Improve Your Nature Photography Skills, Experts Weigh In

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Whether you’re an avid multi-day backpacker, day hiker, or car camper, exploring our country’s ubiquitous state and national parks, or you’re someone who loves being outside with your family in tow in your own backyard, you’ll likely want to capture the flora and fauna. When it comes to nature photography, there’s much to learn, from picking the right lens to paying attention to what’s in the foreground and background to zeroing in on the scenery’s close-up textures.

With the help of the following intrepid outdoor photographers, discover tips on capturing your subject in the best lighting, using diverse angles and perspectives for a distinctive shot, and storytelling through dynamic images. Summit peaks, toss stones, come alive, and capture it all.

An Australian shutterbug, who currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, Melissa Findley is well known for her crisp and thoughtful travel and adventure photography. On a recent hiking trip, Findley brought along a Sony a7R IV with a cache of lenses including a Sony 50mm f/1.2, 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6.

Being respectful of the wild world and the animals that live within, what tips do you have for getting the best wildlife shot?

Obtaining local knowledge relevant to the wildlife you’d like to capture is important as is choosing the time of day—early morning or late afternoon when the wildlife tends to be most active. Patience is key and always keeping a safe distance to not harm or disturb the wildlife. Never feed or touch a wild animal.

Many photogs talk about shooting during “golden hours”, the period of time just before the sun rises or just after the sun sets. How important is time of day and natural lighting for nature photography?

Light is everything; the time of day is imperative for emotive storytelling. A lot of professional travel photographers will focus their body of work around golden light (pre-sunset or post-sunrise when the sun is at a low angle, casting golden light across your scene/subject) or blue hour (pre-dawn and at dusk when the sun’s position is below the horizon, but night hasn’t fallen yet).

Not only are these times of day less busy with tourists, but the emotion connected with the contrast or deepness of the scene will add to your storytelling. Golden hour and golden light can create a positive and inspirational, dreamy or nostalgic scene, whereas the deep tones of blue hour can be used to create serenity, peace, and even melancholy.

While smart phones have come a long way, serious nature photographers may want to upgrade their gear to take more exacting shots. What are the top three gear items every beginner nature photographer should have?

Aside from a camera and lens of choice, select a carbon fiber tripod, a head torch (you’ll likely be out pre-sunrise and post sunset), and a rocket blower or lens cloth.

A Montana local, Hope Kauffman creates visually stunning outdoor photography where humans are the subject of her creativity. Whether on a tree-studded trail, or near a lake, Kauffman has a unique ability for capturing joy. She uses the versatile Canon R6 with a 24-70 2.8 as her go-to lens and she likes to keep a 70-200 2.8 handy for wildlife, especially if she’s exploring in her local outdoor space, Glacier National Park. For portraits with an extra sharp edge, she uses an 85 prime lens.

For new photographers, who are interested in capturing individuals in a landscape shot, what should they be cognizant of?

I love this question because I have so many people show me an inspiration shot or request to shoot at a specific location at a certain time when maybe the light isn’t exactly how it needs to be for the shot. I know Glacier National Park and my surrounding beautiful areas of Montana down to the hour during every time of year.

I always asks my clients to trust me to take them to the perfect spot where I know the light is going to best to be able to provide what we need to accomplish their vision. I encourage everyone to trust their photographer and for photographers to be overly communicative and understanding. Guiding them gently is so important for the relationship to succeed and for everyone to feel heard.

What are your favorite types of photographs to take and why?

If I could spend every day shooting only what I love, I would focus on travel photography. Storytelling though imagery has always drawn me in. Portraits are specifically my favorite type of travel photography.

I love hearing people’s stories and connecting with them on an intimate level. The act of creating a portrait is very sacred to me and how I most strongly connect as a human to another human. I love to make people see and feel as beautiful as they are to me. I am not only providing an image, but also, I’m installing seeds of confidence that they can hopefully carry with them.

For composition, what should new photogs think about? Rule of thirds, playing with depth of field, or any other tricks of the trade?

I am a big believer in finding your own style. Experimentation and playing with light has most informed my work. I love shooting through something—a wildflower, over a shoulder, through trees. Adding a little interest to the foreground, blurred out even for just a peek of color, has been a staple of my work.

I find that when I try to overthink or be too perfect with settings, the magic of the moment falls away. I shoot almost every day and my style is constantly changing. I think there is so much beauty in flexibility while creating, it keeps me engaged and in love with my career!

The inimitable Erin Hutchison is not only a passionate outdoor photographer, but also, an avid boots-on-the-ground outdoorswoman. You’ll notice right away how her images, colorful and bright, tell a story. She primarily shoots on a Sony A7iii, with a 24-70 lens.

Sometimes you think you have the perfect shot, but a little correcting is needed in post. What suggestions do you have for punching up a photograph in the editing room?

The beauty of photography is having to adapt to so many different shooting conditions. Some of my favorite photos I barely touch in post, while others I’m not thrilled with initially really surprise me after some simple editing. Generally I like to play with highlights, clarity, and warmth to really give my images an extra punch.

Many beginner photographers, who aren’t ready to invest weightily in camera gear, are trying their hand at nature photography with what they currently own. Do you have any tips for folks who only have their smart phones?

My love for photography began with shooting and editing on an iPhone. It’s a great tool to get creative with by trying different angles, playing with portrait mode, and really developing an understanding for composition and your personal photography style.

Before I invested in a Sony, I would adventure with Moment lenses, small twist-on lenses for an iPhone. They gave regular phone photos an extra edge, were incredibly user-friendly, and were more budget-friendly for beginners.

Each season provides something fun and challenging when it comes to outdoor camerawork. What tips do you have for shooting during the different spells?

I love to be active outside as much as possible, year-round, which also means my camera is always along for the ride. Hiking, fishing, or wildlife photography, for me, it’s all about images that tell a story. My biggest tip for nature photographers is patience and always having your camera at the ready. I’ve sat in zero-degree, snowy conditions, waiting on a chance to capture an elk herd on the move. And, I’ve put dozens of miles on my Danner boots in search of wildflowers with a mountain backdrop.

Every outing is an adventure and an opportunity to learn something new. It doesn’t always work out how you hope, but when it does, it’s magical. Light also plays a big part for me, which usually means very early mornings or late evenings as I prefer the softer light of dawn or pre-sunset. Take full advantage of learning from the nuances of the different seasons. All four have something unique to offer.

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