Nature Photography

The term ‘nature’ refers to anything that is not made by human beings, or, in other words, whatever is created by that unfathomable force we call ‘God’ or ‘Almighty’.

Hence nature photography broadly relates to photographing landscapes, birds, animals,  insects, human beings, rivers, mountains, valleys, trees, etc. Nature photography  represents a challenge to document the wonders that the Almighty has created,  and I don’t think I know any photographer who does not love nature.

We all know that no one lens or shooting tech-nique can cover every genre mentioned above. This short article aims to cover the equipment-cum-techniques needed to pursue this exciting topic.

“A lot of people think that when you have a grand scenery, such as you have in Yosemite, that photography must be easy” —-Galen Rowell

How very true! Photography can be easy only when you understand the various features of your camera – how they work and why they work the way they do, along with your power of observation.

Going closer with a wide-angle lens has
the tree appear much larger andthe
background hillocks much smaller

By using a telephoto lens from a distance,
the size relationship between the cabin
and the mountain has changed

Step 1
How often have you walked through a beautiful landscape but not noticed the intricate shapes, the delicate flowers, the colourful insect life, and the gorgeous patterns? This fact reminds us of a very important requirement – to see, to observe, to notice!

Don’t just walk past the scene and say “Oh! How beautiful it is”. Instead try to view the scene from different perspectives. Don’t start taking pictures at your eye level! Go low, go high; go left, go right. Try different viewpoints. Remember, eye-level pictures are usually boring. Experiment. Someone once said that if you have 36 satisfactory exposures on a roll, it simply means that you are not experimenting! So try out a new arrangement, don’t be afraid. No one will hang you at sunrise if your new unconventional attempt is not successful.

Picture 1

Step he lens is focused on the yellow flowers in
the foreground. A narrow aperture created
the necessary depth-of-field.

Step 2
The next step is to know what to include; more importantly, what to exclude! Remember, a sculptor starts with a block of stone and chisels away the unwanted area to create his work of art – what he takes away is what creates the masterpiece!

The same goes for landscapes. Don’t include anything that takes the eye away from the principle element of the scene. Focus sharply on what you think is the main point of interest in the landscape.

Step 3
Decide on the lens. Most photographers start taking pictures with whatever lens is on the camera body. This is not the right practice. Instead, try to pre-visualise the effect you want your viewers to have when they see your picture.

Let’s take an example. Your frame is a landscape that includes mountains in the background and some trees in the foreground. Decide the element that you want to emphasize on. Is it the foreground trees or the background mountains? What is the size relationship you want to have between these two elements? Do you want the trees to be very large in the picture and the mountains much smaller? Or do you want the mountains to be larger? If the former, use a wide-angle lens and go closer to the trees and take your pictures. If the latter, use a telephoto lens but take the pictures from further away. Notice also that the wide-angle pictures will show a greater distance between the trees and the mountains; the telephoto pictures will narrow down that gap.

Step 4
Then decide your zone of sharpness – from which point to which point you want the image to be acceptably sharp. If you want greater zone of sharpness (which is the same thing as depth of field), use a narrower aperture like f/11 or f/16. If a shallow depth of field is what you require, use a wider aperture like f/2.8 or f/2 (this of course depends on the lens you are using).

Step 5
Create an illusion of depth.
The human eye sees in 3-dimensions: width, height, and depth. A photograph has only 2-dimensions: width and height. Hence, by using certain techniques, we need to create the third (missing) dimension of depth. There are quite a few ways to do that but the simplest method is to locate an interesting foreground element closer to the lens, and focus sharply on it. Then use a narrow aperture so that you create enough foreground to background sharpness.An illusion of visual depth can also be created using what is known as aerial perspective (Picture 1). On a foggy or misty day, using a wider aperture, you shoot from a higher viewpoint. Subjects closer to the camera will record sharply, but further away subjects will gradually fade away, thus creating visual depth.

Equipment for landscape photography (Rivers, Mountains, Valleys, Trees)
Landscape photography can be done using almost any type of camera – A D-SLR, an ILCC (Interchangeable Lens Compact Camera) or even a compact.

D-SLRs and ILCCs have the advantage of interchangeable lenses, while compacts have the advantage of lower weight, lower cost, and simplicity of use. With modern mid-to-high-end compacts, you can easily make high quality 8 x 12 inch prints. If your need is to regularly make large prints (say, 16 x 20 inches or larger), consider the D-SLR or the ILCC.

For lenses, focal lengths of approximately of 24 to 105mm (35mm format equivalence) should serve you well if you are a beginner, though accomplished photographers may find wider focal lengths more suitable. If you don’t have extra-wide-angle lenses, you could, if you know how to, create a panorama by stitching a couple of pictures.

‘Fast’ lenses are not a must, though fast lenses could offer quicker and more accurate autofocus, especially in less than adequate light.

Though some people may not agree (or agree only partially), if you want the best from your costly, high-end lenses, use a sturdy tripod (I repeat, a sturdy tripod, not a cheap plastic one). Tripods also allow you to use narrower apertures without fear of camera shake. An added advantage is that you can compose more accurately.

Birds and Animal Photography…
The rules change here. To be a successful bird and animal photographer, you need patience,perseverance, luck, and know-how of animal behavior. Add to that very expensive (and often very heavy) lenses, plus a high-strength tripod with a high-end tripod head.

Birds and animals (actually, a bird is an animal that flies!) are wary of human beings and fly/flee at the slightest sign of danger. A scared animal has a choice: either to run away or attack, and there have been cases when animals have actually killed the photographers! Hence, for obvious reasons, you need long-range telephoto lenses.

