The Perfect Nature Shot
Improve your powers of nature photography with tips from some of Chicago WILDERNESS’ most frequent photo contributors.
By Karen Zaworski
Photos: Marlene Nowak, Cordula MacDonald, Robin Strand, Leif Otto
You turn the page of your favorite nature magazine (hopefully this one), and there it is: a photograph that takes your breath away. You gasp. You lean in for a closer look. Then the muttering begins, starting with, “How on earth did that photographer take that picture?” often followed closely by, “How come my pictures don’t look like that?”
We at Chicago WILDERNESS have asked ourselves the same question enough times that we decided to sit down with several of our most frequent photo contributors and put the screws to them. In the end, we did get them to spill a few secrets to us mere mortals about how to make a gasp-inducing picture. (Actually, they were quite happy to talk.)
Passion + Knowledge = Good Pictures
How do you decide what to shoot? “Photograph what you’re passionate about.” That’s Mary Root’s advice, and she’s been both giving it and living it as a photographer, a photo rep, and past president of the Chicago Area Camera Club Association. “If you’re interested in wildflowers, you’ll read about them, and you’ll learn their habitats, when they bloom, their unusual qualities,” she says. “The more you learn, the more you know what to photograph,” and your pictures will grow stronger.
Root recommends camera clubs as fun places to learn. There are dozens of clubs in the Chicago area, some general, some specialized. “The best part of a camera club is that the people who know will train the people who don’t,” she says. “You’re sharing your work with the experts…and eventually you become the expert yourself.”
up your knowledge quotient
Even your cell phone has a camera in it these days, but can it get the great shot? Probably not. “A point-and-shoot can get you started, but a name-brand camera with interchangeable lenses will instantly make better pictures,” says Carol Freeman, whether you’re shooting with a digital or film camera. “The quality of the lens and the quality of the sensor in a digital camera matter. Buy the best lens you can get.” Her choices: a 105mm macro for close-ups, plus a 300mm telephoto for birds. And that’s about it. “With those two lenses I can shoot 90 percent of what I want. Limit your lenses so you don’t spend time mulling equipment in the field.”
Freeman doesn’t use flash (for surface lighting) or fill (a flash that fills shadows)—not even a tripod. “You can get great results without a lot of equipment,” she declares. Locations don’t have to be complicated either. “Start in your own backyard,” says Freeman. “Practice shooting the plants and wildlife there first. Put out a birdfeeder and birdbath, plant a bed of prairie flowers. When the wildlife arrives and the plants bloom, you’ll be able to experiment—and make mistakes—in your own yard.”
Become Part of the Wildlife Scene
Joe Nowak shoots all sorts of wildlife within a six- to eight- mile radius of his South Holland home. “You don’t have to go far afield to photograph nature,” he says. Nowak wears full camouflage in the field—except for his trademark, an Aussie hat. Dressed in camo, “birds have come as close as four or five feet.” He got the shot of his life—an albino deer—because the doe didn’t realize Nowak was there.
But his real “secret” in the field is his wife, Marlene. They work as a photographic team, with Marlene scouting animals, insects, and mushrooms—a favorite subject—while Joe clicks away. They’re out in the marsh early, while all is quiet and animals are waking. Nowak’s advice:
Always Be Prepared
Limit the Landscape
Mike MacDonald neatly sums up the landscape photographer’s dilemma: “You walk into chaos in nature.”
Anyone who’s ever tried to capture the close-growing, swaying-in-the-wind beauty of a prairie knows what he means—there’s so much there that the photo ends up looking like…nothing. How do you edit that chaos into a great photo?
“I look at the landscape like a story,” MacDonald says. “You only want to tell one story in a picture. Find the story, then focus everything you’ve got on it.” Study one of MacDonald’s photos and you’ll see that there are just a few key elements, one flowing into the next: a large foreground grouping, often one kind of blooming flower, that pulls you into the photo; a background anchor such as a treeline, the curve of a waterway, or the horizon line of sky; and the atmospherics of the very air itself, as fog or mist. “Every element in the scene has to tell the story,” declares MacDonald. “Nothing extra in the shot.” Simplify the number of elements, so your landscape story can be told.
