This is the section in which we explore the design elements of nature photography, maximizing our creative nature through the camera. There are no limits to a creative mind behind a camera. It is up to you as to how creative you want to become in your work. Our job is to teach the basics and then release you into the wild on your own. The basic design elements in nature photography that we will cover are patterns in nature, landscapes, and wildlife photography.
Just as a painter uses tools like paint and brushes on canvas, so a photographer uses his or her tools of: a camera, film and light. The basic elements of design, whether in photography or painting are line, shape, texture, color, pattern and rhythm.
The world is a kaleidoscope of colors – some bright, vivid, neon and dazzling. Some may be soft, subtle and pastel. Colors can capture the attention and hold us with their intensity or move us to tears with their strong emotional qualities. There are seven basic colors (plus black and white) and each affects us differently and represents a variety of symbols. They are often referred to as Roy G Biv in the art world. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. This is also the sequence of colors in the rainbow.
- Red immediately attracts and demands attention. It is used to represent an emergency: fire, ambulances, red cross, blood. Emotionally, it is an exciting color, vibrant and strong, hot and powerful. It radiates energy and vitality.
- As a mixture of red and yellow, orange has the qualities of both colors. Orange is used to symbolize fire and the sun.
- A bright and warm color, often representative of vitality, yellow attracts attention in its brightest tones. Yellow represents the sun.
- Green is the color of spring, grasses, and leaves. It symbolizes nature, growth, and youth. Emotionally, it is a cool and tranquil color, or it may be seen as a healthy, lush color.
- Blue is a cool color. It represents the sky and the water around us. Emotionally, blue is a quiet and peaceful color, but may also be interpreted as lonely. Photographing in shade or late evening or pre-dawn can add a blue color cast to your images.
- Indigo – Violet
- These colors are commonly referred to as magenta, purple, and lavender. Purple symbolizes power, royalty and richness, possibly because of its rareness in nature. It is found in flowers and leaves, precious stones and in the setting sun on occasion.
- Often thought of as the absence of color, white is associated with cleanliness, pureness, freshness and innocence. It symbolizes pure light or snow, or clouds, brightness and hope.
- Black is a very strong color. We associate black with the dark, shadows, with the unknown and our fear of the unknown. It represents a sense of lifelessness and is found in coal, burned wood, night, and shadows. It can imply mystery, evil, or a threatening and ominous feeling.
Lines and Shapes
The forces of nature influence our perceptions – what we see and how we see it. We may be consciously or unconsciously aware of the influence of these forces. They are gravity, wind, water and geological forces – like volcanic action, earthquakes, etc. Gravity is one of the most powerful forces which influences our attitudes and perceptions. And nowhere is that more evident than in lines.
What goes up must come down. We know that whatever goes up – straight up – will eventually fall down. Vertical lines are exciting and dramatic. They rebel against gravity and soar upwards. They imply energy, strength and motion. We are confident in the fact that horizontal lines won’t fall down. They are already lying down, so they feel safe and give us a sense of calm. We often associate straight, smooth, flat lines and shapes with a floor, a calm sea, a flat road. It means safety, stability, yet can also become a bit boring and static – a sensation of going nowhere.
Diagonal lines imply motion, moving uphill or downhill. They provide a sense of direction and perception of distance by leading the viewer’s eye into or away from the subject. Diagonal lines are often caused by earthquakes and geological forces. We are taught that jagged lines and pointed objects are things to be cautious of – even scared of. Jagged lines like mountains or hanging stalactites can create great excitement as they imply a sense of daring and threat.
Rounded lines, shapes and curves project a sense of tranquility and safety. They offer few surprises and flow along smooth curving surfaces. They move the eye through the image slowly as opposed to sliding in a fast motion along a straight line. S-curves are sinuous lines which move the viewer along their sensuous path slowly. They are found in shorelines, trails, rivers and pathways, and are often referred to as meanders and ripples.
