Having been brought up on a farm, it was only natural when I began photography that my work would centre around the natural world. As a boy, I had a real interest in birds and, while I enjoy photographing all aspects of nature, birds are still my primary interest. In my early photographic career, I was pleased to simply find and photograph any subject but, as time passes and our interest and understanding deepens, other elements come into play that take us beyond mere recording.
Northern Flicker landing at nest hole • Beartooth Mountains, Montana
Photography is a subject that you can never truly master and is one from which you will always be learning. It is true that with experience comes more confidence in one’s ability and that enables you to better assess the elements in the image and put them together to make a more interesting photograph. As nature photography advances at a rapid pace, it can never be a substitute for a sound understanding of design and composition. There is an old saying that a good picture of a common subject will always be better than a poor one of a rare subject.
After all, as nature photographers, we are trying to produce something that captivates the viewer and conveys information, both about the subject and its place in the world. If this can be achieved with some degree of personal input and creativity it is more likely to be attractive to the viewer. Nature photography, in my view, is about producing images that are attractive to others and that draw them in to share the information and moment that you have recorded.
Right place, right time
There are, of course, many aspects that go into making such images; the understanding of light and form, composition and design in the image and a sound understanding of technique. By the very fact that I am photographing elements which are often fleeting and action that occurs without warning, I need to understand the capabilities of my equipment and have it prepared for any action that might happen. These are all skills that are required in other photographic disciplines, but there is also one major factor that makes nature photographers stand out and that is the skills needed to allow them to get into the right place and understand the subject’s behaviour. This is what will give them the edge and there is no substitute for it if they want to class themselves as true nature photographers.
Today we are seeing a great deal of nature photography which is captured by using other people’s knowledge via their commercial set-ups. There is no doubt that some of these are stunning and taken in isolation the final images are right up there. However, this work lacks one vital element and that is the knowledge base required by a true nature photographer. It is this which sets a true nature photographer apart from the rest. I would like to feel I fit in this category.
While I have used all sorts of methods to capture my nature images, it is true to say that for the last twenty years or so I have photographed in the wild, seeking out my subjects and using my natural history knowledge, camera skills and available light to get the final photograph. This method can be both rewarding and frustrating as you tend to miss a lot of shots, but when it all comes together it gives you a real buzz, which is what I like best when photographing.
Working in the way I do it is important that I understand the subject, know the limitations of its behaviour and what can be achieved with my equipment. The first two aspects change from subject to subject and to improve your chance, you must watch and learn. This can be by a period of observation before attempting to take the image, or from experience gained over the years. It is true that the more you observe and are involved with the subjects, the more opportunity it gives you to plan a successful outcome. Once hone your nature skills, you put that knowledge into practice. Modern developments in camera technology have helped immensely in this area. With outstanding optics and the improvement in noise reduction in digital cameras, I can go places I would never have considered 15 years ago. Today high-speed photography is available and gives me the capability of shooting at over 1/2500sec in available light, opening a whole new world of possibilities. High-speed motor drives, advancement in autofocus and image writing speeds all stack in my favour, allowing me the opportunity to capture action not possible before. But these are mere tools that give me a better chance to obtain more exciting images. They are of little use if you cannot use the available light to good advantage, include elements of design or control the backgrounds.
The importance of light
Let us look at light, the most essential ingredient after the subject and the one element you can use in different ways to create a mood to show o the subject at its best. Traditionally we photograph using light coming from behind the camera. This light will give you the best illumination of the subject rendering its shape, detail in the feathers, skin or fur and other information. An important aspect of this type of photography is to ensure you are in control of the background. Using long lenses already gives you the opportunity to throw the background out of focus, but that alone is not enough. We also need to ensure it is not in conflict with the main subject and to get the background as even as we can, eliminating highlights and strong colours. Two examples of these are shown, one on the previous page of a Northern Flicker landing at a nest hole. In that image, we need strong light to allow a high shutter speed to freeze the action and a hint of the woodland setting with the out of focus trunks and branches. Ensuring the background is well behind the subject gives us the separation needed and the inclusion of the trunk and nest entrance places the action in the picture.
This choice of framing and position was planned and the lens put on manual and focused on the plain of the bird flight before the action started allowing me to concentrate on the bird flying in. Using a high-speed motor drive, I closed the viewfinder cover and watched the bird return, firing before the bird reached the frame.
Tree Swallow change-over • Beartooth Mountains, Montana
The second image of the Tree Swallow change-over at the nest is another example that follows the same pattern. Here the nest was higher so I had to use the top of the trees as a backdrop. Following the same pattern as I had for the Flicker allowed me to see the bird flying in and observe the behaviour. When one adult returned while the other was still in the hole, the returning bird would perch by the entrance waiting for the other to leave and, as it did so, it would drop backwards off the tree. The exciting thing about this image is how their wings interlaced as they passed each other.