Ultimately, all landscapes are about light—in particular, the warm, low-angle light of dawn or dusk. The early hour may be daunting for some, but for MacDonald, it’s the fun of the shoot. “When I’m out at Illinois Beach State Park at sunrise, the whippoorwills are singing, the owls are hooting, the coyote is yelping at me…it’s a miracle out there.”
Capturing the Light
Focus on Composition
A photograph of Pat Wadecki working in the field reveals one way to make great plant portraits. A bright, overcast sky works like a giant lightbox, so directional light and heavy shadows are no concern. The tripod looks down onto an isolated subject, a single flower. A three-fold Plexiglas windscreen surrounds the subject, blocking breezes. Wadecki holds a diffuser in one hand, to soften the light, and a reflector in the other, to kick every bit of that light back into the shot.
That “ready-to-shoot” moment occurred only after Wadecki worked long and hard on the composition in her viewfinder. A unique composition can make the difference between a simple snapshot and a memorable photograph.
Master the Miniature
Tom Bentley photographs for an hour every weekday, during his lunch break. That’s five days a week, every week, in all weather except heavy wind, when his tip is, “Get out of the wind.” Weekends, he shoots all day. His camera bag is always in the car, set up and ready to go. This dedication and diligence have proven especially useful in the pursuit of his favorite subject, butterflies.
“They require a lot of patience. First you have to know your species so you can find them. Most are habitat-specific, found around the plants they eat as caterpillars,” Bentley says. “Research will tell you when they fly. Some butterflies take flight for only a week, even less in some cases.”
Bentley’s clean, naturally lit, unmanipulated style also works for insects and flowers—and it’s earned him three of the last four Chicago WILDERNESS cover shots.
get ready for your close-up
Rob Curtis is well known for his wildlife photography, particularly birds. He is often the first on the scene after a sighting is reported on the birding hotlines and listservs. He’ll wait six hours (plus five the next day) to get a great shot, as he did recently for a Harris’s sparrow.
Curtis offers many tips, from simple (“Don’t wear bright colors in the field”) to technical (get a stop-action hummingbird shot by using a high-speed, multi-flash set-up), but the most valuable of all is to visit his Web site. There he has created his own knowledge base—an encyclopedic listing of his 143,000 images cataloging 6,000 living things, all arranged phylogenetically, that is, by scientific species groupings. It is at once a primer in taxonomic nomenclature (Linnaeus would be proud to see his system used in such a practical and creative way), a lesson in photography (compare his multiple images of the same subject), and a humbling reminder to all photographers about keeping good records, controlling the rights to your images, and staying organized.
Breath of the Beholder
A few last tips to pack into that photo vest come from the editors of this magazine. Their number-one tip is to remember to respect the nature you’re photographing. From time to time, they hear stories from land managers about photographers who have trampled every plant except the one they’re shooting. Whatever image you capture isn’t worth beating up the place it came from.
Editors also say they look for explicit stories in a photo, especially of what is happening ecologically. Pretty is good, but meaningful is even better.
Finally, they add that a “nature shot” can include people, too. A person in a photo can focus attention on a subject, add a sense of motion or emotion, add perspective, and give viewers something they can immediately relate to.
But never mind what the editors think. How do you know when you’ve got the great shot? Our favorite answer: “When it takes your breath away.”
Capturing the Sunset
“The birds in flight added dimension,” says Dave Jagodzinski. “Anytime you can add an element like that, it’s interesting.” (Lockport Prairie)
A “split neutral density filter” narrows the range of light contrast, allowing Don Bolak to capture both the warm sunrise and the lush prairie greens at Gensburg-Markham Prairie. Without it (left), the shot appears washed out and loses shadow detail.
Catching Unexpected Opportunities
Carol Freeman was dismayed when a goose-dispersing dog startled her egret subject. But when the bird flew, “it did a really cool bank in front of me, and I got off three shots. If it wasn’t for the dog scaring the bird, I never would have gotten that shot.”
The angles of the sunbeams and this berm beside The Morton Arboretum guide the viewer’s eyes into the photo. “As I set up my tripod to frame a shot,” says Ron Dahlborg, “sunlight shot out of the darkening clouds. It was gone a few seconds later.”