Do you want to capture gorgeous nature photography, the kind that’ll impress family, friends, and even serious shooters? You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I share my nine best tips to photograph nature, including:
- The right nature photography gear for consistent results
- The best settings for nature photoshoots
- How to prepare for a nature outing
- Much more!
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to head off on a nature photography adventure of your very own.
Let’s get started.
1. Do your homework before heading out
Doing nature photography is a lot of fun; in fact, it’s often totally exhilarating.
But did you know that nature shooting really starts at home, before you ever set foot outside?
First, a few days or hours prior to an outing, check the weather. Will it be cloudy? Sunny? Rainy? Make careful gear decisions depending on the forecast. And spend time thinking about the expected nature lighting and how it will affect your settings. (Cloudy light, for instance, will generally require a higher ISO for a sufficiently fast shutter speed.)
Then research the subject matter you can expect to find on your excursion. Here, Google Earth can help, especially if you’re planning to photograph landscapes. You can also do some Googling for a list of wildlife in the area, and do some more Googling to learn about the peculiarities of different wildlife subjects.
Also, pro tip: Check to see what other photos have been taken at your destination. Here, Instagram and Google Places are incredibly helpful. Use other photographers’ images to find inspiration and to determine specific subjects and areas to focus on.
Of course, you can never be totally prepared for a nature photoshoot, and that’s okay. The preparation process isn’t about choreographing your excursion down to the individual photo; instead, it’s about determining what to expect in broad terms and about optimizing your time spent in the field.
2. Pack the right nature photography gear
While professional nature photographers do tend to load up on gear, you don’t need the best cameras and lenses to capture stunning shots.
Instead, you can create beautiful images with a basic camera and a lens or two, as long as you’re willing to apply plenty of patience and perseverance.
At the same time, before heading out, you should choose your equipment carefully; that way, you maximize your chances of success.
Have you done your research (see the previous tip)? Then you should know what wildlife to expect. So if your goal is to capture wildlife close-ups, be sure to pack your best zoom lens so you can capture full-body and even headshots of birds and animals. I recommend at least a 300mm lens when shooting large animals, and a 400mm or 500mm lens is essential if you’re shooting skittish critters and small birds.
If your goal is to capture landscapes, pack your widest lens. A wide zoom, such as a 16-35mm lens, will be highly effective, though you can also get away with a 24-70mm lens or even a 24mm prime.
Finally, if you hope to capture tighter scenes of flowers, tree details, ice on the water, and so on, then bring a macro lens for a stunning close-up perspective.
As for cameras, any interchangeable lens model will work, though if you plan to photograph moving subjects, such as birds in flight, then the faster the autofocus system, the better.
Whatever you do, though, don’t overpack. If you take too much gear, you’ll feel weighed down and you’ll struggle to find the motivation to keep shooting. Instead, while it may be difficult, it’s better to take too little gear than too much.
3. Be sure to take a good bag
Nature photographers often obsess over cameras and lenses. But while such gear does matter, it’s important to remember the little things – for instance, a good bag.
Because all the gear in the world isn’t worth much unless you can comfortably carry it with you.
There are many bags out there that are too small, are highly uncomfortable, and are liable to break after a bit of stress. Bags range greatly in price and quality, but in my experience, you get what you pay for.
So don’t skimp! Consider the largest set of gear you’d ever want to take on an outing and be sure that it all fits inside the new bag. In particular, make sure the bag is spacious enough to handle your biggest lenses.
And for added peace of mind, grab a bag that is semi-weatherproof or water resistant.
Here’s my go-to lightweight bag for nature photography. It has a rain cover that I use when things start to get dicey, as you can see in the image on the right:
These days, most photographers shop for bags online, and that’s okay – but if you do go with an online order, be sure to read plenty of reviews. Alternatively, if you have a camera store nearby, go in and try on the various options. Ask the staff what they recommend for nature photographers.
And remember: Don’t forget about comfort. Sure, a bag might not feel that bad after a few minutes on your back, but after a day of shooting while carrying an uncomfortable bag, you’ll wish you had paid extra for a better option.
And speaking of comfort:
4. Don’t forget about the little comfort items
Every nature photographer should bring a few key items – things that won’t directly improve the photography but will make everything far more pleasurable.
For instance, I highly recommend you grab a good pair of hiking shoes or boots. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a good pair of boots is one of the most important pieces of nature photography gear that you’ll ever encounter. Grit, dirt, mud, water, insects, rocks, and creepy-crawlies; you need a pair of shoes or boots that can handle all of these and more.
I also recommend you research temperatures and pack the right clothing. (When in doubt, dress in layers; that way, you can always remove outerwear if you feel too hot.)
And bring plenty of water and snacks. If you’ll be shooting all day, then it’s essential to keep your energy up and your body hydrated.
5. Prepare a checklist
Before beginning a nature photoshoot, create a mental – or, if you prefer, a physical – checklist. You don’t want to reach your prime photography location only to find that you forgot something crucial!
So ask yourself the following questions:
- Are any special permits or permissions required? Some national parks, state parks, and wildlife sanctuaries require special permits for access to certain areas, especially backcountry environments.
- Where will I park my vehicle? This is very important. If you park your vehicle in an unauthorized area, then you will be stuck with a sizeable fine – believe me. (Or worse, you’ll return to find your vehicle has been towed.)