Triangles are straight lines outlining a common shape. When placed on a wide flat base, a triangle offers the viewer a sense of stability; it represents strength. We often associate triangles with mountains.
Helix, Archimedes Spiral and the Equiangular Spiral
A spiral is an even circular pattern. The Greek mathematician, Archimedes, first described what is now called the Archimedes spiral. The space between each line of the spiral and the one before and after it is the same. A spider web is a good example of this spiral. A sea shell also follows a spiral but a closer look reveals the spiral widens as it winds around itself. This was called an equiangular spiral by Rene Descartes in 1638 when he found the lines drawn from the center of the spiral intersected with the outer walls at identical angles. It is the only mathematical curve that retains the same shape while growing at only one end. The snail cannot widen the walls of its chamber but must add on to the open end of its protective shell as it grows larger. A corkscrew curve of twisting shapes is called a Helix. In a helix, each loop of the curve is identical to the one below or above. It resembles a phone cord. Helixes are found in grapevines, some cactus, squash, cucumbers and even in DNA.
Circles, Spheres and Explosions
To the ancient Greeks, a circle and its 3-dimensional counterpart, the sphere, were considered perfect symbols of the divine. Circles represent eternity, perpetual motion, a sense of never ending stories. Circles distribute gravity and energy uniformly. There is a balance formed between the inward and outward forces of air in a bubble creating a tremendous amount of surface tension. Touch a bubble and it may pop. The resulting pattern is an explosion as the water radiates out from the center in all directions. An explosion is the attempt of the sphere or circle to maintain its shape against overwhelming odds. A star is an explosion. Many plants, like cactus, feature explosion shapes.
When you first look at a forest, it may seem to be a random tangle of branches and leaves. Continue looking and you will notice some regularity. Follow the path of the trunk of a single tree as it moves upward. Soon a branch will protrude out from the side, then another and another. From that branch will be smaller branches, then smaller ones, leading to twigs and eventually to leaves. Branching is again nature using the shortest possible line to get the greatest amount of coverage.
In the mid 1970’s, Benoit Mandelbrot, a mathematician at IBM, developed a geometry that could analyze and quantify nature’s crags, whorls, billows and branching. He called this new branch of mathematics fractal geometry, taking the name from the Latin adjective fractus, which means “fractured, fragmented or broken”. Since then, scientists have used fractals to define order in natural structures that defy analysis.
To fit into this new category of mathematics, a shape must have what Mandelbrot called self-similarity. The details must look much like the larger picture. A small part of a cloud has the same kind of swirl or texture as the larger part. Look close or look far away and feel no sensation of size. They all look like clouds.
Textures give depth and “feeling” to a subject. They are accentuated on flat surfaces by the use of side light and shadow. Look for the play of shadows on surfaces. Watch for the direction of the light and how it creates shapes and lines and forms and adds dimension to your subject.
The Elements of Recognition
People viewing an image feel safer when they can recognize shapes, lines and patterns. Abstracts may lead to a sense of confusion. Just as humans are always working to anthropomorphize animals’ behaviors and expressions, so too we always look for familiar symbols and signs in nature. Psychologists use inkblots to test a patient’s psychological response to nonsense images. People would see butterflies, flowers, their father, mother and other symbols which represented their recognition and perception of the image.
We always seem to see the symbols that we know the best, like the letters of the alphabet. We see them in mountains, rivers, streams, and elsewhere. We also look for humans and body parts in nature. Faces, profiles, arms, legs, and other body parts. Phallic and sexual symbols are favorites to find. As we try to put some familiarity in abstract images, all sorts of common objects seem to appear.
- Look for subjects of various colors. Look for bright and pastel colors. Does the color of the subject express some emotional quality?
- Lines and Shapes
- Make a photo that emphasizes each of the following:
___ Lines: Vertical
___ Spirals or Helix
___ Human recognition
Of landscapes, as of people, one becomes more tolerant after one’s twentieth year…We learn to look at them, not in the flat but in depth, as things to be burrowed into. It is not merely a question of lines and colours but of smells, sounds and tastes as well…
C.S. Lewis: Images of His World
Landscapes are a favorite subject for many photographers. They are among the oldest subjects for a camera, going back to William Henry Jackson and other early photographers who traveled with the explorers on their trips west. Their photos of the Yosemite valley, and other places, along with the eloquent writings and speeches of John Muir, played a major role in the designation of many national parks.
The pictures most photographers take of the places they visit, however, usually don’t measure up to their expectations. So many factors figure into our impressions of a place: the sounds of the birds, the smells of the forest, the chill of the wind. All the things that make a wild place wild, except for the view itself, get left behind when we take a photograph home. The picture must stand on its own.
Most people think that if they could only travel to more exotic locations, or own more expensive equipment, their pictures would improve. If they could only shot enough film, something would turn out. After all, we have all heard the pros brag about how much film they shoot. The truth is that if you master the basic techniques, you can make good photos under almost any conditions. Technical competence is the foundation that frees you to concentrate on your creativity.
The Grand Landscape
Have you ever visited a place so incredible, so awe inspiring, that you pulled out your camera and tried to fit it all in? The mountains, the clouds, this rock, that bunch of flowers, the edge of the forest. When you get your picture back you wondered why you even took it. We need to learn how to decide what is most important to the point we are trying to make, and exclude everything that doesn’t fit. You’ve heard this before: simplify, simplify, simplify.
The wide angle lens takes in everything, wanted and unwanted, including footprints in the foreground and the building in the background.
Put an interesting subject close in the foreground to add depth and a center of interest to a wide angle perspective. Carefully compose to eliminate distractions.
A favorite lens for big landscapes is the wide angle lens. It’s also probably the hardest to use because it sees so much. Put it on your camera and hold it to your eye. Everything in sight is there, including perhaps your own feet or the tripod legs, or both. How do you simplify with a lens that sees everything?
The trick is to put the lens close to something interesting and hide all the unnecessary things behind it. A wide angle lens has an enormous depth of field. A 20mm will show everything from 11 inches to infinity in sharp focus. It also seems to expand space. Objects close to the lens seem abnormally large, while things far away diminish in size to the point that they disappear.
The wide angle is excellent for showing how a detail relates to the big scene. Find an interesting rock, a bunch of flowers, a pattern in the snow, and physically get close. This will frequently put you on your hands and knees, but the results are worth it. Look through your viewfinder and make sure you are including the mountains or an interesting sky. Adjust your position left or right, up or down to get a balanced composition. With a wide angle, inches can seem like miles. Make sure your car is hidden behind the nearest tree, and you are almost ready to go.
Try different perspectives, like horizontal and vertical, to create different effects of the same subject. Are these photographs of the mountains at Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the same or different? Does the feeling change? Different perspectives can capture different emotional qualities in an image.
The last thing to consider is the technical. For most scenics, a good rule of thumb is that everything should be in focus. Use wide angles at apertures from f8 to f22. The closer the subject is to the photographer, the more the need to stop down the aperture to maximize depth of field.
The normal lens is probably the most versatile of any lens in your bag. At 50mm, use it for big scenics when the wide angle shows too much or whenever its angle of view matches your vision. With care, we can exclude the distracting while still giving the feeling of space.
Use S curves to lead your viewer’s eye into the picture and toward your subject. Frame your subject with the branches of a tree. When used every time, these devices can become monotonous, but the idea is to use all the parts of the scene to enhance the visual appeal of your subject.
Sometimes the part of the scene that is most interesting to you is the detail in the distance. The way the snow clings to the cliffs and the glaciers resist the inevitable pull of gravity is just a part of the big picture. Grab your telephoto lens and get closer.
The angle of view of a telephoto lens is very narrow. These lenses, with focal lengths from about 100mm on up, allow you to come in close on your subject and exclude everything else. Instead of showing the whole mountain, we can use a 300mm or 500mm and force our viewer to look at just the peak. Take a valley filled with clouds, and extract the best section showing the magical movement of the fog through the trees. With an interesting reflection in the foreground of an Alaskan scene, take a picture of the mountain range and then a closeup of the reflection of the range.
