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Everything you Need to Know about Nature Photography

January 1, 2016
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editorial Manager.

Many times, when rookie photographers get their very first camera and want to experiment, they are told to go outside (unless they already know they’re into stuff that doesn’t move and that can be easily controlled). The truth is that the outdoors holds many pleasant surprises for those in pursuit of a great shot because the wonders of our natural habitat are simply endless. And so, if you’re a landscape enthusiast, or in love with the wildlife, or plants, or all of it together, you’re bound to engage in nature photography, one of the medium’s most beautiful, but also most challenging genres. While it does involve landscape shots, nature photography mostly refers to all the breathtaking images of animals and plants you keep seeing in the National Geographic magazine or the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition exhibitions. What’s instantly clear from seeing them is the fact they require a lot of preparation, both physical and mental endurance, patience and attention, which is exactly what makes them so valuable – it is not a coincidence that this type of photography is among the most popular ones among art collectors as well.

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Nature photographer can encounter different kinds of surprises during his work, like Will Burrard-Lucas did in this image. Via 500px

Making of Nature Photography

Much of nature photography is made for scientific, travel and cultural publications, but many times, they are considered the finest examples of fine art photography, where aesthetics become a picture’s main value. Their aim is to transmit the splendor of our most magnificent natural environments, nature and national parks, and the creatures who live in them. For wildlife or nature photographers, it takes a great understanding of different factors, in order to capture these moments the way they intended to. Apart from pretty heavy professional photographic equipment, which includes tripods, protective camera cases, in case they’re going underwater, and different types of lenses (from macro to wide angle, depending on the “subject”), they need to learn a lot about the landscape or an animal species they are about to photograph. Certain locations require special permits, and every animal leads a specific kind of life that a nature photographer is obliged to respect. They also often need to spend days in a single spot waiting for their right moment to occur, meaning their gear bag will also contain things like a tent, some food, and lots of warm (and camouflage) clothes. But then, from the winning combination of luck and skills, there comes that perfect shot we’ve all been waiting for, ready to evoke all kinds of emotions in its gazing beauty.

As a little more “relaxed” type of nature photography, we have macro imagery of plants or insects, where it’s all about close-ups and details. As some of these creatures are too small for the naked human eye to see, these macro takes let us appreciate their tiny particulars on a larger scale, introducing us to a whole new world we couldn’t have known so well before.

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A beautiful example of macro nature photography by Nitin Prabhudesai. Courtesy of National Geographic

Wildlife Photography

Out of almost all photographic genres, wildlife photography took the longest to develop – the first wildlife photograph was taken in 1906 for National Geographic, almost 70 years after the oldest photographic image ever, because it required faster lenses and higher sensitivity of the film that were unavailable until that point. Today, it represents the largest “section” of nature photography, and it’s dedicated to wildlife and capturing animals in their natural habitats – while they’re eating, fighting or just being. For this type of image-making, it is crucial that the photographer gets to know even the smallest details of an animal’s behavior and habits, as it is very important not to harm the subject in any way whatsoever. Because both the photographer and the animal could end up in danger during the shooting, or because endangered plant species could be destroyed by reckless image takers, there are certain rules imposed to prevent such situations that everyone involved in nature photography must follow.

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The annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition 2014, now in its 52nd year

Ethics of Capturing Animals and Natural Environments

At work, a nature photographer can easily expose his/her subject animal to its predators, or prevent it from getting food. They can also accidentally step on a rare flower, which would take years to grow back, or it won’t revive at all. To avoid cases like these, many nature photography associations and their members compiled a set of ethical practices, which protect the well-being of all parties involved in the matter. Apart from the above-mentioned knowledge of the animal behaviors and the fragility of the ecosystem, the ethics insist on the safe and comfortable distance between the man and the animal and encourages the former not to expose themselves while working, in order not to scare the latter. Nature photography is all about respect – of the wildlife, the law, the environment and fellow photographers, and as long as they follow the rules, they will be able to obtain their images without an issue.

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Left: Jack Dykinga – Stone Canyon / Right: Galen Rowell – Split Rock and Cloud, Eastern Sierra, California, 1976. Participants of Christie’s first ‘Green Auction’ in New York, held in 2010

Where to Buy Nature Photography Prints?

As it often happens, the internet is the greatest source of platforms dedicated to nature photography prints for sale. The first and most obvious choice if the National Geographic website, which offers a variety of prints and posters of landscape and wildlife captured by their own contributors, as well as dedicated photo books. Other resources include fineartamerica, art.com and imagekind, for example. Of course, you can also visit the websites (and hopefully respective shops) of some of the most prominent nature photographers, like Suzi Eszterhas, Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas, Andy Rouse, Joel Sartore, Chris Dodds, Martin Bailey, Paul Nicklen, Frans Lanting, David Doubilet and Anup Shah, to name a few. Investing in nature photography is always a good thing – they can represent rare testimonies of disappearing animal species or crumbling environments, which rises their value. But perhaps their biggest forte lies in their great visual impact, which appears to be the winning element among collectors, at any given time in photographic history.

Editor’s Tip: John Shaw – John Shaw’s Nature Photography Field Guide

For our lovely readers who would love to take up a hobby or a career in nature photography, we recommend this reading. This updated bestseller is breathtakingly beautiful featuring photographs of nature and it contains a state-of-the-art guide on how to make impressive shots every time in the great outdoors. Even the professional highly skilled photographers are often perplexed by the problems that they encounter when they work in the bucolic surroundings. With this outstanding field guide in hand every photographer, whether they be a beginner, serious amateur, semi-pro, or professional, can overcome the problems they face in the field. The author discusses every type of nature photography and nature subjects and how to approach them in the process of photo making. The book covers specific advice on equipment and lenses, the composition of a shot, the advice on how to get close ups and myriad of other useful tips.

Featured images in slider: from The 2014 National Geographic Photo Contest and Christie’s first ‘Green Auction’ in New York, held in 2010. Courtesy of National Geographic and ILCP