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Have you noticed how many photographers are fascinated with nature? Even if we specialize in another genre, few of us can resist a gorgeous flower or a branch of autumn leaves.
One of the best things about photographing nature is that it is so accessible. You don’t need to travel far to find it, because it’s all around you. You may take it for granted because you see it every day, but your own backyard is a treasure trove. Every hour of every day and every season brings something new.
The term “backyard” needn’t be taken literally here. If you don’t have a backyard, you’ll find plenty of nature to photograph just by wandering the streets or public parks and gardens.
Tech details: All of the photographs in this article were shot on my Canon 5D Mark III. Unless otherwise stated, I have used my Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. I have included details of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed settings.
Flowers and leaves are often the first things that come to mind when we look for subjects in our own backyards. They offer an endless variety of colors, shapes, and textures for you to photograph. You could create a collection based on a single color scheme, or try to find as many different leaf or flower shapes as possible.
You should also experiment with different lighting and conditions. I love backlighting for leaves and flowers, as it creates a luminous, almost three-dimensional effect, and you can see details such as veins. Some shapes look better with strong, directional light, and I love how colors are enhanced by water droplets.
Flowers are seasonal, and in temperate zones, spring and summer offer the widest variety. There are still flowers to be found in winter, although you may need to look harder. Don’t forget that weeds, such as dandelions, are also beautiful! Autumn provides the greatest color spectrum in leaves.
When the summer flowers disappear, fruits and berries are nature’s way of providing for birds and animals throughout the colder months. Many berries and seed pods ripen towards the end of autumn, bringing color to the winter garden. Citrus trees bear fruit in winter, and persimmon trees lose their leaves to reveal branches of shiny orange fruits. Think also of acorns, pine cones, and nuts.
Raindrops are fascinating through the lens. Try photographing them from various angles and in different lighting.
When photographing a single droplet, or a string of them, isolate them by keeping the background uncluttered. You can do this by creating distance between the droplets and the background, and by using a wide aperture to ensure the background is blurred. Notice also how water sits in nice round droplets on some types of leaves, but on others it disperses.
These are abundant in autumn and winter, but some species pop up throughout the year after rain. Look in damp, mossy places, on the sides of trees, and in log piles for them.
My personal favorites are the red toadstools with white speckles. They are evocative of fairy tales and magic, and their colors are a nature photographer’s dream!
But don’t ignore the tiny, dull-colored mushrooms and fungi. The mushrooms in the photo below were growing in a crevice on the side of my herb garden. You can see by the scale of the woodgrain how tiny they were. From above, they were nondescript, but when I laid on the ground beneath them and shot into the backlight, they became translucent and I could see their delicate structure.
We have a gigantic tree in our backyard. It was probably planted when our house was first built in the 1920s, and its canopy is as big as the house itself. One of my favorite things to do in the warmer months is to put a picnic rug on the lawn and lie on my back gazing up into the tree’s branches. It is free therapy!
Watching the leaves change from bright spring green through to darker green in summer, the first blush of color in autumn, through to a rich claret just before they drop, never ceases to delight me. I have photographed it time and time again through the seasons. Even lying on the ground with my 35mm lens, I can only capture a small portion of the canopy.
If you are lucky enough to have trees in your garden, try standing or lying directly underneath them and shooting up into the branches. Notice how the light changes from early morning throughout the day into late afternoon and evening. Branches, whether they are naked or covered with leaves, contrast beautifully against a blue sky. They are also stunning at sunrise and sunset and on moonlit nights.
If you don’t have any trees, look for interesting cloud formations to photograph. You can create a collection of skies to use as Photoshop overlays, which can add interest to other outdoor photos such as portraits. Look for vertical cloud formations, fat white fluffy clouds, and those lovely soft colors around the edge of the clouds at dusk and dawn.
You can also turn your attention downward. On the ground are a million microcosms among the moss, the lawn, between the paving stones, and in the fallen bark and leaves. You won’t see them until you get down to ground level, so lie flat on your tummy and peer into another world.
We tend to think of color photography when we think of nature, but don’t dismiss the idea of black and white images. Nature provides sculptural shapes and contrasting textures that make great black and white subjects. If you have succulents or cacti in your garden, they are often more interesting in black and white than they are in color (except on those rare occasions when they flower). Ditto with white flowers against a dark background. Smooth pebbles, rough bark, snail shells, acorns, and pine cones all look fabulous in black and white. Try strong, directional lighting and a high contrast edit.
Your backyard is one of the best places to experiment with effects and new techniques. Firstly, you can become familiar with how things look at various times of the day and throughout the seasons. Secondly, you don’t need to travel far, so you can respond to anything on a whim. If you spot something amazing while you’re sipping your morning coffee, you needn’t even get out of your pajamas to capture it!
The subjects in the two photographs below are both visible from my desk. Every morning last summer, I noticed how this shaft of hazy sunlight would hit the planting of succulents on a pedestal, so I knew exactly what time to capture it at its best. Also sitting at my desk, I saw how the sun caught a spray of orchids just after the rain, and I rushed outside with my camera.
For nine months out of the year, there are a million creepy-crawlies in my backyard. This includes butterflies, cicadas, crickets, praying mantises, caterpillars, moths, bees, wasps, and spiders (I could happily do without the latter two). At the time of writing, it is winter in Melbourne, so most bugs are hiding or dormant.
I’m going to begin this section with honesty.
Confession number two: I have the greatest admiration for those who do wildlife photography. I have a Pinterest board just for animal photos (I have a clear bias towards squirrels), and on 500px I follow a number of photographers, one of whom only photographs squirrels!
The kinds of animals and birds you’re likely to find in your backyard obviously depends on which part of the world you live in and how built-up your neighborhood is. You will know which kinds of critters visit your backyard and what their habits are. With that in mind, find a spot where you won’t be too conspicuous and be prepared to wait. If you’re using a long lens, you might consider working with a tripod or a monopod to avoid camera shake. Have your ISO and aperture all set to go, plus a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. If you have been watching an animal’s behavior over several days or weeks, it may be possible to focus roughly on the area you expect them to appear (for example, the birdbath).
Nature provides us with the perfect canvas for portraiture. Look for a bank of flowers, a bed of autumn leaves, or just a green hedge. The colors in nature never seem to clash.
When photographing children and pets, in particular, I almost always prefer an outdoor location over a studio. My eldest daughter usually runs a mile when she sees the camera, but the chance to roll around with the dog in glorious leaves was clearly too much for her to resist (see the image below).
I love how the soft hues flatter my daughter’s skin tone. If you are shooting outdoors with lots of colors, such as flowers or autumn leaves, pay attention to your subject’s outfit. These portraits might have been too busy if my daughter had been wearing a patterned outfit.
So there you have it: Plenty of inspiration to get outdoors and photograph nature in your own backyard. It’s time to stop reading and get out there with your camera.
Here are some additional articles that will help improve your outdoor and nature photography skills: