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The Essential Nature Photography Guide

The ultimate guide to nature photography

Whether the weather is cold or warm, stormy or bright, photography is an excellent way to appreciate the natural world and everything in it. Capturing gorgeous landscapes, stunning wildlife, and breathtaking flowers can also be a ton of fun – and, when you come home with memory cards full of gorgeous shots, incredibly rewarding.

But creating amazing nature photography isn’t always so easy. Professionals spend years perfecting an array of skills, including exposure, composition, natural lighting, and autofocusing – and even then, it can still be a struggle to find the right subject in the right conditions and nail the shot.

Fortunately, as an experienced nature photographer, I’m aware of all the best tips, tricks, and shortcuts you can use to improve your images and jumpstart your photographic journey. Specifically, I share:

  • The right nature photography gear for consistent results
  • The best settings for nature photoshoots
  • How to prepare for a nature outing
  • Much more!

Ready to level up your nature shooting skills? 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 – if you want the best results – nature shooting starts at home, long 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 photography lighting and how it will affect your settings. (Cloudy light, for instance, will generally require a higher ISO for a sufficiently fast shutter speed.)

nature photography tips forest at sunset

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 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 subjects 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.

camera bag ready to go

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. Higher-resolution sensors can also come in handy if you need to crop or create large prints, and durable, weather-sealed bodies are ideal for photographing in bad weather.

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.

camera bag with tripod

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 weatherproof or at least 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:

personal camera bag with rain cover

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.

Nature photography

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

Nature photography

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 the right nature photography lighting

Nature photography

Lighting is hugely important in nature photography. In my experience, good light can be the difference between a failed photoshoot and a successful one – plus, if you learn to use the light to your advantage, your images will really stand out.

So what type of light is best? That depends on your subject and the look you’re after, but I highly recommend golden-hour lighting for most nature photography endeavors, which refers to the warm, soft light produced just after sunrise and just before sunset. You can also shoot during the blue hour – the short period before sunrise and after sunset – though this tends to work better for unmoving subjects such as landscapes.

Cloudy light is especially good for forest and flower photography as it helps bring out colors and details, though you’ll want to shoot during the middle of the day to maximize the intensity of the illumination.

Really, the only type of light that you should actively avoid is harsh midday lighting, which casts unflattering shadows and rarely looks good when illuminating nature photography subjects. But no matter the light situation, it’s still important that you pay attention to the type of light you’re working with and plan accordingly!

7. Shoot in RAW

camera photographing a building

If you’re not already photographing 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 them 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!).

8. Keep your ISO as low as possible

nature photography tips mountain sunset

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.

9. Don’t be afraid of bad weather

Nature photography

Many beginner photographers think that shooting in bad weather is, well, bad. But nothing could be further from the truth!

You see, rain, fog, and snow all make for dramatic conditions – and rather than harm your photography, they can actually elevate it. A landscape or a bird in blizzard conditions can result in a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

Nature photography

You don’t want to just grab your camera and race out into tough weather, however. It’s important to keep it protected from the elements by keeping it away from falling rain and snow, and – when that’s not possible – using a rain cover. (If you’re in a pinch, you can always rely on a trash bag and rubber bands!)

Also, avoid changing lenses, batteries, or memory cards in rough conditions, and if temperatures are cold, place your equipment in an airtight bag before heading back inside to prevent condensation from forming.

10. Use the right autofocus mode to capture sharp shots

Most cameras offer two distinct autofocus modes.

  1. AF-C, also known as AI Servo, tells your lens to continuously acquire focus as long as your finger half-presses the shutter button.
  2. 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.
different AF modes

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.

running animal with motion blur

By the way, if you can combine your AF-C mode with your camera’s tracking mode, it’ll instantly level up your images. Some of the latest mirrorless cameras even offer various forms of animal tracking; if yours offers this as an option, I’d encourage you to try it out and see what you think.

(If you’re not sure how to set the autofocus mode on your camera, check the manual. It’s full of helpful information!)

Nature photography

11. Practice your manual focusing skills

If you like to shoot macro or landscape subjects, it’s worth learning how to focus manually.

You see, as a landscape or macro shooter, you’ll sometimes run into scenarios where your camera and lens will struggle to focus precisely where you want it. You might need to carefully set the focus point for enhanced depth of field, or you might want to nail focus on the edge of a flower petal, and your camera’s AF system just won’t give you good results.

Nature photography

Manual focus, however, will help you achieve the perfect point of sharpness in your scene. It’s reasonably easy to use, too; most lenses allow you to switch off the autofocus via the AF/MF toggle on the barrel, and you then simply need to turn the focus ring (also on the lens barrel) forward and backward until your subject comes into focus. If you’re working with extremely small subjects, you might even try setting your focus point manually, then slowly moving your camera forward and backward until you get the result you’re after.

By the way, your lens’s MF setting isn’t just good for those times when you need to do precise focusing. If you’re dealing with strong backlighting or shooting in low light, your camera’s AF system may struggle – in which case your manual focusing skills can make a huge difference.

Nature photography

12. 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.

camera on a tripod at a waterfall nature photography

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!

13. Learn some basic composition techniques

Composition refers to the way you arrange elements within the frame, and it’s an often overlooked method for elevating your images. By carefully composing your shots, you can create a sense of balance, lead the viewer’s eye through the frame, and more.

The ultimate guide to nature photography

But what’s the easiest way to create nice compositions? I’d recommend starting with the rule of thirds, which encourages you to position elements a third of the way into the frame. It’s also important to understand the concept of leading lines – these direct the viewer throughout the image – and negative space, which gives the viewer room to breathe when observing the frame.

If you’re struggling to get started with nature photography composition, it can be helpful to study images taken by your favorite photographers. Ask yourself: What do I like about this shot? How is the main subject positioned in the photo? How does the photographer lead the eye throughout the image? Then try to use those concepts in your own shooting!

14. Remember to do some post-processing

Nature photography

Once you’ve captured a great nature photo or two, the work isn’t quite done! You should also spend time processing the files in your editing program of choice (such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or ON1 Photo RAW).

Every RAW file needs a bit of processing; otherwise, it won’t match what your eyes saw in the field. I’d recommend doing some white balancing – to neutralize any color casts – and applying a bit of contrast and saturation, too. You might also add a vignette to draw attention to your subject and adjust the exposure and tones until you get a pleasing result.

Nature photography

Editing is pretty subjective, and there are plenty of different approaches. It’s important that you spend time experimenting until you identify a look that really works for you!

Nature photography tips: final words

Nature photography

Nature photography might not always seem easy, but it can yield huge artistic, personal, and even spiritual rewards.

So remember the tips I’ve shared. Consider your equipment, do the proper planning, think about lighting and composition, and don’t forget about post-processing.

Of course, the most important part is to get out with your camera and have fun doing what you love! Capture birds, wildlife, landscapes, flowers, and more.

Now over to you:

What do you plan to photograph? And which of these tips will you apply to your workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Adam Welch
Adam Welch

is a full-time photomaker, author and adventurer. Find him over at aphotographist.com
and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!

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