(Last updated on July 14th, 2022)
Nature photography can be a lifelong endeavor. It is a genre of photography that can keep you growing as both a photographer and a human.
In short, it is a study of natural objects in their natural setting. Anything that falls into this expansive description is fair game.
Nature photography becomes more than just about creating images. It is an opportunity to completely focus on the creation of an image. One that highlights the beauty of nature. While it is challenging, you can walk away from an outing without a photo and the trip will still be successful.
Below I distill my experience as a nature photographer into seven tips to help you become a nature photographer. But first, let’s highlight the essential gear needed to create stunning nature photography.
At the basic level, all you need for nature photography is a camera and a lens. I recommend starting here so you do not get bogged down with equipment.
Any digital camera out today is sufficient to create stunning images. I began my digital journey as a nature photographer with a Nikon D80. It was a crop-sensor camera that suited my needs. Since then, I’ve had the Nikon D750, which I loved. Now my go-to camera is a Nikon z5.
I recommend getting a camera with at least 20 megapixels. This ensures a higher enough resolution for when you go to print your images. Here is a quick list of features that will facilitate the creation of amazing nature photography.
- Base ISO of 100
- Exposure delay mode
- Ability to swap out lenses
- Manual and Aperture-Priority modes
A good quality lens is paramount to nature photography. No matter the specs of the camera, the lens will be the determining factor for image sharpness.
Tack sharp images are a must in nature photography. I recommend starting out with a medium telephoto lens, such as a 24-70 mm. This spread will give you the ability to create a wide scene while also zooming in on a tight scene.
You may also consider getting a lens with a focal length wider than 24 mm. These lenses typically have a longer focus distance; this is the minimum distance between the lens and the subject in focus. They are well suited for wide expansive natural photographs.
As you progress, you may consider getting a longer focal length lens for the different subject matter. Wildlife is a major part of nature photography and the best images are created with focal lengths upwards of 600 mm. These lenses are expensive so I always recommend starting with an affordable lens in order to hone your skills.
A macro lens is also a good choice because it allows you to get up close and personal with the small world. Macro photography is one of my favorite sub-genres of nature photography and is highly rewarding.
Once you have a camera and your lens of choice, the next gear I recommend is a tripod. A solid tripod helps achieve sharp images while allowing you to photograph in low light. There are a lot of tripods out there. Find one that is conducive to your workflow. Does it need to be set up quickly? Is weight a concern?
Filters are also a handy thing to have when creating nature photography. These attach to the front of the lens and help you control the incoming light. Neutral Density, or ND filters, reduce the amount of light and allow for longer exposures, even in bright sunshine. As light passes through a polarizer filter, the rays align and create deeper colors and reduced reflections.
The last piece of equipment I recommend is a nature guidebook. Knowing your subject will help you create better images of them. You would not create a portrait of someone without first learning about who they are. Nature photography is the same.
1. Know Your Subject
This is essential. As I said above, a guidebook will teach you the habitat of animals. It will help you identify flowers and plants. Once equipped with this knowledge, you will know exactly where, and when, to create nature photography of select subjects. My favorite books are the National Audubon Society Field Guides.
These guides cover a wide spectrum of subject matter. From the night sky to mushrooms, the series divides every aspect of the natural world into an individual book.
This knowledge will also keep you safe. Photographing wildlife is exciting and rewarding. But some animals are dangerous. Knowing how to exist around a bear and what to do if a bear takes interest in you is essential. This photographer was photographing a bear, but the bear had other ideas. The photographer did the correct thing.
2. Create Separation
A lens that opens up to f/2.8 or wider is a great tool to have. This will allow you to find a subject and create the image with a shallow depth of field. Simply place the subject greater than five feet away from the background and use a wide aperture.
The focus will quickly fall away and the subject will stand out from the blurred background. This is also commonly used in macro nature photography. It can lead to some dazzling images.
3. Get Up and Close
I keep coming back to macro photography because of how fun it can be. Get up and close to your subject and create images that are larger than life. This captures the viewer’s attention because the tiny insect is so large in the frame. We can see things we normally cannot.
Macro photography does get tricky because the light is lower than ideal. A ring light that attaches to the lens can help provide additional light where needed.
4. Shake Up the Perspective
We all expect the perspective and angles to reflect the natural human vision. But these images quickly become boring. Get down low and point the camera upwards to provide another angle of view. Frame your subject with something like this image. Try various perspectives.
