Nature Photography On Your Own
Going to exotic places is often better accomplished on organized tours, however, for me, it is hard to beat getting out there on your own or with a choice group of friends or other photographers. In North America, we are blessed with many incredible places to photograph. National and State Parks are designed for individual travelers seeking to discover the natural heritage. Proper planning will make the difference between success and disaster. Let's break it down to a few small steps.
Step One: Timing
The first thing you need to decide is when you want to travel. This sometimes seems pretty simple, but if you have never been to a place it will pay to check on when the subject you want to photograph is at its best. For example, wildflowers in the Rocky Mountains are at the height of their season in mid-July. The altitude makes them bloom later than in places nearer sea level. If you are unsure when to go, check with your computer for photo tours of that particular area. Organized tour operators know when conditions are optimal and they schedule their tours accordingly.
Step Two: What are you going to photograph?
Knowing what you might encounter is probably the most important bit of information you will need. It will indicate what equipment to bring and give you your game plan. How do you find out what you might see? Almost every State and all National Parks have websites, and most of them will provide you with a list of area plants and animals. They may also have information about photo restrictions at certain times of year when wildlife may be sensitive to disturbance. Some areas of a park might be closed during nesting or rutting seasons.
Once you know what you are likely to see, you may need to research a particular animal or plant. Suppose you are hoping to find moose. What habitat should you be looking in; forest, willows, or wetlands? The answer may be different at different times of the year. Since knowledge is cumulative, the more you learn the less you will need to learn the next time, and practice in the field is incredibly satisfying.
Step Three: Where will you see it?
It is sometimes hard to know where to look for what you want to see. Contact the park or rangers who work there, but often the reply is that you never know where wildlife will show up. There are better places than others to start your search. Go to a bookstore for photography of the place you plan to visit. Photographers often share the name of the valley, river, or section of the park where a picture was taken.
Once at the park, ask Rangers or other photographers about photo opportunities.
Use your time wisely. In the middle of the day, when light is not good for shooting, scout out photo sites you plan to visit. Consider where the sun will rise and set. It may be a good morning place or better to visit at night.
Some people like camping and others prefer a lodge, but there are more things to consider than comfort. The wildlife you want to see will be found in specific places. Staying at a lodge may mean you have to wake up a half hour earlier to insure you get to the wildlife on time. Staying at a campground may be closer to the wildlife. It's a little thing, but sometimes worth a few extra minutes of sleep.
A key element in feeling good about results from a photographic trip is not having expectations that are impossible to obtain. Photo books, magazines, brochures, and other presentations are typically the result of many hours spent, sometimes over many years, photographing a specific subject. This is necessary to be able to portray the entire life history of an animal or the life style of a group of people. It is normally impossible to get it all in one trip. The more you visit a place, the more things there are to photograph. Going back to a place over and over again will give you access to the big picture and what is happening over time during different seasons. It also allows you to get closer to your subject through an intimate knowledge that only time can give you.
Don't think that by going to a place only once won't give you wonderful images. Be prepared for the expected opportunities, take advantage of unexpected ones, and be content with what is happening before your eyes.
If you take advantage of what is in front of you in a creative way, you will have worthwhile photographs at the end of your trip. Attitude counts when you are taking pictures. A negative attitude is reflected in your results. Live in the present and photograph what is there. I have seen people complain about photographs they are not taking, while wonderful opportunities pass right in front of their lenses. If the sun is not shining, the sunset shot you were hoping for will have to wait for another day. Think about what other photographic opportunities the overcast day has to offer. Being flexible and having the ability to go with the flow will be more successful.