To be a successful animal/bird photographer, one has to study animal behaviour. Approaching an animal/bird head-on will certainly spook it. Instead, it is suggested that you very gradually zic-zac your way towards it. Let the animal feel that you are not interested in it and that you are going away. Don’t stare at it if possible. If the bird/animal sees you, back-track your way and then again try to approach it when it is not watching you.

Wear clothes that camouflage you in the surroundings. Imagine someone wearing a bright red or bright  yellow shirt (or even white) in a forested area. He will stand out like  a sore thumb!

If you are on a strict budget…
If you are on a strict budget, consider zoom lenses with focal length around 300mm (35mm format equivalence). Do realize though that 300mm is often not good enough for far away subjects, and if you are photographing birds, you are likely to be disappointed (because the image will be very small in the frame) unless the bird happens to be very near. Such (low to medium budget) lenses are ‘slow’, which means that the widest opening on the lens would be around f/4-5.6, or even f/4.5-6.3.

If your pockets are jingling…
If your pockets are heavy with cash, you could go in for ‘faster’ and longer focal length lenses. For bird photography, the 500mm f/4s and the 600mm f/4s (often with a 1.4x tele-converter) would be great to have. Do remember however, such lenses are very heavy and cannot be used without a very sturdy tripod (which adds to the weight and cost). Other options are lenses like the 400mm f/2.8 or the 200-400mm f/4.

If you are neither rich nor poor…
If you are in this category, you could opt for lenses like the 70-200mm, 80-200mm, 300mm f/4, 100-400mm, etc. Two lenses that I recommend for their ‘Value for Money’ (no, the company I’m referring to is not paying me anything to write this!) are the Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM and the Sigma 150-500mm f/4-5.6. The 50-500 model costs about Rs.1.1 lac and the 150-500 is about Rs.73,000.Insects, butterflies etc.To photograph insects, butterflies and small creatures, you’ll need a macro lens (Nikon macro lenses are known as Micro-Nikkors). Macro lenses are generally available in the following focal lengths: 55/60mm, 90/100/105mm, and 200mm. If you don’t mind the extra cost, go in for the longer focal length, which will permit you greater working distance (the distance between the front of the lens and the subject), which in turn, increases your safety factor when photographing venomous creatures like scorpions or snakes. The longer focal length will further help by restricting the background seen in the photos.

Useful Accessories…
Here are some useful accessories you could have for nature photos:
a) A hide. A simple yet effective hide can be made using a stiff broad-rimmed hat and a camouflaged net. The photographer wears the hat and drapes the net over himself in an attempt to blend with the surroundings. (see sketch 1 on next page)

Another ‘hide’ can be a well-camouflaged portable tent. It can be large enough to provide a sitting arrangement, and a place to position the tripod in front of the opening provided for the lens. (see sketch  2 on next page)

b) A torchlight can be very useful but make sure the light doesn’t spill out of the hide.

c) A cellphone will come in very handy should there be an emergency. Make sure that you keep the cellphone on ‘vibrate’ mode and that the sound is switched off. I remember a time when I very carefully approached a bird of prey and was about to press the shutter release, my cellphone rang and the bird flew away. Needless to say that I swore at the caller!

How to set-up a Hide
You just can’t take a hide and place it anywhere you feel like. Birds and animals notice anything unusual or suspicious in their surroundings and stay away from their homes. That could spell out a death warrant for the young ones who depend solely on their parents for life-giving support.First and foremost, a hide should blend in with the surroundings. It should be first placed far away from its final position and kept there for a couple of days, so that the bird/animal gets used to it. The next step is to move it a bit further towards the subject and once again, kept there for a few days. Repeat this procedure till you can arrive at its final location.

How to enter a hide
Birds and animals are always weary of humans. They consider us to be a threat. Here’s a small trick to play on the bird/animal before you can get into the hide. Form a small group and move towards the hide while talking loudly. Your subject will notice the group and hear them talk. When you are close to the hide, the photographer must quietly and skillfully slip away from the group, while the others should continue talking loudly and return to where they came from. Your subject will observe the group going away and will consider it safe to enter its home without fear. Fortunately for us, the bird/animal cannot count and will not notice that there is one person less in the group!

1.Always be concerned about the safety of your subject. Do nothing that could prevent the parent birds/animals from coming back to their homes. This could endanger the lives of the young ones.

Some photographers do a bit of gardening near the nests of birds (so that they can get a clearer view). This should be avoided at all costs as it exposes the young ones to attack by other birds/animals.

2. Take many pictures. Don’t be satisfied with a few images. Remember, some frames may not have perfect focus, some may be downright fuzzy, and in some frames the subject may not be in the right position.

Sketch 1

Sketch 2

3. It may be better to switch off the autofocus because the AF system may have difficulty in focusing accurately when the subject is surrounded by trees, weeds or grass.

4. When photographing colourful birds (or colouful landscapes), consider setting your camera to ‘vivid’ for that saturated ‘Velvia’ look.

5. In the field, avoid the temptation to delete pictures that you think are not up to the mark. Delete them only after you check them on your computer screen. I know photographers, who, in the excitement of the shoot, or under the pressure of proving themselves, have inadvertently deleted the wrong images.

6. Don’t entirely fill-up your memory cards. Always leave space for a couple of more frames. And don’t mix up the used and unused cards. Keep them in different pockets in your camera bag (and remember which pocket has which cards!).
Rohinton Mehta