1. Study the Weather
Weather plays a crucial role in nature photography. Different weather will determine what type of mood, colors, and tone your image will possess.
Thus, being strategic about how you select when and what to shoot based on weather will greatly work to your advantage.
Do you want your image to have a warm and inviting tone or cool and distant? Would bright and sunny weather make sense? Or should you aim for cold and snowy conditions?
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that a sunny day is the best time to do nature photography. This is especially true if you’re photographing grand landscapes, where stormy days are often the ones that make stunning images.
You’ll also want to pay attention to weather conditions that produce interesting visual elements such as fog, wind, rainbows. These natural phenomena can help enhance the uniqueness of your images.
Many apps can help you study and keep track of the weather. Most smartphones today come with a pre-installed weather app. This app will typically give you basic information on the weather, such as current temperature, daily and weekly forecast, the chance of rain, wind speeds, and humidity.
If you are looking for more detailed information or if you don’t have a weather app yet, I recommend the Accuweather or NOAA. These apps will give you detailed information, including weather radars and maps, more accurate forecasts, historical weather patterns, and more information such as wind speeds and visibility.
I also recommend is saving the location you will be shooting at on your weather app before you visit. In the days before visiting your location, check the weather and analyze the past few days so you have an idea of the conditions you may be facing.
2. Photograph Different Seasons
Similar to weather, seasons have a significant impact on nature photography.
Natural sceneries change radically, depending on the season. From the quality of light to the color of the leaves, each season offers a unique look.
While summer offers clear blue skies, spring creates scenes bursting with life and beautiful flowers. And while the fall season provides a variety of beautiful warm colors, the winter covers landscapes with the serene beauty of white snow.
To make the most out of photographing nature, plan your shoot around the type of season that will create the best setting for the image you’re trying to make. Better yet, re-visit a location in different seasons. Doing so will help you maximize the best perspectives and compositions that the location has to offer.
3. Take Photos at Different Times of Day
The quality of light around us changes throughout the day. As the sun moves to different positions in the sky, light shifts not only in its brightness but also in its colors and tones.
You can benefit from this phenomenon by shooting at different times of the day and experimenting with how different tints of light change your subject.
Sunrise and sunset are some of the best lighting conditions for nature photography. Dubbed as the “golden hour,” the light at this time has a soft, golden tint to it that creates picturesque sceneries.
The light before the sun rises and after it has set is also ideal for nature photography. The remnants of the sun cast a beautiful orange tint at the horizon mixed with a cool vivid blue in the sky as the night sets in.
When possible, stay in your location well into the night. The night sky can transform natural landscapes into an entirely different scene and provide you with unique compositions.
Just remember, do your homework before heading out. You’ll need to choose the right time of the year, location to shoot, and the camera equipment well before you go out to capture the magnificent view of the night sky.
3. Vary Your Focal Length
Varying focal lengths capture natural sceneries in different ways.
Telephoto lenses make distant objects seem bigger and within reach, such as the mountains in the image below. These lenses are ideal to use when trying to portray the grandeur of subjects far away.
Wide-angle lenses are great to use for capturing expansive landscapes. They are also ideal for emphasizing your foreground.
Wide-angle lenses tend to make objects that are closer to the frame appear larger while making distant objects appear smaller. So you can use this lens to enhance subjects that are closer to you.
For example, a wide-angle lens works great for scenes with an impressive mountain in the background and a tranquil lake in the foreground.
With these types of scenes, the Nikon 14-24mm wide-angle lens is my top choice. It’s a top-caliber lens that delivers excellent sharpness, build quality, image stabilization, and weather sealing.
If the angle of view of a typical wide-angle lens is not enough, consider using a fisheye lens. Fish-eye lenses have a curvilinear perspective that creates broad scenes.
Keep in mind, however, that fish-eye lenses exaggerate image distortion. While you can use this distortion as a creative tool, there may be times when it would prove to be an unwanted side effect.
Resource: Lens Radar
4. Use a Quality Tripod
Carrying a tripod can be cumbersome. But, it is an essential tool that allows creative freedom in photography.
For example, using a tripod is necessary if you intend to take images using slow shutter speeds without camera shake. If you want to capture the motion of the waves in the ocean using slow shutter speed, you’ll need to use a tripod. The same is true if you’re using longer shutter speeds to photograph under limited ambient light.
Bringing a tripod can also come in handy when you want to take a self-portrait, but you’re out shooting alone. All you need to do is set a timer on your camera with it mounted on the tripod.
Using a quality tripod is also essential in nature photography.
When shooting outdoors, you’ll often deal with high winds that can render your image blurry if you’re not using a sturdy tripod.