- Are there time restraints of any kind? Most natural areas and parks have hours of operation just like a business. You might arrive expecting to shoot a great sunrise, only to find that the location you chose isn’t accessible until after daybreak. Also remember that wild creatures and critters are usually most active in the early morning and late evening, so pick a location that lets you make the most of your time.
- What are the expected weather conditions? This one is a biggie. Check the forecast on your day of departure and keep tabs on it throughout the day, if possible. Never risk endangering yourself or your equipment by venturing out unprepared for bad weather. (Even if the weather is supposed to be nice and sunny, I do recommend you bring a rain cover for your camera and backpack. Better safe than sorry, right?)
- What are the times for sunrise and sunset? Again, be sure the places you want to capture a sunrise or sunset are accessible. You also need to be aware of the sunrise-sunset schedule so that you allow enough time to reach your location and set up your gear before the magic happens.
- Are there any commonly photographed animals, landmarks, or structures? I mentioned this one in a previous tip, but it’s worth repeating. Research what is usually photographed around the area you plan to visit. Find a park ranger or staff member and ask about lesser-known spots. If you can discover what’s popular and what has been done before, you can avoid shooting scenes the same old way. Consider how you can be creative!
6. Shoot in RAW
If you’re not already shooting in RAW, then head over to your camera right now and change the image format.
You see, while JPEGs are processed – and compressed – at the moment of capture, RAW images contain uncompressed data straight from your camera sensor.
Yes, RAW files are bigger and they require a bit of extra time on the computer (i.e., you can’t display RAW images directly; they need to go through a converter like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw first).
But RAW images offer massive benefits. You can radically adjust the white balance during post-processing, you can recover lost detail in the highlights and the shadows, and you can apply major tonal and color shifts without worrying about unpleasant artifacts. Nature photoshoots are often unpredictable, which means it’s best to maximize your post-processing flexibility.
And by the way: If you don’t like the idea of processing your nature photos in a software program, you can always expedite the process by batch editing with presets. Just import your photos, apply a basic preset to the entire collection, and export as JPEGs. It’ll only take a few minutes, and the results will look good (though I recommend you do extra editing in certain situations, such as when your files feature missing details!).
7. Keep your ISO as low as possible
Your camera’s ISO basically determines its sensitivity to light, which means that, if you crank up your ISO, you can capture bright images in relatively dark conditions (e.g., in a shadowy forest or at dusk).
Unfortunately, higher ISOs also increase image noise, which looks terrible and – when left unchecked – will ruin your photos.
So you must choose your ISO carefully.
My recommendation? Keep your ISO at your camera’s base value to start with. Then, when the light drops, raise it only as needed.
You see, as you lose light, you’ll need to take steps to keep your exposures sufficiently bright. One option is to drop your shutter speed, but you’ll need a decently fast shutter to capture sharp handheld shots. (A fast shutter speed is especially important if you’re photographing moving subjects!)
So in nature photography, the best move is often to raise the ISO – but conservatively. Don’t boost the ISO just because you can; instead, keep the ISO low in good light and boost it only when absolutely necessary.
8. Use the right autofocus mode to capture sharp shots
Most cameras offer two distinct autofocus modes.
- AF-C, also known as AI Servo, tells your lens to continuously acquire focus as long as your finger half-presses the shutter button.
- AF-S, also known as One-Shot AF, tells your lens to acquire and then lock focus when your finger half-presses the shutter button.
The right autofocus mode depends on your subject. Still subjects, such as flowers, plants, and trees, are best shot with AF-S. You can position an autofocus point over the key part of your subject, half-press the shutter button to lock focus, then carefully recompose the shot, all while remaining confident that the focus is correct.
Animals and birds, on the other hand, are constantly on the move. In such cases, AF-C is essential; otherwise, you’ll lock focus on your subject only to have them leave the focus plane before you can capture a shot. By the way, if you can combine your AF-C mode with your camera’s tracking mode, it’ll instantly level up your images.
(If you’re not sure how to set the autofocus mode on your camera, check the manual. It’s full of helpful information!)
Also, if you like to shoot macro or landscape subjects, it’s worth learning how to focus manually. Manual focus will help you nail the perfect point of focus in your scene, which is essential if you want to maximize the depth of field or if you’re trying to achieve artistic shallow-focus effects.
9. Don’t forget a tripod
Carrying a tripod isn’t always convenient, and there are a few subgenres of nature photography that don’t always benefit from tripod use…
…but in most cases, a tripod is incredibly helpful and will make a huge difference.
You see, nature photography is often done when the light is low – think sunrise and sunset – which means that you’ll either need to crank up your ISO or you’ll need to drop your shutter speed. Both options come with major drawbacks unless you have a tripod, in which case you can lower your shutter speed to your heart’s content!
Plus, if you’re bothered by the idea of lugging around a heavy tripod, don’t worry; there are plenty of lightweight – and compact – options out there that are surprisingly sturdy. In my view, it’s worth paying extra for a robust carbon-fiber option (plus, even a high-quality tripod will still cost less than most lenses!).
So purchase a tripod and use it as needed!
Nature photography tips: final words
Nature photography might not always seem easy, but it can yield huge artistic, personal, and even spiritual rewards.
So go out and have fun doing what you love! Capture birds, wildlife, landscapes, flowers, and more.
Now over to you:
What nature photography ideas do you have? What do you plan to photograph? And which of these tips will you apply to your workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- Nature and Wildlife Photography Tips for Beginners
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES