The Basics of Nature Photography
So what's the secret to taking good pictures in the wilds of India? Here are a few tips to keep in mind for beginners starting out on the tortuous route of Nature Photography. I assume in this article that you already have appropriate photographic equipment available.
Always shoot with slide film; take a vow to never touch print film. If you cannot understand why slide film is better, see a psychiatrist.
1. The first thing is: Learn to see the light. .
Look for interesting combinations of: color, light (and shadow) and texture. The best light is usually morning light (warmer, yellow), late afternoon, or evening light (warmer, a hint of red to full red). Mid-day light can make shadows and bright contrast that are difficult for the film to handle. In India, due to high levels of dust, smoke and water vapour in the atmosphere, beautiful light is seen rarely; the rainy season is your best bet. If landscape photography is you passion, learning to the see the light is the single most important talent you need to develop. In India, that also means that you need to make the most of every oppurtunity available.
2. Try new perspectives
Get up close to the flower or bark of a tree; maybe only inches away. Look up, look down. One great rule is to look behind you; sometimes the best photo is the one you just walked by but saw from the wrong side. Freeze the motion of a waterfall with a fast shutter speed, or blur it with a slow one.
Don't always make the main subject the center of the photo. Try the rule of thirds, placing the main subject of the photo in the left or right third of the frame.
When photographing landscapes, give the photo a feeling of depth by including close objects in the frame as well as the distant subject. These also add a sense of scale to the photo. Find situations where the close in objects frame the further object. Remember to use a tripod in such situations. That will allow you to use the smallest aperture possible, giving you the highest depth of field.
3. Get as close as possible to your subject
Really close. Closer. Fill up the frame. It's easy to be too far away from your subject, but hard to get too close. When in doubt, get closer.
Many beginning nature photographers are amazed when they see their first wildlife photo's. The animal they found, and painstakingly stalked and photographed are small dots on the film, barely recognizable. Very often there is simply no way to get a frame filling photo without good telephoto equipment, but there have been instances when I could have got closer but did not. What happened? First, our eye doesn't need much to identify an animal, a bit of grey in a sea of green ... oh, it's a rhino in the grassland. When you saw the animal, it filled your entire attention; you blocked out everything around it and saw only that animal. But the camera can't do that, it shows things as they are with all their imperfections. Secondly, keep in mind that when you take a picture, you're reducing the image when you photograph it. You see a bird, that is only 4" tall up close, and reduce it to maybe 1/4" on a standard print, or maybe 1/32 of an inch on a slide or negative. That's not at all like the photo's you've seen in magazines. Why? Because the professional photographer got close enough to the animal to make a print that may be larger than life size (an 8-inch tall Purple Sunbird!!!). Proximity is what impresses the viewer.
How do you get that close? Part patience, part technique. A telephoto lens is almost a must. For professional looking wildlife photo's, you really need a 400 mm., 500 mm. or 600 mm. telephoto lens (which are equivalent to 8-power, 10-power, or 12-powers binoculars, respectively). These lenses are out of reach of almost all of us. But a 200 mm. telephoto (which is typically what most beginners have) can work well with deer and other big animals. But for smaller wildlife, a 200 mm. lens is not enough. You need to save money for a 300 m.m. or higher focal length lens.
In addition, many photographers use a hide, a camouflaged hiding place. It may be a tent, a bush, a wall of camouflage material, a car, or even a window. The point is, the photographer lets the wildlife come in close to him or her. While using hides, remember that the welfare of the animal comes foremost. Nesting birds are very sensitive to intrusion, so be very careful.
The one obvious exception to this get close rule is landscapes. While a telephoto can give you an interesting up close perspective of a mountain or a stream, a wide angle lens will most closely recreate what you're seeing. Your eye is able to take in an entire landscape at once, but your camera can only capture part of that view.
4. Use a tripod whenever you can.
This is the advice that all beginners ignore, but you should not. When beginners in the art of photography meet, they fight over camera bodies. Pro's fight over tripods and heads.
Take a tripod with you whenever you photograph. Many telephoto lenses are difficult to hold still. Telephoto's also cause you to lose some light gathering ability, so you frequently have to use slower shutter speeds. At any shutter speed slower than the focal length of your lens (for example, slower than 1/50 sec. with a 50 mm. lens or 1/200 sec. with a 200 mm. lens), you'll risk blurring the photo. You can minimize this by bracing your camera hand against a solid object like a tree or a rock, but that will usually only gain you one stop slower than normal.
For the beginner, most any tripod will do. But the lighter the tripod, the more likely you are to take it with you. American nature photographers tend to carry heavy tripods, but that is only because they all have a car as an extension of their body. In India, where you have to walk everywhere, you need a light tripod. I find the cheap light ones made by Slik are quite adequate.
5. Travel as much as you can
The best photo oppurtunities present themselves, only during certain times of the year, at any given place. So be ready to travel, to catch every place, at its most oppurtune time. The Valley of Flowers is the place to go to in August and September, Bharatpur in winter and Kanha just before the rains. Although you might want to go to the same place again, in a different season, to build a more representative portfolio, make sure your first visit falls within the best time to visit.
6. Take a lot of photographs
Most serious photographers take several shots of the same subject, trying several different angles and exposures. Film is your cheapest investment, when compared to time and equipment. When you get your photo's back, you're looking for a couple in each roll that came out just right. iYou could give away the not so good ones to one of your local nature clubs, which are generally very happy to accept contributions of slides. A complement to this rule is to always have extra film with you.
7. Take notes
Like cooking, if you can't remember the recipe you used the one time you got it right, you'll never learn enough to do it again. Try to note film type, location, time of day, lens used, aperture and shutter speed. Try making a standard form that you can fill out as soon as you take the photograph.
8. Practice with your camera
You do need to use your camera enough that it becomes second nature to you. Many opportunities in nature photography are fleeting; you don't want to miss it because you couldn't remember how to over-ride the auto-exposure setting, etc. So don't limit your photography to nature; use your camera where ever and when ever you can. Marriages (not your own) are a good time to hone your photographic instincts and reflexes.
9. Enjoy your photography
Don't get so wrapped up in photographing that you forget to enjoy what you're seeing. A photograph is a poor substitute for being there, so enjoy it while your'e there. Make photography part of the overall fun, not an end in itself. As you progress in your work, you will need to share your ideas and experiences with others - the photo.net Nature Photography Pages provide the best resource on the Web.