Called optical extraction, it is a great way to make a large number of compositions while standing in one spot. By moving from lens to lens and looking in different directions, we can travel across the countryside in an afternoon without moving, each a unique perspective and vision of the landscape.
Look for Weather
Something to remember about nature photography is that oftentimes, bad weather is good weather. Our mall-shopping, lawn-mowing, snow-skiing friends pray for blue skies on the weekends. But for us, a hint of mist or a medium fog in the air is magic. It can add a romantic feel to the landscape. Dark stormy clouds can be very dramatic, especially when the sun breaks through a hole in the sky. The play of stormy light upon the land can be fascinating to watch and photograph as it totally changes the mood of a scenic. Weather creates great opportunities for the landscape photographer.
Sunsets are a favorite subject, and you get two chances each day to catch the sunrise and sunset. They come in all colors, and every one is different. Because sunsets are so common, look for things to add to your view which make your pictures unique. Silhouette the branches of a tree against the red sky. Or even look the other direction and watch how the light plays across the land.
My advice to scenic photographers is short and sweet: It’s fine to go into a situation with preconceived ideas about what you’re going to photograph, but don’t let your plans blind you to other photo possibilities in the area. Never be afraid to reformulate or drop your original intentions and photograph something completely different. Keep your eyes and your mind open. Go with the flow.
To shoot scenics successfully, you must become totally familiar with your subject. Develop an understanding and point of view about your subject and imagine how that point of view would be most successfully communicated in a still image. Know what you want. Don’t wander around hoping that a spectacular image will jump out at you. Good scenics are usually the result of hard thinking and planning, not luck.
- Lens Perspective
- Find an interesting scene and photograph it with three different lenses length if you have them.
- Wide Angle
- Using your widest lens, find a small subject and make it part of your scenic by getting close and including the surroundings in your frame. Set your aperture to f16 or smaller for maximum depth of field.
- Find water and include a reflection in one of your pictures.
Slip. Slosh. Lay right down in the muck. If you’re not getting dirty, you aren’t having fun. This is wet belly photography. It is getting down and dirty and up close with flowers.
Almost no matter where you live, flower season explodes in the spring. Wildflowers and domestics in the lowlands break into full bloom. After an early spring rain, deserts burst into yellows, reds, purples, and pinks. Rhododendrons are making a bright appearance in the some forests. Higher, in the alpine meadows, as the snow releases its hold on the mountains, rainbow colored fields chase its departure.
A great tip for photographing wildlife is to get down to your subject’s eye level. The same applies to flowers. Don’t shoot down, get down. Get low, get your camera level with the flower, or even get under it and shoot up. This is wet belly photography and the results are worth it. Next to sunsets, flowers are one of the most photographed nature subjects. Here are some tips for successful flower photography.
- Filtered sun
- Overcast skies are favorites for nature photographers. Bright sunlight casts shadows and bright highlights, creating distracting elements in your photograph. Clouds filter the brightness of the sun, eliminating harsh shadows and producing an even light. If an overcast sky isn’t in the plan, you can use a diffusion screen, found at professional photography stores, or make one from white ripstop nylon fabric. Make a frame to hold the fabric in place or have an assistant hold it between your subject and the sun, and instantly you have an overcast sky.
- Wind ruins a lot of flower shots. It requires plenty of patience to wait for a lull between wind gusts. Try creating your own wind block. Using plastic sheeting from a local gardening shop, you can create a “wall” of plastic held in place with wood stakes. Or bring a white or clear umbrella and place it to block the wind. Carry baggy ties or string to carefully tie grasses and other distracting branches out of the way or to tie the flower to a small stake to hold it still. Be careful not to get your wind block or support in your photograph. If you want to experiment with the wind, photograph the blowing flowers at slow shutter speeds and let the colors just pan across your film for colorful and fun pattern shots.
