and is a must-try for newbie nature photogs. Of course, the telephoto is crucial when shooting wildlife and can help you capture stunning shots of animals without getting too close or damaging a habitat.
Learn a Few Basics of Nature Photography
Though most of the items in the list below will seem pretty obvious to anyone who has spent time outdoors or wielded a camera at all, they’re easy to forget when you’re in high-stress scenarios. These are the most fundamental things you need to remember when out in the woods, mountains or beaches with your camera.
- Always Respect Wildlife — One of the things that (hopefully) differentiates nature photographers from street photographers, wedding photographers and portrait photographers is that your subject matter could, quite possibly, kill you. Keep a reasonable distance from all wildlife and never do anything to lure animals out of their natural habitat. Bears and other predators have killed photographers, so never overstep your bounds when shooting wildlife. Get used to shooting with that telephoto lens so you can properly keep some distance!
- Follow Wildlife Photography Ethics — Be sure to read up on how to photograph wildlife ethically. You want to capture rare moments outdoors without damaging or altering natural habitats in any way, and that involves shooting from a distance, staying on the trail and being especially cautious during breeding seasons. Following the principles of Leave No Trace is a good place to start!
- Follow the Rules of the Park or Land Owner — Natural habitats are protected under the rules of the park, owner or land management system under which they fall. While photographers are generally welcome in these places, they need to follow all rules and regulations to ensure safety every step of the way. Never venture into any off-limits areas or breach any barriers.
- Think About Shutter Speed When Shooting Wildlife — One of the challenges of shooting wildlife is that animals move really quickly, and if you use the wrong camera setting, these movements can result in blurred images. The most important setting to think about when shooting animals in the wild is shutter speed. For crisp, clear images, set your camera to a shutter speed of 1/500 or faster.
- Learn About Shooting in Natural Light — Let’s not forget about the wonders of natural lighting. We all know that the sun can make or break a shot, and we have zero control over what it wants to do on any given day. With that being said, we do have a very complex piece of equipment in our hands at all times — the camera, of course — which can drastically alter how the light appears in a photograph.
- Think About Aperture — How you set your aperture depends on the scene, the available light and your specific camera, but a good rule of thumb is to shoot at a higher aperture (allow less light to pass through) when shooting landscape photos. This will help ensure that the whole scene is in focus.
- Shoot During Golden Hour — The golden hour is the period when the sun is softer and redder than it is during the rest of the day, which often makes for snapping some fantastic photographs outside. Generally, the golden hour occurs in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset.
- Don’t Stay Home on Cloudy Days — Sunny days are great and all, but don’t stay home just because it’s overcast out. In fact, cloudy days sometimes make for the best shots, especially if you’re aiming for a moody vibe.
- Watch Where You’re Going — When you’re wielding a large camera and looking through a viewfinder, it can be hard to stay aware of your surroundings. Let’s face it, we’ve all backed up into something and fallen over while trying to get that perfect shot. But when you’re snapping in the woods or on the top of a mountain, tripping could result in serious injury. Be careful!
- Remember You Can (and Should) Edit Later — Nature photography doesn’t necessarily mean au natural! In fact, lots of nature photogs shoot in RAW (raw image format). Shooting in RAW will allow you to go back and edit as needed later. The fact is that post-production edits can enhance your pictures significantly, especially when it comes to correcting things like white balance and brightness.
- Know the Rules of Survival — The best nature photographers also tend to be avid campers and skilled survivalists. But you don’t necessarily need to spend hours on expensive, time-consuming training before heading out to snap some pics in the open air. Just make sure you know a few survival basics, such as how to start a fire, how to build an emergency shelter and which plants are edible.
Get to Know Your Subject
Learning how to master nature photography is a broad, blanketed concept, and you’re much better off learning how to shoot specific subjects.
“Nature” is such a broad subject. It encompasses a range of photography niches, focusing on the stars and planets (astrophotography), wildlife, plants, mountains and general landscape scenes. Learning how to master nature photography is a broad, blanketed concept, and you’re much better off learning how to shoot specific subjects. Get to know the depths of the subject you plan to shoot before heading out.
- Learn to Shoot the Stars — While astrophotography is definitely considered a type of nature photography, it is a totally different beast. You should specifically learn how to photograph stars and planets before trying this for the first time. Nighttime pics require a specific set of camera settings and some special gear. For example, you’re going to need to pack an LED flashlight when snapping at night.
- Read Up On Specific Wildlife — The great thing about photography is that there are so many resources available online, and it can be really helpful to study how to shoot a specific type of animal. For example, if you’re shooting a unique type of fish or whale that only jumps during certain times of day, it’s helpful to know when you should be out on the water. Understanding animals’ habitats and patterns can help you find out where to stake out for the best sightings.
- Shoot at the Right Time of Year — Shooting wildlife at the right time of year is crucial for ensuring a great, safe shot. Avoid getting close to any animals or habitats during breeding seasons, as this can put you at risk of an attack from a protective parent. You also don’t want to damage nests and dens that protect babies. Of course, if you’re looking to capture a specific species, you need to make sure that species is active and present during that time of year.
- Talk To Your Fellow Photographers — Chances are you’ll come across some fellow photographers while you’re out in the field. These guys, coupled with the park rangers and volunteers in the area, will be able to provide you with a wealth of hyper-specific info on your desired subject. Ask questions and get tips!
A Picture-Perfect Adventure
At the end of the day, nature photography is just the extreme version of regular photography. If you understand the basics of outdoor shooting and are well-versed on the basics of survival, you’ll be able to capture award-winning shots regardless of where you snap. And, trust us, with a little patience and some practice, the results will be well worth it!
At Pelican, we’re here to help you protect your camera gear in rugged environments with the best photography cases and backpacks anywhere. Pick one up before your next photography adventure to keep your equipment safe from whatever Mother Nature throws your way.