Nature Photography: Capturing the Beauty Of the Outdoors

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In photography, preparation can be the difference between showing a picture of the big moment and having stories that begin with, “If only I had been ready with my camera.” Nature is unpredictable. If you want to capture special moments, you need to be ready. That means knowing what to expect and how to access your equipment as quickly as possible.

This and more is easily accomplished with preparation and practice. Doing your homework before you go, having an idea of what images you hope to bring home, and being able to use your equipment to its fullest potential can be as important as taking the picture. To some, preparing for a vacation may seem like more work than they are willing to do to, however prep work is a way to extend your enjoyment of the adventure. Preparation can be part of the excitement; start from the beginning before you leave on your trip.

The Place and What You Need

Chances are that unless NASA is preparing your itinerary, someone else has been there before you. This means that somewhere there is information about the destination, wildlife, and conditions you'll be working in. Information will be your best tool in forming ideas about what equipment to bring, how to carry it, and how it will be used. If you are traveling on a pre-organized tour, the travel company will probably send you pre-departure material with lots of information about where you will be going and useful tips to help you along in your travels, however, you can still improve on your knowledge base with the other information available to you. The big question is how do you access this information?

Often the best place to learn about the places you will be visiting is the computer. The Internet is a wonderful way to virtually visit many of the places on your itinerary before you actually go there. If you have a predetermined itinerary you may find web sites for each individual lodge or motel. The websites frequently have very useful and detailed information about the surrounding area, attractions, events, and photos for you to see what the place and terrain look like. This will give you ideas about what the light is like, what the habitat is like, and this can be an aid in deciding which equipment to bring. If you have specific subjects you are interested in you may be able to email the hotel or lodge directly with questions.

In Africa for instance, some lodges provide beanbags in their vehicles to stabilize your camera, saving you the trouble of bringing your own, or they may recommend specialized equipment others have found useful in pursuit of good photo images. You may have plans to visit a popular site for photography and you may learn through lodge owners of a special place, less popular, but more productive than the better-known places. You may find that a lodge owner will go out of their way to accommodate your particular needs if they know them in advance. In any event, the more information you have about the place you are going, the better you will be to prepare yourself for that destination.

Read your itinerary and, if you're on a prearranged tour, the pre-departure material your tour operator sends you. The first thing I look at in a pre-departure booklet is weight restrictions on luggage. Because of weight concerns, small planes are a curse to nature photographers. My standard camera pack weighs in at about 50 lbs, and that alone sometimes exceeds my weight limit on some small planes. If I know this in advance I can try to make arrangements to allow me to carry the extra weight. Of course this normally means paying an extra fee, but if I am traveling all the way to a place like Africa to photograph, I want to have the right photographic equipment with me. Of course, sometimes the added cost of paying for extra space for my gear is just too high for my budget, and then I look for other places to cut down on weight. Pay attention to what you really need for your trip. This often comes down to a question of fashion verses function. If you are on an organized tour, the pre-departure booklet normally has a section on what to pack. This is often designed for non-photographers and for travelers more concerned about the way they look than how much photography equipment they can bring.

Sometimes you just need to decide where your priorities lie; are you willing to live in the same clothes while you are on your trip? Fortunately, people expect nature photographers to look like they just came from the bush, so here is your chance to play it up. Today's expedition clothing is often quick-dry, lightweight, and easy to care for, even in the field. Put the emphasis on the “care for” part of the last sentence. I have no problem wearing the same clothing day-in and day-out, as long as I don't smell that way. The trick here is hand-washing. When I do travel to a destination where I am limited in the amount of weight I can carry, I frequently bring the clothes on my back and only one change of clothing in my bag. This way, I can hand-wash what I wore during the day and have something clean to wear to dinner in the evening. I always bring a small amount of biodegradable laundry soap, a portable clothesline, and a sink stopper and I always have something clean to wear. The soap and clothesline are available in most camping stores for just this purpose. Learn about where you are going and then make decisions about what you absolutely need to bring.

Compromise is sometimes a must in the field; by knowing what you are getting into you can make the right decisions before you leave home.

The Wildlife

Learn as much about the wildlife you may encounter before you leave on the trip. The more you know of the habits of the animals you wish to photograph the better your chances will be of achieving good results.