- Dew drops
- Early morning, just before the sun comes up to warm the earth and the wind begins to blow, you will often find flowers dressed in dewy jewels. Water droplets cling to the petals and sparkle in the early light. You can add your own dew drops by spraying your subject with a fine mist of water.
Depth of Field Magic
Depth of field was chosen to make the flower behind just visible, like a shadow. Always look for patterns and echos.
- Depth of field
- Some flower images require a lot of depth of field, having every millimeter in focus from front to back. Others become beautiful with only a shallow depth of field, creating a soft romantic look with the background and foreground out of focus. Play with your depth of field on different subjects to create a variety of images of the different flowers you photograph.
- Successful flower photography requires a sturdy tripod. For good wet belly photography, get a tripod that will go all the way down to the ground, allowing you to get down to the flower’s level. Some tripods allow for the center post to invert, which works, but it’s often a challenge to get your eye to the viewfinder through the tripod legs. A Bogen Super Clamp will allow you to put your tripod head on the clamp attached to your tripod leg, getting you lower with ease.
- Composition and Lighting
- Find plants and/or flowers and photograph them from different perspectives, close, far, above, below, in between, and from behind. Experiment with different light sources.
- Depth of Field
- Photograph your subject with different apertures to change the depth of field. Notice what is in focus and not, including the background and foreground.
- Wind and Wet
- Experiment photographing the subject still and then with wind, trying slow shutter speeds to accentuate the motion. Choose flowers already wet with dew or mist it with your own water and photograph it concentrating on the water droplets.
Are you taking pictures for National Geographic?
A 500mm f4 lens attracts this kind of attention. Brent turned to the woman. “Why? Do you represent them? Are you buying photos for National Geographic?”
The man next to us laughed out loud, shattering the quiet at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. “I’m going to use that line!” exclaimed Andy Long, assistant editor of Nature Photographer magazine.
What if we all photographed UP TO the quality reproduced in National Geographic, Ranger Rick, Audubon, Natural History, and other nature magazines? Think of how far our art would expand and grow. The strive towards perfection in natural imagery would be very exciting.
Getting to know you
How do you get such a high quality natural image, especially with uncontrollable wildlife? Three qualities come together to make a successful wildlife photograph: an understanding of the subject; a good, balanced composition; and good photographic technique. Most important of the three is understanding the natural history of your subject.
“It’s no secret that most good wildlife photographers are also good naturalists, or at least they are knowledgeable about the subjects they like to capture on film. If you don’t know your subject, you’ll have to rely on blind luck to lead you to whatever subjects you encounter.”
Joe McDonald, Designing Wildlife Photographs
“To be a better nature photographer, be a better naturalist. This means understanding the subject, not just in a dry textbook sense, but knowing your subject through constant contact and observation in the field. The more you know about nature, the more you will see to photograph,” explains John Shaw, renowned nature photographer and author.
The relationship of the animal to its environment and how it feeds and survives are important parts of the animal’s natural history. Getting to know your subject not only helps you to know what you’re photographing, but it helps you to anticipate what it will do next.
The Balancing Act: Composition
Lacking the care and sensitivity of an alert photographer, even the best opportunity can produce mediocre results. Good composition is more than just getting the subject out of the center of the frame. You need to pay attention to the background, the balance of colors and shapes, and the direction of light. You must move forward or backward, higher or lower as your artistic eye dictates. You take the pictures when all the elements come together.
Composition is subject to perspective and interpretation. Here are a few of our tips for improving the quality of your nature images:
- Frame it
- A successful nature image takes into consideration the subject’s position in the frame. Is the animal moving into or out of the frame? Is there room for the animal to move? We follow the eyes of our subject, looking where they look and following their path. Leave enough space in the photo for the animal to look or move into.
- Watch the light!
