What I’ve learned doing nature photography

I’ve been learning more about photography and videography in an attempt to diversify my skill set ahead of graduating from college. A few weeks ago, I decided that since I’ve got a halfway decent camera, and I was going to have a lot of free time on my hands while camping, I ought to give nature photography a try.

And I love it!

I have always loved hiking and being in the great outdoors. Now, I just added a camera to mix, and it’s SOOOO much fun. But also enlightening. So I’m going to share some of what I learned on my first nature photographer adventure (along with some of the pictures I captured).

1. Nature does not want to be photographed

Most of the animals I took pictures of were birds. You probably already know this, but birds move. A lot. My camera is a simple point-and-shoot affair that doesn’t have the greatest shutter speed capabilities. Basically, if it was moving, I couldn’t take pictures of it.

I got a lot more blurry photos like this:

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And a lot fewer nice, perfectly-focused, crisp shots like this:

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That robin was about 3 feet from me by the way. That’s another part of this lesson: nature will run away from you. For my best shots (with the exception of the overly-courageous robin above), I had to sit far away from my subject and sit very, very still. That segues nicely to my next lesson.

2. Patience is a virtue, especially in nature photography

While I got some of my photos just by walking around, for many of them, I had to sit in one place for a long time. This wasn’t easy for me, as I’m fidgety by nature. It was also freezing with the wind blowing fifteen miles an hour for three of the days I was camping.

Still, patience got me one of my absolute best photos. I was out hiking with a friend and The Fiancé (yes, he’s The Fiancé now. I’ll do a full post on it later), and I saw this gorgeous osprey. It flew off as soon as we walked onto its part of the trail, but I saw it circling over the water. I thought that it might come back if we sat down and waited.

And it did. I got some decent long-distance shots, like this one:

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As you can see, it’s a little blurry, but I thought I could get a better one if I got closer.

Of course, he flew off again as soon as I got within range. This time, he flew off to another part of the island where we could hear him cawing at us. I realized that he was trying to draw us away from his nest. The Fiancé volunteered to go hike over to the other part of the island to try to scare him back.

The plan worked perfectly, and I got a few more awesome shots of this majestic bird:

Best osprey - edited

3. Auto-focus is garbage

I have a pretty good camera for a point-and-shoot (I’m looking to upgrade to a DSLR soon). But my biggest complaint with it is the lack of manual focus. There were many, many times on this trip that I missed a shot because I couldn’t get the focus right.

It’s not bad if the subject is the only thing in the shot, but it gets tricky when the shot is more crowded. Take this photo for example:

Northern Mockingbird 2

This mockingbird is almost perfectly in focus. But the auto-focus clearly decided those leaves in the background were more important to focus on than the bird. I had a lot of instances like this, and it was incredibly frustrating to have an animal holding still long enough for me to take its picture, but then still have the photo not come out right because of the auto-focus.

Every once in a while, I got an awesome shot despite the auto-focus. For instance, this brown thrasher:

Brown Thrasher 1 - Edited

4. Sometimes, even a good photo needs a little correction

I’ve been learning Photoshop in the last few weeks, in addition to learning more about photography. In fact, several of the photos above have been lightly Photoshopped. And I do mean lightly. I mostly used the program to brighten or darken the subjects or the background, so that the viewer’s eye is drawn toward the animal and not something distracting in the background.

The photos I got were pretty good on their own, but they usually needed a little something to make them pop more. The trick is to preserve the spirit of the original as much as possible.

Here is the photo I probably shopped the most (original first):

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It was a decent photo to begin with, but I thought it was a little over-exposed (basically, too bright) in certain places and a little too yellow for my tastes.

Wildlife of Dreher Island - 4

I like this a lot better. I darkened the leaves in the background as well as the log the turtle was sitting on and the one near his head. I boosted the saturation on his shell to make it more noticeable. Finally, I re-colored the water to give it a red instead of yellow tinge.

Most shots don’t need this much work, but they almost always need some kind of work. Like I said, it’s not about really changing the photo to something it’s not, but instead, it’s about making the photo you have even better than it already was.

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