Nature photography is the photography of animals, birds, fish and other wildlife. We will be discussing marine photography in a future article, because it involves specialist, expensive equipment and assorted diving skills. Here are some important things that you’ll need to know…
Nature photography offers special challenges to the photographer. Not least of which is the developing process of film itself. When single reflex print film is developed it goes through two processes, development and printing. The development produces a true color; however automatic printers do printing processes these days. In most cases these are set automatically to reproduce flesh tones, the color of skin. As a tonal color this is not very much represented in nature so that when your film is printed, the colours shown, are not necessarily the colors that were shot. This can be frustrating when you are trying to improve your technique. One way to see an instant improvement is to use slide film, this only goes through the first process of development, and the distortions that occur in printing are eliminated.
The medium to top of the range, digital cameras also improves tonal quality as well as having improved highlight and shadow features. The disadvantage to the use of SLR digital in nature photography is that the consumption of battery power is higher, and you may not be in a position to re charge them in remote places. Also the delicate sensors in digital cameras can be damaged when dust gets in the mirror chambers.
Another challenge for the nature photographer is to understand how a light meter works. Light meters reflect light off a surface, but they cannot measure tone, which is a shade of color. As it cannot register a shade of color. It makes a basic assumption that the surface measured will reflect 18% of the incident light, that means the amount of light falling on a subject. In practise that means that regardless of the color of the object it will provide a reading that assumes you want to produce a shade at 18% mid gray. If you then set your aperture opening at the suggested setting it will produce 18% of grey in the finished image. Unfortunately there is not that much grey in nature, but there is plenty of pure white, for example snow, and clouds.
Once you have obtained your light reading you have to manually adjust the aperture setting so that the final tonal colour will be white and not gray. To reproduce a pure white image you may have to open your f/stop settings by 2 full points. Conversely if you want to reproduce pure black then you have to close down the aperture, by 2 ½ to 3 f/stops. An f/stop is only a numerical number that represents how far the aperture is open.
In changing light conditions for both sand and snow, bracketing is a useful technique. It means that you take or three extra exposures at different settings, so that you can almost guarantee the “perfect” exposure. If you have determined the best exposure is to be taken at 1second at f/16, then to bracket using slide film, you would also shoot additional exposures at 1/2 f-stop settings above and below the “best” exposure setting. This means 1 second at an f-stop between f/16 and f/22; and 1 second at an f-stop between f/11 and f/16. This is 1/2 stop above and 1/2 stop below your meter reading.
For the beginner it is useful to record your exposure information in a notebook. It will help to better your techniques when the film is developed.
Record the f/stop, the shutter speed and whether the exposure was as a result of the light meter reading or whether it was adjusted for some other reason. You can also write this information directly on to your slide mounts, because you may think you will remember, but chances are you won’t! Whilst on the surface bracketing seems expensive, it does not have to done all the time, after a while you will have a feel for a how your own camera reacts, but it is a good technique to use when a shot is really important.
If you would like to explore exposure in an interactive way, this is a simcam simulator and you change your exposure and shoot and see instantly the effects.
All nature photography is improved by the use of slow film; never use more than ISO100, and ISO50 is better still. When you use slower film it increases the danger of camera shake. To minimise this a solid tripod is a good investment. Virtually everyone buys one that is too light at first. It may have to support the weight of your camera over rough terrain. Nature photographs are amongst the most saleable of pictures and the sharper they are the more saleable they become. A tripod helps here because it stabilizes the camera. Make sure that your tripod legs are independently adjustable to take full advantage of low shots. These low shots are used often in natural photography for instance in shooting flowers. A tripod is usually in two parts the head and legs, the head needs to be able to moved up and down as well as to tilt.
Every nature photographer initially balks at the tripod because it is heavy and unwieldy, but it is an essential piece of equipment that makes sure your images are razor sharp. The start up costs of being a nature photographer are high, you need good optical equipment and excellent tripod. Can you take good photographs without a tripod? O course you can, but are they marketable in a highly competitive field, can you make more money by investing in the best equipment money can buy.
The quality of the light is also crucial in nature photographyand it is always better early in the morning or late afternoon, or when the sky is slightly overcast. Harsh midday glare does no favors to the nature photographer as the resultant images lack depth.
There is also a specialist magazine available online for the nature photographer. Their resource links are excellent and they have free issues available for you to read.