The 10 Dos and Don’ts Of Nature Photography

Photo by Nathaniel Gerdes

In addition to the beautiful lush landscapes and picturesque animals off in the distance, nature photography comes with its fair share of rules and standards to practice by. Whether it pertains to our camera equipment, the clothes on our back, or even our mindsets when we leave our homes to shoot, nature photography is different because unlike traditional studio photography it’s shot in an unpredictable environment— mother nature. Additionally, while it’s important to be prepared for the day ahead, shooting out in nature and recognizing yourself as a nature photographer also requires a good deal of pre planning. This is practiced by making sure you’re paying attention to details like travel gear, insurance, and even protective gear from natural elements. All these factors, can not only affect the work and end image but can impact safety as well. Read on as we discuss ten of the must-dos and the must-avoids of nature photography.

The Do’s

Pick Your Subject:

When you venture out to begin your nature photography session, there are over a dozen different subject matters to stumble upon while walking through trails and passing countless natural attractions. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and walking only five feet before running out of the film (and time) – go in with a plan and pick your subject matter beforehand. Not only will this give you ample opportunity to go through the natural environment capturing the best content, but will offer a clear direction for the imagery you’re hoping to collect.

If it seems impossible to focus on only one subject matter for your portfolio during your session, try pairing together similar categories together. Bonus tips, try shooting categories together that use similar camera gear – for example, flora and wildlife. Another positive attribute to planning your subject ahead of time is, it limits the potential of experiencing creative roadblocks because once you have a clear point of reference your subjects will become easier to identify.     

Pack The Right Equipment:

Whether or not you focus on a particular subject matter within nature photography (examples being: landscape, animals, or floras), it’s crucial to know what you’re packing before you leave the house or studio. The reason being, you want to make sure your equipment can cover all the basics for your upcoming nature shoot. While there’s nothing wrong with bringing a variety of equipment, not only can it get heavy but it may be unnecessary. On the contrary, it would be equally as unfortunate (if not more) to not pre-plan and miss out on shooting something spectacular. With each altering landscape or environment, you plan to shoot, may require different lenses, need tripods, or even lighting. Before leaving, check to see which terrain you’ll be exploring. For example, if you enjoy shooting entomology (insects) as part of your animal portfolio and don’t account for potential caves during your hike, you may be kicking yourself over a missed opportunity by not packing an external light.

Know The Surroundings:

Like any other walk through nature, it’s very important to know your surroundings during your next nature photography session. Whether or not you’re staying on paved paths or exploring new trails with dirt beneath you, nothing is pre-prescribed when it comes to mother nature. Some things to look up and research before your shoot include learning of predatory or venomous animals, dangerous flora (like poison ivy), as well as ground conditions (are the grounds hilly or slippery). Once you’ve researched your specific location, like a natural park or local mountain range, dive deeper and learn of the interesting attributes the area carries. Along with your personal safety, this research may be able to help you capture the perfect image. Some online blogs or sites will give insiders tips or ideal lookout points. While every once and a while it’s nice to take the risk (creatively), these guides may help move your day forward a little more calmly.

Plan Ahead:

Just like knowing your surroundings when engaging in nature photography, it’s ideal to plan ahead on your next shooting session. While it’s notably whimsical and fun spirit to go without a plan and take experiences as they come, it may not be the smartest decision to make when it comes to dealing with nature. Some ways to plan ahead (in addition to picking your subject focus, packing the right equipment, and learning your surrounding) is to pack ahead of time to not lose daylight hours and time shooting. Another way to think ahead is to pick out select trails, locations, and viewpoints you’re planning to visit during your shoot, this way you can account for time between location or getting from one point to the other.

Get Creative:

One of the optimal characteristics that come with pursuing an art like photography, is the constant exposure and mindset around creativity and creative thinking. There will always be associating qualities that come with being a creative individual. Some of these include curiosity, observant, and the ability to wander and losing track of time. To tell a photographer to get creative is seemingly redundant and unnecessary, but in fact is a key component when it comes to nature photography and should be mentioned. The reason some artist may need a reminder to get creative is mostly for the permission. As the growing market of photography continues to grow with access to cameras (as some only need their cell phones), creativity tends to diminish. This is because the constant stress or appearance that photographers need to seek out the best and impress to break through the noise – rather than speaking or capture a scene or subject that works for them and shows their creative side.