This is a widely-used approach to animal and bird photography and, when you have action going on, it can deliver all that you need in an image. If a subject is static however, it helps if you can add design or strong composition to allow the final image to attract the viewer. It is true to say that composition and design are not always top of the nature photographer’s priorities. However, if you can think about how the subject and elements sit within the picture frame, this will always make the image stronger. History has proved that the rules of design and composition can be intrinsic in delivering a truly captivating image.
Bohemian Waxwings • Mammoth, Yellowstone National Park
While photographing three Bohemian Waxwings I spotted the birds feeding and perching. There were about thirty to forty of them in total, perched in both singles and groups. I was drawn to the strong diagonal in the composition and, when I fired the shutter, I was reminded of the phrase ‘pecking order’. Hopefully that conveys to the viewer as well.
We can also use front-on light to create impact, particularly where it is transient. In the image of a Bald Eagle in Snowy Pine, taken with a Sigma 150-600mm Sports lens, I worked myself through deep snow to get into a position where I could frame the image against the trees and the stormy sky. The bird was positioned on the third, balancing it against the snow ladened pine. The light was flitting in and out of the clouds and I waited until it illuminated just the bird and tree emphasising the dark sky behind. Of course, using the rules of composition can greatly add to the impact of your image, however, you cannot be tied to these and with experience a photographer will instinctively know when breaking these rules will produce a stronger image.
Southern House Wren • Torres del Paine, Patagonian Chile
In the shot of the Southern House Wren, I studied the behaviour of the bird as it returned with food and realised it always perched close to the nest hole before entering. I searched the woodland and found an old log covered in beautiful grey lichen which I placed close to the nest and waiting to see if the bird would use it. It did not take long before it did and, when it perched to the left of the branch, I knew this was the image I wanted. To the purist, the composition is all wrong, but for me it is a good example of how the colours, textures and position of the lichen and muted background overcome breaking the rule to produce a pleasing result.
Red Fox in snowdrift • Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
While backgrounds are important, foregrounds can equally be used to good effect. It is normal to have uncluttered foregrounds and avoid distracting elements but, if used properly, foregrounds can aid the story. I used this approach when out photographing a Red Fox in a snow drift. There were two foxes hunkered down sleeping and every so often they would stretch and yawn. I noticed that each time they did this they would just look up prior to the action. I isolated one of the foxes using a long lens and switching off the autofocus, I pre-focused on the snow just in front of where the animal was hidden and waited. As the animal lifted its head I quickly tweaked the focus and captured the photograph I wanted; just its eyes peering over the snow.
Using backgrounds to tell a story or allow you to use the elements in the frame to better effect is another weapon in the arsenal of the nature photographer. You can use sympathetic backgrounds to make the image, but keep it simple, use design and place your subject in strong positions in the picture space. The shot of the Female White Crowned Sparrow was taken in New Mexico while I was testing the Sigma 500mm F4 DG OS Sports lens, to prove the quality of the lens with a x2 convertor. For this image simplicity was the key, so I placed the bird in a strong position to use the colour harmony to best effect.
Female White Crowned Sparrow • Bosque del Apache, New Mexico
As a nature photographer, you should never be frightened to experiment with lighting. With experience you will learn that, by using the light in a different way, you can create images to impact and give a fresh perspective. When I photographed a Great Egret landing, I deliberately shot against the light to show its beautiful backlit feathers. Choosing a dark background and with setting sun just out of frame, I had the camera on manual to ensure that I did not over expose the white bird resulting, for me at least, in one of my favourite and most beautiful images.
Great Egret • Venice Rookery, Florida
Finally, use the elements that you have and work with them to deliver a feel of the subject and its environment. Do not be afraid of experimenting. While only a few may work at the start, with practice you will soon learn to recognise situations that have promise and exploit them to the full. In the image of the Willet at Sunset I used the gold of the setting sun as it reflected on the receding waves as a backdrop to the Willet which was running along the shoreline. An image that would have been impossible in the days of film, but modern technology pushed to its limits have produced pleasing results.
Willet at sunset • Lover Key, Bonita Springs, Florida
As a nature photographers, we have all these aspects of image capture at our disposal and, as we grow in experience we can decide which of these tools to use to deliver the best image. Remember we need to convey to the viewers all the information we can in such a way that makes each image attractive to view. Like me, I am sure you will find that there is as much failure as success, but unless you try you will never know. Most important of all is to remember that, win or lose, as a nature photographer you will have enjoyed the encounter with the subject - and that is something you should never dismiss.