You’ll also want to use a tripod that can be taken apart and cleaned if you’re doing coastal or desert photography. This way, you can clean the sand that gets inside your tripod once you’re done with your shoot.
Quality tripods are often pricier than regular tripods, but they are built to last and are well worth their price.
Professional: Really Right Stuff Carbon Fiber Tripod
Enthusiast: Manfrotto 4 Section Carbon Fiber Tripod
Beginner: Neewer Carbon Fiber Tripod & Monohead
5. Tripod Head
Using a quality tripod head is just as crucial in nature photography as quality tripod legs.
There are two main types of tripod heads you can choose from – pan & tilt head and ball head.
I generally like to use a ball head with my tripod as I find it easy and fast to operate.
Ball heads are also generally more compact and portable than pan & tilt heads, which makes them convenient for the long hikes often required in nature photography.
That said, using a tripod ball head does have some key disadvantages over pan and tilt. The first is that they tend to be less accurate in-camera leveling since the ball functions as a fulcrum.
In contrast, Pan and tilt heads provide precise control and feel more robust to use.
Whether you should use a pan & tilt head or a ball head depends on your preference. If you value speed, a ball head is ideal. But if value accuracy, a pan & tilt head may work better for you.
Better yet, alternate between using a pan & tilt head and a ball head to suit whatever subject you’re photographing, as both tripod heads are typically compatible with the same tripod legs.
Best Ball-Head: Really Right Stuff Full-Sized Lever Ball Head
Best Pan-Tilt Head: Manfrotto 3 Way Pro Pan-Tilt Tripod Head
6. Use Lens Filters
Using photographic filters widens your compositional options when doing nature photography.
For example, using an ND filter will enable you to shoot with slow shutter speeds in bright environments without overexposing your images.
If you plan to photograph moving water or cloud streaks during the day, an ND filter is an invaluable tool. Creating these types of compositions without an ND filter will likely result in an overexposed image.
Polarizing filters are also invaluable in nature photography.
These filters limit distracting light often seen reflected by wet objects such as rocks and leaves. They can also help boost the saturation and vividness of the colors in your images.
7. Take Photo of Water Reflections
Both rippled and smooth water can be an effective way to showcase reflections in images of nature.
Use calm, smooth water to create a perfect mirror image and use rippled water to create fascinating abstract.
When capturing reflections on the water, avoid shooting under bright sunlight as they tend to create glares and shadows in water reflections.
If you must shoot under bright sunlight, such as midday, use a polarizing filter to reduce glare as well as bring out the blues in the sky.
Polarizing filters are also useful when capturing objects beneath shallow pools of water, such as sand or rocks. Since these filters eliminate reflection on the water, they help photograph objects beneath shallow water.
Finally, make sure to experiment with different perspectives and vantage points. How you position your camera can have an enormous impact on reflections. Make sure to bring a tripod to help you easily hold the angle you want once you’ve found it.
8. Foreground Elements
Including rocks or plants in your foreground is a great way to add a sense of depth in your image.
Foreground elements tend to appear bigger compared to other elements in your image. Since we perceive larger objects to be closer than smaller objects, adding an element in your foreground can help enhance your image’s three-dimensionality.
Foreground elements also help enhance depth in your image through overlap. Because we instinctively perceive the object covering the other elements to be closer, when objects overlap in an image, they create an illusion of depth.
For instance, when you position rock in your foreground, it partially obscures other elements in your middle ground or background. This overlap will make the rock in your foreground appear closer to your viewer than the elements behind it.
Beyond enhancing three-dimensionality, photographers also use foregrounds to guide the viewer’s eyes through an image.
The most common way to do this is including compositional elements, such as leading lines, s-curves, and secondary frames.
9. Use Leading Lines, S-Curves, and Secondary Frames
Both leading lines and s-curves are excellent tools for guiding the viewers’ attention to the critical parts of your image.
Leading lines are two parallel lines that converge on the horizon. Some common examples of leading lines seen in nature photography are bridges, dirt paths, streams, and light rays.
Our eyes naturally follow these lines until they meet and vanish on the horizon. Thus, placing your subject where these lines converge can help highlight them in your frame.
Similar to leading lines, you can use s-curves to guide the viewer through your image. In particular, s-curves are excellent in directing the viewer’s attention to objects placed along the curve. Some examples of s-curves to watch out for are winding paths, rivers, and streams.
Another way to emphasize your subject using your foreground is by placing a second frame in it. Think of shooting your subject through between two trees, rocks, or shadows.
This compositional technique is called frame within a frame and is one of the most effective ways to direct your viewer’s attention to your subject.