Something I do a lot in my nature photography is including angles. I find leading lines and elements that break the frame into triangles. This creates dynamics and visual interest.
5. Natural Light is Best
The sun is the best light source out there. It is free, predictable, and has many settings. Top-notch nature photography utilizes the different light from the sun.
The golden hour is the best example. Roughly the hour or so immediately after sunrise and immediately before sunset. The light is golden, soft, warm, and perfect for nature photography. Plan your photography around this time.
The blue hour is the time before sunrise and after sunset. The light is just starting to grow (or diminish) and is diffuse. With a tripod, you can create amazing blue hour nature photography like the one below.
Knowing when these times happen is critical. TimeandDate.com is my go-to resource for helping me plan my golden or blue hour nature photography outings.
6. Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a highly versatile composition tool. Imagine a grid of nine squares in the frame as a guide. Then place the subject at one of the corners of the center most square. This creates a visually appealing composition that our mind is drawn to.
To augment the power of the rule of thirds, balance the subject with a smaller object and place it on the opposite side of the frame. This will give the eye things to look at and pull the viewer through the frame. When we engage with photos in this manner, they become more impactful.
7. Tread Lightly
This is the most important aspect of nature photography. It garners a lot of opinions across the web. But for me, if we do not respect nature, it will vanish; and with it, nature photography.
Leave No Trace is a nonprofit working to educate people about how to recreate and enjoy nature responsibly so future generations will be able to have the same experience. They have a set of principles designed to help visualize the concept.
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Leave what you find
- Minimize Campfire impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be considerate to others
Points number six and seven are the two most relatable to nature photography. While the other five will guide you to a successful, a low-impact photography outing, respecting wildlife and being considerate are most important.
The rule of thumb is to keep wildlife at a safe distance. The best way to determine this distance is by holding your thumb out at arm’s length. With one eye closed, your outstretched should cover the animal.
The larger the animal, the greater the distance. Also, the longer the focal length.
Being considerate of others means respecting the location and other photographers. I always give vague location tags to my images. This allows people to have an idea of where it is, should they want to create a similar image. But it also prevents social media influencers from invading the location and causing harm.
A few years ago I found the Nature Photographers Network. It has been a source of inspiration, critiques, feedback, and support. It is as much a social network as a place to showcase your finest nature photography.
You do not have to travel far for nature photography. Nature is all around us and your backyard is probably a great place to start. From there the world is your oyster.
Nature photography is my favorite genre for many reasons. But the biggest reason I keep coming back to nature photography is the joy of being among trees. It is a stress-free genre that can really stimulate and blossom your creativity.
Each photo outing becomes more than just about creating images. It becomes a chance to reset. To unplug. To enjoy the moment. Best of all, you get to focus on creating the best images you can. And if you walk away with no good photographs, the outing can still be a success.
Nature photography is creating images of the natural world and objects in situ. That is to say, images of a leaf after it has fallen from the tree. Or dew delicately hanging on a tree branch before evaporating. Nature photography is a great way to become a better photographer.
Landscape photography is what it sounds like, images of large (or small) landscapes. It is a type of nature photography. On the other hand, I like to view nature photography as a chance to highlight the details of the natural world. It is a micro-landscape image that showcases the beauty of nature.
The basic setup you need is a DSLR and a lens. However, if you want to have a solid camera kit dedicated to nature photography, I recommend the following items.
- 20 megapixel (or greater) DSLR or mirrorless camera
- Sturdy Tripod
- 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens
- 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens
- ND filters at various densities
- Circular Polarizer filters
- Nature Guidebook – specific to what you want to photograph
- Sense of adventure
Using photography sites and apps like the Photographers Ephemeris and Time and Date will help you plan a location and time for a nature photography outing. Furthermore, knowing what type of nature you want to photograph is essential. If you want to photograph morning dew on leaves, you have to plan a trip where the humidity is high and the dew point has been reached. Or know when certain animals are active.
Knowing more about nature is essential to nature photography. While you do not need to become an ornithologist, knowing the time water birds are most active will lead you to success. Guidebooks are a dime a dozen and worth more than their weight in gold.
Richard Bednarski is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer. Photography is his passion and he draws from my experiences as an archaeologist and a father of two in order to connect with communities. He also holds a master’s degree in Media Innovation.
Richard has focused his career on documenting the American West and human stories while also writing about photography. When not writing stories that matter, Richard can be found traveling and camping with his wife and two daughters, tending a garden, baking bread, and playing the banjo.