Three Tips For Better Nature Shots

Regardless of the subject matter you photograph, it’s good to have lots of tricks in your hip pocket. Knowing they’re there is comforting. If you’re a seasoned veteran, it’s good to review the basics to keep them ingrained. If you’re a beginner, it’s good to learn and apply as many as you can comfortably absorb. The beauty about photography is learning is unending. Whether it’s reinforcing what you’ve already learned or trying out something you’ve never done, the “aha” moments never cease. Having just returned from leading one of my nature photography tours, there were three scenarios among my participants that kept repeating themselves. Hence the reason for my choice of the following three tips.

Histogram (wildlife and scenics): check your histogram often. Over the years, I’ve seen a trend develop. In that I grew up shooting slide film, it’s a bit disconcerting. Many photographers no longer worry about nailing the perfect exposure. Too many feel it can be corrected in post production. While this may be true to some extent, the more perfect the initial capture, the better the end result. If the photo is underexposed, noise appears in the shadows. If it’s overexposed, highlight detail is sacrificed. Either circumstance robs the image of its potential. The most common error I encounter among my workshop participants is they expose the image to look saturated on the LCD. Invariably, this creates an underexposed file. A simple check of the histogram shows too many pixels on the left with not enough on the right. If you are guilty basing your exposure on the LCD, I implore you to use your histogram. A digital capture is about electronic pixels. The histogram represents the math of that capture and directly reveals exposure data. While it may not “look” as good on the LCD, it provides far more information to evaluate your exposure.

Shoot for HDR (scenics): A digital sensor is capable of capturing a limited range of contrast. But by making a series of exposures where one is based on the meter reading, a second is underexposed to record highlight detail, and a third is overexposed to record shadow detail, the dynamic range can be expanded. Software such as Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photomatix synthesize the series of exposures into a single capture that reveals detail in the shadows, mid-tones and highlights. The effect can be achieved in Photoshop using layers but it’s time consuming and detailed. It’s essential the exposures are aligned so it behooves you to place the camera on a tripod and set it to auto-bracketing. This ensures the series will be in registration. Depending on the contrast range, the under and over exposed images can be either one or two stops. If the technique is new to you, create a series of five images starting with 2 stops under / 1 stop under / on the meter reading / 1 stop over / 2 stops over. As you create more and more HDR photographs, you’ll learn just what range nets the best effect.

Watch for Behavior or Interaction (wildlife): Photographing animals in the wild is a thrill. When they allow you to enter their space, providing it’s safe, it gets even better. I used to think there could be nothing more desirable than getting a frame filling photo of a wild animal. But as time went on and I captured more of these types of shots, I wanted something different - I wanted action, movement, interaction. These are the images that have more impact and drama. Images of animals simply standing in their environment are very common. To get the action shots, be patient and persistent, wait for the optimum moment the animal does something and the result will be an image with more interest. More than likely it will be fleeting so it’s essential to keep your eye glued to the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter. Yes, it’s work, but rewards come to those who work hard.

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    Stick to scenics. Your wildlife shots are limp and dull.

    The scenic in the middle is good, but the two wildlife shots are flat. Indeed, the author doesn’t take his own advice about histograms. He has no shadow at all in #1, and very little in #3.
    In the first one even the critter looks bored.

    Here’s one touchstone to use: If you replaced the wildebeest with a milk cow would it still be an interesting shot? A good shot needs:

    * An interesting subject
    * Doing an interesting action
    * Against an interesting background.

    Enjoyed the article Russ. Headed to Washington state in a few weeks and hope to put your tips into practice. I love shooting the mountains and waterfalls and with all my gear set up on the tripod waiting for the sun to rise one morning a silver fox decided to walk down the road close to where I was working. I had to dismount the camera and luckily caught a few images before she went on her way. Having a quick release and a zoom lens mounted helped but this time I will bring a second camera for those unexpected moments.

    Regarding Sherwood’s comment on photo #1- this image was taken on an overcast day. This allows all the texture in the wildebeest to be seen.I think the look on the wildebeest’s face is actually funny- like what am I supposed to do with this little creature? And the egret looks like he is thinking- can I fly faster than he can run at me? Any why do you want an interesting background to compete with the animals? Like in the elephant picture the photographer used a smaller F stop to blur the background so it wouldn’t compete with the elephants.Anyway, that’s my two cents…

    I’ve been photographing and writing for so long I’ve come to realize that criticism is inevitable and at times, when it’s done properly and in a nice way, it makes me work harder to get better at what I do. Thank you Albert and Judy for the support. Sherwood – I will work harder and hopefully post future tips that are to your liking. As Judy pointed out, the cape buffalo was shot in flat overcast light which related to the importance of checking the histogram given the fact both a dark and very light animal appears in the same photo. The photo wasn’t posted to try to win a photography contest. It’s there to demonstrate what the text states. Hope this helps clarify the intent of this week’s Tip of the Week.

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