Utilizing secondary frames is especially helpful when shooting with a wide-angle lens. Positioning your subject within a smaller frame helps ensure that the audiences’ attention won’t wander loosely around your image, despite the wider angle of view.
Resource: How to Use Leading Lines in Photography
10. Use Textures
Look for elements in your surroundings that can highlight the impression of textures in your image.
Visual texture stimulates sensations of touch and can be an exciting feature that draws directly on nostalgia.
Although the viewer cannot physically touch the texture of an image’s contents, highlighting texture in your image can make an audience feel like they are part of the scene.
A picture highlighting the texture of a sandy beach or wet grass, for example, can arouse specific thoughts and feelings within your audience.
Zoom in on rocks, water, tree bark, or leaves to emphasize their unique textures.
Also, remember that the direction of light is critical in the way the texture will appear in your picture. To accentuate texture, aim to work with overhead and side light instead of backlighting.
The amount of ambient light also influences the appearance of texture. In general, more ambient light will highlight your subject texture better than less ambient light.
11. Utilize the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a compositional technique that uses asymmetry to create dynamic compositions.
To use the rule of thirds, divide your frame into nine parts with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. Then, position your focal point along one of the four intersections points or along one of the lines. Doing so will naturally place your focal point off-center and create asymmetry in your compositions.
For pictures of natural landscapes, create asymmetry by aligning your horizon along one of the horizontal lines. By doing so, you’ll place a heavier emphasis on either the foreground (land) or the background (sky).
If you wish to put more emphasis on your foreground, align your horizon with the upper horizontal line. To place more emphasis on the sky or the background, align your horizon with the lower horizontal line. Once you have your horizon aligned, position your focal point on or around one of the four intersections.
Resouce: Rule of Thirds Demystified
12. Experiment with Long Exposures
Long exposure uses slow shutter speeds to achieve a particular visual effect in images.
In nature photography, you can use long exposure when taking pictures of moving water to create soft and blurry textures. Depending on how fast the water is moving, shutter speed between 2 seconds and ⅛ of a second will generally produce this result.
You can also use it to record the progression of time. Nature photographers, for example, use a long exposure to create images of star trails and cloud streaks.
While there is not a specific shutter speed that defines long exposure photography, a general starting point will be somewhere between 1/10 and below.
The correct shutter speed you should use will generally depend on two components: the amount of ambient light available and the effect you’re trying to create in your image. Try experimenting with different shutter speeds to figure out which setting works best for the effect that you’re going for.
13. Use a Reference Item
One of the biggest challenges in nature photography is creating images of landscapes that look more like what they do in reality.
Often, this is due to the inability to show depth and scale in a scene. To get around this, consider including a reference item in your composition.
A reference item is an object that helps viewers understand the scale of a scene. Examples of reference items include a person, a car, a lighthouse, a boat, or animals.
Placing a person in the middle of a landscape scene is one of the best ways to demonstrate scale in nature photography. Using a person as a reference item is not only effective at showing scale but is also a powerful tool in evoking awe and inspiration from your audience. This is because seeing a person standing in the middle of a natural landscape compels viewers to imagine and immerse themselves in the scene.
Another excellent reference item you can include in your natural landscape photos are wildlife such as birds, horses, and deers. These animals add a sense of belonging to a nature photo in a way that a person and other man-made objects cannot.
Trees are another item you can include in your photo to demonstrate scale. They are particularly useful as a reference item in nature photography because they are easy to find.
Trees also provide the benefit of giving your picture a point of interest. Since they come in a variety of interesting shapes, they are ideal objects to use as focal points.
By including trees in your composition, you can provide your image with visual interest while at the same time giving it a sense of scale.
14. Arrive Early and Scout Your Location
In nature photography, great lighting can unfold at any time, so it’s important to be ready for it.
Familiarize yourself with your shooting location so you can be prepared to take the shot as soon as the conditions are right.
Take the time you take to learn about the area and find new perspectives. I suggest doing this during the midday. Save early mornings and late evening for shooting, since the light will be ideal during these times.
If you can, re-visit your location several times. This will allow you to study it under different lighting conditions and find the best compositions available.
15. Stay Late and Practice Patience
There are many factors in nature photography that is beyond our control. It doesn’t matter how much preparation you have done prior to your shoot, nothing can guarantee that you will get the perfect conditions you want.
However, there are a few things that are within your control that can have a huge impact on your success. One of those is your ability to stay patient.
Sometimes, the most incredible scene will unfold just after you’ve packed away your gear and entered the car. So, put hastiness aside and stay out late at the scene. Even better, wait till dark before leaving. Practice patience, and you won’t be disappointed.