- Composition also takes into consideration the balancing act of light. Bright overcast skies are the best for middle of the day wildlife images, including insects and small creatures. Especially with furry creatures, the bright diffused light allows their natural colors to show. Early morning and late afternoon (sunrise and sunset) are wonderful for adding warmth. At this lower angle, the sun is in a good position to provide the catch light in the eye.
- Catch the light!
- The catch-light in the eye is a compositional element that cannot be stressed enough. Without a glint in the eye, the animal appears dead and lifeless. Watch closely through your viewfinder and click the shutter when the head turns and the light sparkles in the eyes. That little light brings out the life in the creatures, making them glow with vitality.
Equipment is just a tool. How often I’ve heard, ‘Gee, you must have a good lens.’ Yes, as a professional photographer I do own some good optics, but not once has one of them gone out and produced a photograph all by itself.
John Shaw, Nature Photography Field Guide
Good Wildlife Photo Techniques
Just as you must get to know your wildlife subject, you must apply the same discipline to your equipment. When the coyote leaps into the air to plunge through the snow for his dinner is not the time to learn how to put film in the camera or figure out how to focus. No matter what system you choose, understand how it works, how it sees and what it’s capable of in the field. Practice changing lenses, changing film, working with it over and over again until it becomes a part of you. You need to move without thinking, concentrating on the subject and not the equipment. More photographs are lost due to delays with equipment than any other excuse.
The equipment required for nature photography covers a wide spectrum. For large mammals, like grizzly bears, a 500mm or 600mm f4 lens is appropriate to get frame-filling images while staying further back. At other times, a 28mm to 35mm wide angle lens is great for a scenic of the grizzly as an element in the image. There is no “right” equipment for nature photography. It depends upon your interest and versatility. Here are some tips and tools for improving your chances of getting that successful wildlife image.
- When subjects move, it’s exceptionally difficult to follow focus or keep the subject in focus, particularly when the animal comes straight at the camera. Autofocus improves the odds of a sharply focused image, allowing you to concentrate on composition.
- A sturdy tripod is a must. It must be sturdy enough to solidly support the biggest lens you may own. For best results, choose a tripod that weighs twice as much as the largest lens and camera combination you will use.
- A fast and long lens
- A “fast” lens has a large maximum aperture, allowing high shutter speeds at low light levels. As many animals are out in the early morning or late evening, the challenge is finding enough light to get a decent shutter speed. A long lens is critical to helping get close to the wildlife. From 300mm to 600mm is required – longer is better.
- Motor Drive
- An automatic film advance or motor drive on your camera is critical. This advances the film quickly, without action by you. A green heron may wait for ages before striking for dinner, but when it does, you can fire off short bursts of photographs with ease. And when the elk start fighting during rutting season, you had better move fast to catch those brief moments of aggressive behavior.
- Panning is the technique of following a moving subject and keeping it in the same place in the viewfinder before, during, and after the exposure. Requiring some timing and precision, when done right, the moving subject will be sharp while the background blurs from the motion. A fairly fast shutter speed is required to stop the action of the moving subject. Since the background and foreground are blurred, depth of field isn’t critical, allowing for a wide aperture to maximize the light and allows a faster shutter speed.
Photographing wildlife is one of the more exciting branches of nature photography. It is exciting as there is always some action and movement, and you never know exactly what an animal will do. We explore specialized techniques for wildlife photography on our web site and in our workshop, Wild Thing, I Think I Love You. Remember, no photograph is worth compromising the safety of the animal, or your own safety.
- Choose a wildlife subject and change perspectives and angles to move its placement within the frame.
- Experiment photographing wildlife subjects in different lighting conditions, possibly revisiting them through the day. Try back and front lighting as well as diffused and, if the subject is cooperative, use a reflector and diffusion cloth.
- Concentrate on capturing the catchlight in the eye of your subjects.
- Capture a wildlife subject in action. Experiment with shutter speeds to capture the motion. Anticipate the action to capture it at the peak.
- Follow a moving wildlife subject to practice panning with your camera, following the movement with your camera as you click the shutter. Vary your shutter speed to “stop” the action.