Photo by Conner Robertson

Wear Proper Attire:

Depending on which time of the year or location you decide to shoot nature photography, make sure to dress appropriately and bring any necessary items for your person. For example, if deciding to shoot during a rainstorm while it would be wise to pack your raincoat (over an umbrella), many people fixated on the coat and forget the shoes. Because the ground will either be slippery or spongy in the rain, it’s important to wear proper footing that is waterproof, contain soles with traction, and ride up taller than your ankles to avoid mud from entering your shoe. In the weather is cold and potentially snowing, bring not only a heavy coat and snowshoes but a walking stick or pick to help measure the snow in front of your path (as snowfall can build over mistaken paths and even fall through).

Check Your Aperture:

When shooting outside, one of the first measurements on your camera to measure is the current aperture. Aperture is the setting that controls the amount of natural light is lead into the photo. Normally when shooting in a sunny area, the aperture should be lower as too much natural sunlight can overexpose the image. In nature photography, a category that is primarily (if not always) shot outside, the amount of light can fluctuate throughout the day from the time the sun rises to the time it sets. Keeping a reminder to check aperture while shooting throughout the day will make sure you’re accounting for variation of sunlight and will end up in higher quality imagery throughout the shoot. Rule of thumb, an aperture that is lower than higher tends to always be a safer bet if concerned about exposure during certain times of the day. It’s always easier to lighten a picture and pick out the color, than it is to draw (or bring back) colors to their original state once they have been exposed.

Consider Shooting During Sunrise or Sunset:

Not only are the colors in the sky during these two times of the day insanely beautiful, sunrises and sunsets also happen to be when the sun is light enough to enhance a photo, but not harsh enough to ruin and create unfortunate shadowing within your imagery. An ideal scenario when planning a nature photography shoot is to look up the times when the sun is planning to rise and when it’s said to set. By looking up these times, it’ll make the session easier for you to plan the duration of the day around the two. When shooting, it’s ideal to plan eastern facing subjects (especially if shooting landscape) in the AM hours, while shooting a western facing subject in the PM hours. This will give you ample time to not only explore the area but leave you with fantastic imagery. There’s always a reason a friend ask to take a selfie when facing a beautiful sunset – it all has to do with lighting.  

Tell Someone Where You’re Going:

Call it the unpredictability of nature or the mindset of being extra cautious, it’s incredibly vital to let someone know where you’re going if venturing off to photograph nature. Regardless if you’re doing it on your own or joining a set path or trail – there are incidences that may occur that having someone aware of your location is a good thing. Other potential solves (if exploring larger national parks with miles of land), is to either download apps that connect you with friends or loved ones or share your live location with someone that you trust.

Photo by Michael Snell

Plan Your Route:

With all the mentions of benefits that come from mapping or planning your route listed above, it would be silly to go in unprepared without a clue of where to stop first or where to end your day. Even worse, it’s always critical to pre-plan and arrange where you’ll be around noon to one in the afternoon, where the sun is full heat and blinding light is harsh on your eyes and could potentially ruin shots with overexposure. Not only is this a huge time saver, but it’s also convenient, responsible, and will lead to many more occurrences where you’re able to capture excellent photos and not stress yourself out while doing so. Ways you can master your route (without stalking Google Earth), could be utilizing apps like map my run or read the recommendations from those on trip advisor and yelp to decide which attractions, spots, or viewpoints are best when visited at a certain time (if venturing to a popular tourist or populated park or natural reserve.  

The Don’ts

Go In Blindly:

As this pertains to most things in life, photography is no different. When setting out on your next nature photography shooting session, cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s. In addition to the previous points mentioned earlier regarding the importance of pre-planning, you may be missing out of the prime shooting locations or unknowingly pass interesting animals. When you complete your research before setting out on your adventure, your images will thank you. Something you may want to consider is reaching out to the park’s staff. If it is possible to have either a tour guide or park ranger accommodate you for a small fee, they can take you to the highlights (even the secret ones) of the park or nature trail.

Disturb The Animals:

While it seems obvious to let a sleeping bear lay… some individuals will do anything for the perfect shot. Located throughout nature, there will always be a countless number of wild animals ranging from: mammals, birds, and insects. It’s our job to respect these animals, and if we decide to capture them on film to do so in a way that doesn’t mess with their environment. Beside some animals being aggressive and poisonous, there are also some animals (like rabbits) that keep their babies underground in burrows – if these nests are disturbed, it could bring harm to the newborns. Additionally, while we don’t want to disturb the animals don’t let them disturb you. Always pack bug spray to avoid mosquito bites, as well as wear long (preferably lightweight if hot outside) pants and shirts to avoid tick bites. It’s also crucial to check for tick bites when you return home, as it’s common for them to bypass clothing.

