Jim Crotty's Top 13 Tips for Nature Photography
1. Shoot early and stay late. Nature and landscape images are all about the quality of the light. The light on the margins of the day is always best, particularly during autumn and spring. Stick around for at least an hour after sunset; it’s often when the best color occurs with dynamic clouds.
2. For wide landscapes, longer exposures make better images. This is true particularly when working with greater depth of field through smaller aperture settings, like f/16 through f/32.
This image was exposed for 1/40 second at f/22, ISO 400. ©Jim Crotty
3. A stable shooting platform is essential. I invested in a professional grade tripod and ball head, and it’s worth its weight in gold. (I love the products from Kirk Enterprises in Indiana, especially the L-brackets custom made for my camera bodies.)
4. Bad weather is good, but avoid weather that’s so bad you put yourself and your gear in danger. The subdued light of a rainy morning or afternoon evens out the variation between highlights and shadows, making it easier to gain proper exposure while retaining detail throughout the histogram.
5. Photograph water in low light. Capturing flowing water, such as a waterfall or stream, is best in low, subdued light. Sunlight will completely blow-out highlights when you’re going for that cotton-candy effect with moving water.
6. Manual focus is your friend. Maintaining sharp focus of a subject with close-in and macro photography outdoors can be challenging due to wind and an extremely shallow depth of field. Autofocus on macro lenses can jump all over the place. In my landscape photography, too, I prefer manual focus. Detachable flash and reflectors are great tools to use for macro subjects outdoors.
7. Use a split neutral density filter with landscapes at sunrise and sunset. This brings together the variation between bright sky and dark foreground. Some photographers are making use of post-shoot digital tools that come close to doing the same thing.
8. Backpack-style camera bags are essential. Invest in one that will carry what you need comfortably. Try to carry only what you need for the particular area and subject. Sometimes a load can easily go near 40 or 50 pounds. With that kind of weight, it’s unlikely you’ll hike very far.
9. Sand can be a camera killer. In particular, don’t let grains get inside the zoom and focusing mechanisms of lenses. Be careful changing lenses in outdoor conditions that could involve rain, dust, and blowing sand.
10. Isolate and edit. Wide-angle lenses don’t necessarily result in the best landscape images. I love to isolate sections of the landscape using focal lengths from 70mm to 300mm. Scenic areas in beautiful light can almost be overwhelming with so much competing for the photographer's eye. Always go with what first catches your eye and then edit, edit, edit.
Isolate sections of landscape using focal lengths from 70mm to 300mm. The image above was taken at 200mm. ©Jim Crotty
11. Take your time and work a scene. Allow yourself enough time just to walk around a particular location and stop, look, and perhaps meditate. Sometimes the potential image isn't obvious until the nature photographer becomes completely in the moment and the spirit of a part of the landscape. I’ve almost had to become lost within a particular place outdoors before the subject and composition become clear.
12. Get a little dirty. Have fun and play with angles other than eye-level when standing. Get down on your back or your belly—almost a necessity with spring wildflowers. One of the many wonderful things about nature subjects is that there’s so much to see when the photographer plays and explores, especially with the miniature landscapes of macro photography.
13. Bracket your exposures. Memory is cheap. Even if you’re currently not doing HDR photography, at least you will have the exposures to work with down the road in the event you go that route.
Jim Crotty is a nature and portrait photographer in Hilton Head, S.C.