How To Make Better Nature Photos

A seasoned professional shares advice on capturing compelling nature scenes

06-28-2011 // Rob Sheppard

WHEN I FIRST STARTED MAKING PHOTOS with a digital camera nearly a decade ago, the LCD display on its back was new to me. Nothing like it was part of the film equipment I had used for years, so I tended to forget about the LCD and relied on the new camera's viewfinder. I remember setting up a shot of a basswood tree during autumn that looked quite interesting through that viewfinder. I took the picture and collapsed my tripod as I walked away.

Then it occurred to me: I could see the photo by playing it back on the LCD. And that’s when I discovered that my shot was not as good as I thought. I went back to the tree and set up everything again, using my first image as a reference, and got the result I was hoping to achieve. Using the LCD playback to make more compelling images is not a novel idea, but as I’ve discovered in the nature photography workshops I teach, people often overlook it.

Here are some other tips you may find useful as you head outdoors with your camera:

Get Out of the Middle

Many photographers tend to put their subjects right in the middle of the frame. But when they move those subjects to one side, that’s when a photo can get interesting and compel viewers to look at it more carefully.

Lubber grasshoppers on a stem by Rob Sheppard

Consider a technique called the "rule of thirds." That simply means you divide your image into thirds horizontally and vertically. Line up horizons on the horizontal thirds, and put strong vertical subject matter, such as trees, on the verticals. You can also put subjects where these lines intersect.

Yucca flowers in Santa Monica by Rob Sheppard

Get Close, Then Get Closer

This is a visual directive, not simply about moving closer. You can, of course, get visually closer to a subject by zooming in with a zoom lens.

But for wildlife photography, you need a big telephoto.

That means using a digital single lens reflex (SLR) that can hold at least a 300mm focal length lens or one of the large-zoom compact digital cameras that have an equivalent focal length of 300mm or more.

Get Sharper Photos Without Buying a New Camera or Lens

I have learned from my own, sometimes disappointing experiences that the number one cause of poor sharpness is camera movement during exposure. Slow shutter speeds that occur when the light is low (from the shade, cloudy days or early or late in the day) are the biggest cause of blurred images.

Valley of Fire State Park by Rob Sheppard

That's why pros use tripods to keep their equipment steady. But if you can't utilize a tripod for a particular photo, use two hands and bring your elbows into the sides of your chest. Be sure your feet are in a stable position, then press, don't punch, the shutter button. If your camera allows you to set the shutter, avoid speeds slower than 1/60 second (or 1/500 when using a telephoto).

Select a White Balance Rather Than Using the One Your Camera Will Set Automatically

Sunset in the Santa Monica Mountains by Rob Sheppard

White balance, which refers to how a digital camera responds to the color of light, is a relatively new tool for photographers. Our eyes compensate for this rather smartly, but cameras cannot. Cameras now come with auto white balance set by default, but this has two big problems:

  1. Auto white balance (AWB) constantly changes to try to adapt to conditions, often making it inconsistent.

  2. AWB tends to compromise on how it deals with colors, which is why such colors in your photos may be less dramatic than what you see outdoors.

The solution: Set a specific white balance in your camera to match the conditions, such as "Sunny" for sunlight and "Cloudy" for clouds. (Tip: You will get better sunrise and sunset colors in your photos if you set the camera to "Cloudy" or "Shade" during those times.)

Use Inexpensive Extension Tubes to Make High-quality, Close-up Images

Early on in my career, I loved photographing flowers and other objects up close, but I could not afford a macro lens. So I bought extension tubes and discovered they worked with all of the lenses I owned at the time, and that they helped me to make great images. Extension tubes fit between your digital SLR camera body and lens to allow your lens to focus closer.

California ladybird beetle by Rob Sheppard

Ephedra in Arches National Park by Rob Sheppard

Turn On Your Flash

That built-in flash on your camera is a great resource to use outside, but many people never turn it on outdoors. Flash can fill in dark shadows and brighten subjects on cloudy days.

Shoot Lots of Pictures!

You will learn more about your camera, as well as what makes a good picture, by going beyond your first approach to photographing a subject. Experiment with different angles and focal lengths, and have fun taking more pictures!


Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in southern California. He is the former editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo magazines. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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