Nature Photography
The sunset colors reflect over Mono Lake at the South Tufa State Reserve in California. PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM PATTERSON

Take Nature Photos Like A Pro

A top photographer explains how to shoot gorgeous outdoor images, step by step.

April 1, 2015

Nature photography can be a wonderful outlet for creativity that simultaneously allows you to enjoy the great outdoors. It’s a satisfying blend of left- and right-brain activities; you balance artistic choices with technical decisions about how you want to capture your shot. While there’s no one formula for a successful image, here are a few rules of thumb I follow every time I’m out taking photos.

Find A Good Subject
Great photos will undoubtedly have interesting subject matter. Photographers flock to places like national and state parks for a reason: the dramatic scenery. And who doesn’t need an excuse to travel? Once on location, spend time scouting angles and finding subject matter that speaks to you.   

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Follow The Light
We’re all familiar with the notion of being somewhere at the right place at the right time. Yet nature photography is not always about luck but dedication and persistence. Great nature photos are often taken during early morning and late evening hours for one main reason: the quality of light. Good light can elevate a photograph from ordinary to the sublime. The low angle of the sun at sunrise and sunset is not only softer, but it reduces harsh shadows that typically hinder midday photos. Of course, the presence of fiery yellows, reds, pinks, and purples certainly helps, too. While front light is often flat, side light can bring out richer textures; back light can add a nice glow through foliage—and can be great for making stark silhouettes. For an image of Mono Lake, I shot at sunset to capture the soft light in the eastern sky.

Set The Scene
Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” While technical excellence is important in nature photography, composition is paramount. When deciding what to shoot, get into a “question and answer” mode. Ask yourself: What’s interesting to me? Do I include or exclude this or that object? Is the composition better if I shoot from closer to the ground or up high? This ongoing process of creative investigation helps fine-tune a scene.

Look For Balance
Balancing a composition can be as simple as giving more weight to unique and interesting subject matter while minimizing less important elements (think the rule of thirds). Scan the edges of your frame to avoid unwanted distractions, and give ample breathing room for elements you do include.

Find Flow
Flow can be improved by using the corners of the frame to draw interest into the middle (e.g., triangular shapes at the edges pointing inward). Leading lines can create directionality (as with diagonals, S curves, zig-zags).

Create Contrast
Contrast can be found in not only color but in tones and textures. Look for ways that light and shadow play off each other. And find subjects with compelling texture and detail, and then position them against soft or blurred backgrounds.

Add Variety
Include colors that complement each other. For this photograph, I used the texture of the tufa to contrast with the smooth reflections and sky. I framed the image so that the unique tufa formations and Mono Lake itself took up approximately two thirds of it, while the clouds had one-third of the frame.

Consider Filters
Whether you’re using a fancy digital camera or Instagram on your iPhone, think about which filters will work best for the scene. This assessment process happens more quickly the better you know your gear. Practice makes perfect, so if you’re not there yet, devote some time to understanding your equipment. My composition included both near and far elements, so I used an aperture of f/11 to get sufficient depth of field. In order to balance the bright sky, I used a two-stop soft graduated neutral density filter. And since I wanted the cleanest image possible, I used an ISO of 100, which resulted in a two-second shutter speed.

Complete The Vision
In today’s world of digital photography, field technique is only part of the equation in creating a top-notch image. In order to make your images truly sing, some level of post-processing typically takes place. Shooting in the RAW file format will allow the most latitude when editing. And with countless software and image manipulation techniques available, you can always be learning new information, so take a class, read a blog post, or watch a YouTube video. My simple advice about software editing is to selectively accentuate what was already present in the original scene. Boost contrast by digitally burning and dodging specific areas to increase and decrease brightness. Selectively sharpen areas to boost texture, and avoid oversharpening smooth areas like clouds and open sky. Use color correction tools in order to balance hue and saturation. The great thing about digital photography is that you have the ability to experiment and undo adjustments along the way.

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Jim Patterson is a nature photographer living in Santa Cruz, California. He teaches a variety of workshops about outdoor photography.

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