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9 Things You Need to Know to Become a Nature Photographer


Nature photography is a very popular field to be involved in. That’s no surprise though, as it gets you outdoors and seeing our planet in a way that others may miss. When I first started as a nature photographer, I began to see things differently. It sounds cliché, but I paid more attention to my surroundings and saw things from different angles.

Will Nicholls 3This tutorial will look at some of the most important things to keep in mind if you are looking to become a nature photographer.

#1 You’ve got to love it

Luckily this isn’t a very hard thing to adhere to, but you must love nature to excel at capturing it on camera. Nature photographers spend a lot of time outdoors. If you’re a landscape photographer, you’ll spend lots of your time hiking through scenic areas for just a few clicks of the shutter. Wildlife photographers often spend hours and hours sitting in one place, waiting for an animal to appear. Without the passion and drive behind you, this can be mind-numbing.

So it’s not for everyone, but if you’re reading this article, then chances are you have that interest programmed within you already!

#2 Be different

While it’s great that nature photography is so popular, this brings with it one big challenge – everybody is doing it. This means you need to figure out how you can be different (assuming you want your photos to be noticed).

This could be anything from focusing, and specializing on a single family or species of animal, to developing an artistic quirk and style in your photography. Personally, I spend a lot of my time photographing red squirrels – thousands of hours actually, to give you some idea. All this time has allowed me to learn about the animal, and capture behaviour that others have not managed.

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#3 Take risks

By taking risks I mean with your time, not necessarily something dangerous to your wellbeing. As the saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” suggests, if you don’t take risks then you are unlikely to capture those truly mesmerizing images.

Recently in the North of England, there was a display of the aurora borealis. Typically, it is hard to predict this phenomenon, and the available forecasts only look an hour ahead. It can finish as quickly as it starts, so planning for such an event is not really possible. I decided that I wanted to capture the Northern Lights with a particular castle in the foreground, but it was over two hours away. Nevertheless, at 2 a.m. I dropped everything, and raced off to the coast. When I arrived the display was weakening, but I waited a further two hours and the lights erupted in front of me. I got home at 8 a.m., but it was well worth it.

I’m particularly pleased with this result as photographing the Aurora Borealis can be especially challenging because we are positioned only just north enough to see them.

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#4 Be respectful of nature

Unfortunately, this is one thing that is not adhered to by everyone who calls themselves a nature photographer. Having an ethical approach to your photography, especially when it involves animals, is of the upmost importance. Those who don’t are shamed within the industry, and immediately lose the respect of the majority of photographers who really care about their subjects.

No photo should come before the welfare of an animal or place. It’s just that simple, and remembering this rule will help to improve your photos in the long run. The best photographers don’t cut corners, and you’ll find they have a great affinity with the environment.

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#5 Think about what you’re photographing

It’s easy to press the shutter when you finally find what you’re looking for, whether that be an animal or a scene, but clicking the shutter without thought will often result in unimpressive photos. Think about what you’re trying to convey to the viewer. You want the person looking at the picture to feel like they are in your shoes, looking at the scene themselves.

For landscape photography, this often comes with effective composition, thinking about both your foreground and background to properly document a scene, and avoiding a flat appearance.

With wildlife photography, this comes from capturing the character and behaviour of an animal. Impactful photos can be achieved by establishing eye contact between the viewer and the subject.

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#6 Introduce scale

Sometimes we are just bowled over by the scale of something in nature. Documenting this with a camera can be tricky as you’re recording a three dimensional scene with a two dimensional medium. Think about using objects to show scale in your photos.

For this photo of the Northern Lights, I photographed it above a tree. This tree is particularly famous, resting in a gap on Hadrian’s Wall in England – and it’s actually rather large itself! This helps to convey the expanse of the sky and display above.

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#7 Try a different lens

This is another way of experimenting with your photos, and it works for both landscape and wildlife photography. If you usually shoot with a wide-angle lens, then put it down and pick up a telephoto. If you use a telephoto, then try something shorter. This forces you to play with perspective, and capture something new.

Photographing wildlife with a wide-angle lens is great fun, and can result in some fun shots that incorporate the surroundings into the image.

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#8 Plan your shoots

Just because nature is relatively unpredictable, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan your shoots. Have an idea of a photo you want to capture, and keep at it. Maintaining a long-term study of an area, or animal, will allow you to capture something extra special. It may be that particular shot you’ve been chasing, or something completely different.

#9 Don’t give up

If it was easy then everyone would do it. Nature photography requires a huge amount of time, but it should also be something that you can relax and enjoy – it definitely shouldn’t be a burden on you.

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Results don’t come instantly, and like anything, it takes practice to achieve great images. Since you can’t direct nature and tell it what to do, taking good photos can be a longer process than in the other disciplines, but the challenge is what keeps it interesting.

Please share any other things you’ve noticed about being a nature photographer, and your nature images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.

  • Alan Richardson

    So patience is the name of the game – bit like bow hunting. Re #6 a caveat I often hear with regards to viewing wildlife is, “If an animal stops what it is doing or changes its behaviour – you’re too close”

  • Stuart Tarn

    Love the photos from my homeland! Are you based in the North East, or just visiting?!

  • Hi Stuart – I am based up here.

  • Stuart Tarn

    Can’t beat a good sycamore gap photo!

  • robert c anderson

    very good article, do the world a huge favor and take #4 (respect) and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it and devote entire books to it. It’s unfortunate, but digital cameras and the masses of people uploading of images to the internet gaining them instantaneous “likes” have produced a very large, very negative impact on wildlife and the world they live in. Noisy, pushy, disrespectful, garbage-tossing, digital-camera-bearers are multiplying faster than perhaps any other species in history.

  • Carol Wiles

    And you have to take a photo even if you know it’s not going to be particularly good, just because some animal has decided to look at you for a change! We were driving down to Killarney one morning, and had just rounded a corner when . . . saw this doe! I shot this through the driver’s window! Does she look as though she’s laughing?

  • SueWsie Wils

    Thanks. Now I have the name, I cna find the location.

  • This is on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

  • So true!

  • Larry Johnson

    “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Sign on the beach at Freycinet National Park Lodge, Tasmania, AU (and I’m sure many other places). And there are places we should leave NO footprints; moss, permafrost, etc. Stay on the trail. Yes, respect, for yourself and those who follow.

  • pete guaron

    Since you mention Australia’s natural heritage – some 40 years or so ago, I was fortunate to be taken for a guided tour of an area near Pemberton in the south-west of Western Australia, in the magnificent forest country there, by a young man who had not only grown up there, but had gone on to obtain a forestry degree to enable him to further his passion for the area. And until he was confident I was doing as he’d told me, and carefully avoiding placing a foot on anything vaguely resembling a small native flower, he watched every step I took. In some places where there is permafrost, our foot prints can do damage which takes years, or even decades or longer, to repair.

  • pete guaron

    One thought which I admit I am borrowing from other articles I’ve read – and it applies as much to landscape photography as it does to nature photography – is that we need to PLAN our shoots. And dedicate the time necessary to capture the images we want. The “snapshot” approach occasionally produces a good shot, but it’s unreliable and pure chance. A true nature photographer would put a great deal more into the planning & execution of his shoot.

  • Yes – planning a shoot is most definitely a good idea. In fact, the best images come from a ‘project’, whether with animals or landscapes, as it allows you to strive to capture something more than just a snapshot.

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