This past winter, I attended the North American Nature Photography Association meeting (www.nanpa.org—a great organization for nature photographers). Between meetings, I was struck by an overheard discussion between a couple of photographers. They talked about nature as if it was something quite separate from who they were. Nature photography, for them, was a quest and something to "accomplish."
Now, I understand that everyone has a different approach to nature. As long as we all support the protection of the environment that gives us our subjects, I’ll go along with that. Personally, I want a more intimate, down-and-dirty approach to nature. I get out the wide-angle lens, set it to a close-focusing distance, then get down and into the natural world—and I mean into it.
The result is a different view of the smaller parts of nature. I feel part of nature; plus this approach lets me show off flowers, bugs and other small subjects as part of a larger world—it’s like giving them an environmental portrait as flattering as that of a CEO in an annual report. I want to bring the viewer into this world through the photograph.
I started doing this sort of work when I bought my first 24mm lens a long time ago. And when digital cameras came out with swivel or tilting LCDs, I was excited by the prospects—you could actually see through the lens by using the live LCD and you didn’t have to lie on the ground for a low-angle shot.
A live LCD is extremely helpful for getting down into nature. It lets you see exactly what the lens sees because it’s being fed by the actual sensor in the camera. In a digital SLR, the camera’s mirror blocks the sensor until exposure, so no live LCD is possible (except for a couple of cameras).
I’ve used a standard digital SLR for my low-angle, intimate nature shots, but haven’t been happy with that use. You certainly can experiment with shooting with a regular D-SLR and just holding it low, then checking the LCD, though it won’t be as convenient as seeing exactly what the sensor is getting. Luckily, the tilting, live LCD is still around, though the choices are more limited.
You can buy a used Canon, Nikon or Olympus digital camera with a tilting or rotating LCD at a reasonable price. Canon dropped the tilting LCD in going from the PowerShot G6 to the PowerShot G7 (which was a shame), but you can get a 7- or 10-megapixel PowerShot A630 or A640 for less than $400, and they include a big tilting LCD. These full-featured cameras have a complete complement of controls and a good little lens, and offer an adapter to add a wide-angle.
The Nikon Coolpix S4 has an attractive, rotating lens body that allows a more pocketable camera with a longer focal length. The camera doesn’t take accessory lenses, however, so the wide-angle end of its zoom is limited. Sony has a tilting LCD in the Cyber-shot DSC-H9.
Olympus has the most flexible camera of the tilting LCD bunch since the EVOLT E-330 is a full-featured D-SLR with interchangeable lenses. This allows you to get whatever focal length you need. The live LCD works by reading a special sensor in the viewfinder that captures what the lens is seeing, or you can use the camera in a direct-sensor mode and see through the lens with the actual picture-taking sensor.
I like Dewitt Jones’ idea of calling such cameras "lenses." What he means is that there are unique cameras offering features your D-SLR doesn’t have. They provide a new way of looking and photographing, just as if you bought a new lens for your camera, and they cost about the same, while taking up no additional space in the camera bag than a new lens (at least for the compacts). In addition, the image quality from these little cameras (not just the Olympus D-SLR) can be remarkable.
Owning one of the compact cameras will change the way you see the world around you and affect how you use your D-SLR—I guarantee it. And if you want the ultimate in quality, the Olympus EVOLT E-330 offers superb lenses with a high-quality sensor that does a wonderful job with natural subjects.
Low, wide-angle close-ups put the camera (and the viewer) into an intimate view of nature. It’s more than a technique, and it has allowed me to enter a world of flowers and critters that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. For me, it has richened my connection with nature.
Shoot at low angles with D-SLRs by using a right-angle finder. Adorama’s ProOptic Right Angle Finder II fits most film and digital SLRs. It includes 1x and 2.5x dual magnification settings, 9 elements in 5 groups with an angled prism for a sharper view, and measures 2.36x1.38x3.35 inches. Street Price: $89. Contact: Adorama, www.adorama.com.
1 Use a close-focusing wide-angle lens. Compact digital cameras will focus up close naturally with a wide-angle. This prickly pear cactus and grasshopper near Moab, Utah, (see page 1)was photographed with a full-frame fish-eye lens on the Olympus EVOLT E-330.
2 Get down low enough to get into that environment. The more dramatic shots come when the background is recognizable as a real environment for your subject. This puts you and your photograph into nature. This Great Smokies centipede (see page 2) was a challenging shot for its surprising speed.
3 Try shallow depth of field. Sometimes a shallow depth of field from a large aperture is more effective in showing off your subject, like in this shot of a moss hummock in Acadia National Park, Maine.
4 A digital camera with a tilting or swivel live LCD lets you get low-angle shots more easily than any other way, as seen in this Olympus EVOLT E-330 D-SLR.
5 Try deep depth of field. I love the deep depth of field you get with a wide-angle and a small aperture when shooting up close. This field of owl’s clover goes on forever and has sharpness from close to far.
6 THE pod support from Bogen is a huge help in stabilizing your camera near the ground, plus it keeps the camera off wet dirt and other debris. Any beanbag will help, but this one screws into the tripod socket of your camera, which makes it more convenient.
8 Find the sun. While exposure and flare can be challenging, you can compose dramatic images by shooting low enough to the subject that you can get the sun coming through in the background, such as in this fall maple leaf shot in New York.
9 Use a lens shade if your camera can take one. This isn’t for keeping the sun out, but to keep branches, twigs, grass and other distracting elements away from the front of the lens. All that stuff behind the little red eft in this photo also is in front and to the sides, all able to strike the front of the lens.
10 Use your knee. I’ve taken many a photograph with the camera braced against my knee to help compose a low shot and to stabilize the camera for slow shutter speeds, as in this image of showy trillium in Tennessee.