Shoot At The Sunniest (and hottest) Time Of Day:

Along with it being hot (and sweaty) in the middle of the day, there are many reasons that shooting film outside during the hottest and sunniest part of the day is a bad idea. Regardless of your aperture setting, many of the colors and details are lost in the overexposure and are considered washed and blown out. To avoid this, try to avoid the times of the day where the sun is at its highest point. Use this time to sit down in the shade an enjoy a quick lunch or arrange your shot list to include shots located in the shade or in any on-site caves and caverns. If it’s seemingly not possible to get about shooting at the sunniest portion of the day try increasing shutter speed as this will limit the amount of light brought into the image.

Get Tunnel Vision:

It’s common for us to get fixated on a particular thing or item, especially in nature photography. For example, if exploring a certain natural site we may ignore other aspects of beauty in order to capture the one shot we traveled to shoot. This can end up hurting us as we lose out on other opportunities to not only take in the scenery but miss out on what could be amazing additions to our portfolio. To not force yourself into tunnel vision, try broadening your expectations by not limiting to one or two particular shots but instead a subject of shots. For example, if you plan on shooting landscapes of a particular mountain peak try bringing more landscapes of other mountains or associating scapes into your shot list.

Forget About Potential Mishaps:

There are always uncertainties to account for when heading out for a shoot, nature photography is no different. Batteries can die, injuries can occur, and expectations for the day may flip 180 – but this is no reason to deter you from exploring or shooting out in nature. Some ways to prepare for potential mishaps are to cover all your basis. First, for tech-related incidences make sure to bring an external battery to charge any items the may die while shooting (such as phones or cameras). Secondly, for any health-related incidences that can happen along the way, bring along a standard first aid kit.

Photo by Karl JK Hendin

Wander:

Just like we hope to stay on the right path in our creative career, it’s our responsibility to make sure we stay on the right path during a shooting session (especially when taking place in nature). While the saying goes, ‘not all who wander are lost’ it’s best to not take our chances getting lost in the midst of nature (particularly when you’re not comfortable or familiar with the area). Along with planning your route (as mentioned earlier), make sure to stay on the designated paths as they’re there for a purpose. Some of the reasons why it’s crucial to stay on the blocked off trails could be unstable ground, unpredictable animals, and poisonous plants. Another negative component that can occur from wandering through nature trails is the possibility of getting lost or losing track of time. If you find yourself working into the night, make sure to keep or store the local park rangers number in case of any emergencies.

Forget Your Sunscreen:

With the UV index being higher than ever (thanks to climate change and global warming) make sure when you’re outside shooting nature photography, that you’re wearing proper sun protection.  While there is are a lot of confusion around which SPF number to use on your skin, there is a general rule of thumb that our skin begins to burn after twenty minutes of being outside. The number multiples the standard amount of time in minutes. For example: SPF 15 is fifteen times twenty, which is equal to 300 minutes of protection against the sun (approximately 5 hours). If planning to spend all day in the sun, go for SPF 30 to be safe.

Not Insure Your Gear:

If you don’t automatically ensure your gear once you purchase it, you should as soon you decide to take it out of the box and bring it outside in the real world. While participating in various forms of nature photography, you’re likely to run into circumstances that could harm your camera and gear including rain, unexpected drops, and bumps. For items like drones, there’s a possibility of losing range and haven’t an incidental crash. If looking for advice on how to ensure gear check to see if your camera’s provider has an insurance option. If not, by belonging to organizations like ASMP, PPA, or APA, they will provide the option to apply through their programs for insurance.

Ignore Weather Cautions:

Any percentage of rain on your weather app should keep you alert, particularly if you’re planning an outdoor shooting session. Pending on the flexibility of your shoot schedule, try and foresee the weather patterns the week of your session and try to arrange or reschedule a day with a clearer forecast. If that’s not possible, try looking up the breakdown of the daily forecast and see how possible it would be to move your shot list around. If shooting in rain, a bonus tip would bring an umbrella for your camera. Not only does it prevent rainfall on your equipment, but in the daylight hours can block sun rays and extra light absorbing into the shot.

Forget It’s Nature:

At the end of the day, no matter how many do’s… or don’ts you pre-plan for when shooting nature photography it’s important to remember it’s still mother nature. When it comes to unpredictability, nature takes the cake. While providing stunning views and adding timeless pieces to your portfolio, remember to respect your surroundings. This includes: not polluting or leaving trash along the way, and following park rules and guidelines.

In the laundry list of do’s and don’ts, remember to have fun and fully embrace your artistic and creative passions. Take your time and immerse yourself in your surroundings, as nature is unexpected, always be ready to snap a picture as something wonderful may be coming around the corner at any minute.

Photo by Gary Snell

What are some of your do’s and don’ts when shooting in nature? Share with us in the comments below! Feeling inspired to shoot in nature? Check out our recent campaign with the Environmental Defense Fund HERE.

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