It really is about “the more you know.” Check bird and mammal lists to find what will be at your destination when you are there. Where can that subject be found? What kind of habitat does it live in? You will also want to know if there are any special restrictions to photographing in the area you wish to visit. Some types of animals are very approachable in some places and extremely wary of people in other places. Getting close photos of a great blue heron in Maine is not so easy, however in Florida the birds act like you are not even there.

Local knowledge of an area is also very handy and if you can speak to people who live there or who have visited there before, you may end up with valuable information. Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is an incredible place to photograph whales in the spring, summer, and fall; however, going there in spring or fall will not only free you from the crowds of summer but also get you days with less atmospheric haze from the summer heat. Information is a very important tool for photographers. Ask questions.

Your Equipment

Knowing how to use your equipment is another part of preparation for creating great images. You should be able to use your camera without thinking about the controls. Spend quality time with your camera and practice using the controls. Go out and use your camera; you don't need to be taking pictures, just learn how to use the settings and controls on your camera. A couple of days of practice using your camera will make taking photos as comfortable as an old pair of jeans. It will probably fit better, too. Using your camera should become second nature.

Knowing how to use your camera is essential. Once you have that down, you can then develop a way of organizing your gear. What good is knowing how to use your camera if you can't get to it when you need it.

Keep your gear with you and know how to access it fast. Get used to putting things in the same place all the time, so you can just grab and go, instead of having to look in every compartment for the right lens or accessory. This is especially true when it comes to the little things, like filters, film, flash cards, or batteries. Time spent looking for camera equipment is time not taking pictures. How may times have you seen someone fumbling with their equipment just at the peak of action? When things are happening, you often need to be instantaneous in your reaction. Photography is so much easier when you can reach down and grab the equipment you need, without ever having to remove your eyes from action happening in front of you.

Being distracted by not being able to find what you need, or not being able to operate your camera, can frustrate you enough to ruin the entire experience, and not only lose the image you were hoping to record. When I hear people say they need to put the camera down to experience the moment, I know the person does not know how to use their camera. If they did, they could pay attention to what they were experiencing without worrying about what button to push or what dial to turn. I never feel that I miss the experience because I am looking at it through my camera lens.

Which Lenses?

On another occasion in Botswana, my group was in a boat on the Chobe River. Our guide saw some elephants walking towards the water, so he had the boat pull up against the shore where he thought the elephants would be coming to drink. Well, he hit it right on the money. Not only where we in the right place, but the evening light was perfect. It was one of those magical moments in nature and everyone in the boat was overcome by the experience. Just yards away was a wall of elephants. Young elephants were nestled between older animals, and there was an overwhelming vocalization by the elephants as they drank from the river. I don't think my camera ever worked so hard or so fast as on that day. Roll of film after roll of film shot through my camera as I photographed the incredible event. It lasted for about fifteen minutes, then the elephants left as quickly as they came. When it was all over, I didn't remember changing film or checking my camera settings, I only remember the elephants.

I think the most commonly asked question from people who are traveling with me has to be what lenses should I bring? In a perfect world it would be nice to be able to bring them all but the reality is that weight, room, and convenience of use all have to be considered. I start off by thinking about the photographic possibilities and then let that dictate what lenses I might need. If you have an itinerary, memorize it so you know how to pack your gear for any special day. Sometimes compromises need to be made so this is an area that deserves some attention. Zoom lenses let you cut down on the number of lenses you need to carry and yet still allow you the variety of different focal lengths. Fixed focal lengths are typically faster which is important with high magnification and low light conditions. Macro (or micro if you are a Nikon photographer) lenses are important for close-up work but there are accessories to allow you to photograph close-up without the expense of a new specialized lens.

For wildlife, long telephoto lenses are normally necessary but a tele-extender will increase the focal length of a shorter lens at much less the cost, while cutting down on weight and size. Shorter telephoto lenses are good for many uses such as candid portraits and wildlife that is acclimated to people. Wide-angle and normal lenses are important lenses for use in landscape photography but we often overlook their many other uses. There are places where it is possible to approach wildlife very closely, allowing you to capture both wildlife and landscapes in the same frame. This all needs to be considered when choosing the equipment you will bring when traveling with your camera, again, the best way to choose is to know what to expect. I will go deeper into which lenses do what for you later on in the chapter on equipment, but for now the answer to the question is, pack the lenses you will need.