The Perfect Nature Shot

Improve your powers of nature photography with tips from some of Chicago WILDERNESS’ most frequent photo contributors.

By Karen Zaworski

Clockwise from top left: Joe Nowak, Mike MacDonald, Rob Curtis and Carol Freeman

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.)

Pink katydid

Carol Freeman shot this pink katydid with a macro lens after staff at Lockhart Family Nature Center in Lake Forest called with the tip.













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.”

bulletup your knowledge quotient
  • Take photo classes at your local community college.
  • Volunteer in a forest preserve or natural area
    (bring your camera!)
  • Become a bird or butterfly monitor.
  • Attend workshops or seminars.

Start Simply

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:

bulletAlways Be Prepared
  • Be ready in the field when animals come out to feed.
  • Wear binoculars around your neck at all times.
  • A telephoto lens (he uses a 400mm) pulls the subject in closer. Prop the long lens on a canvas-covered beanbag when shooting on the ground to stabilize it..
  • Photograph animals at eye level if possible and focus on the eyes—if the eyes are sharp, the photo’s sharp.
  • Use autofocus for wildlife in action.
Milkwort plant

While monitoring native plants, Marlene Nowak brought husband Joe’s attention to this blooming milkwort plant. He set up with a 105mm macro lens on a low-profile tripod. “After focusing in to establish my composition,” says Joe, “I was surprised to see a bouquet of color instead of a one-color bloom.”


















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.”

bulletCapturing the Light
  • Scout your location the day before and study the light.
  • Check the day’s weather for interesting conditions like fog (when the temperature is 1 degree greater than dewpoint. Now, some would say that fog forms when the temperature and the dewpoint are equal. This is true. But, the temperature is measured six feet above an airport tarmac, not at the actual nature preserve. I can almost be certain that the temperature at the preserve will be at least a couple of degrees cooler, dropping it down to the dewpoint and giving us fog.) or frost.
  • Be in position and ready to shoot as the sun rises. MacDonald often leaves the house at 3:30 a.m. for a 5:30 summer sunrise.
  • A tripod is a necessity since maximum depth of field (F22 or higher) means long exposure times (at least half a second).
  • A wide-angle lens captures the breadth of the landscape and pulls foreground elements closer.
  • Add a “split grad” (a graduated neutral density filter) to balance out a too-bright sky.
Illinois Beach

MacDonald makes sense of chaos at Illinois Beach.



























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.

bulletComposition Tips
  • Look high and low for a great subject, rather than shooting the first thing you see.
  • Strive for a perspective that is unusual, uniquely yours.
  • Get in close and fill the frame with the subject.
  • Use curves or diagonal lines to guide viewers through your composition.
  • Eliminate the unnecessary—a featureless white sky, distracting branches—by changing the camera’s position or cropping closer.
  • Try both horizontal and vertical compositions of the same subject.

Wind is always a challenge in the field, so Pat Wadecki fashioned a windscreen from three pieces of Plexiglas. A light diffuser (left) and reflector (right) ensure even light on the subject.
























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.

bulletget ready for your close-up
  • Use a handheld camera with a 100mm F2.8 macro lens.
  • Move carefully and slowly.
  • Find a non-busy background.
  • Shoot with as little depth of field as possible (a wide aperture), so the subject stays in focus while the background blurs.
  • Shoot with a ring flash to fill in shadows, “though some species don’t like it and bolt.” A diffuser can even out the light, too—Bentley carries collapsible ones in his vest pocket for easy access.


Photo: Tom Bentley

















Photographing Birds

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.



Photo: Rob Curtis/The Early Birder

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.”



Notes from the Light Table

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)

Trying Filters

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.”

Nature’s Composition

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.”



Ten cheap tricks
High-tech gadgets can make amateurs go starry-eyed, but experienced photographers know plenty of cheap tricks to solve problems in the field.
Big Tweezers are more precise than your fingers for pulling a leaf or blade of grass out of the frame.
Red Fluorescent dot stickers on the lens cap and red fluorescent tape on the tripod legs mean you can find them after you (inevitably) drop them in the field.
A big plastic bag can protect equipment from rain.
A pair of clothespins on a string gently holds back leaves or branches.
A car chamois cut into pieces cleans lens fog.
Camouflage fabric wrapped around tripod legs keeps your hands off cold metal.
A tiny bubble level glued to the top of the camera double-checks that your horizon lines are straight.
A piece of opaque shower curtain can be an emergency diffuser.
An inexpensive compass clipped to a vest zipper lets you know where the sun will be rising or setting.
Where the pros go to get ther shots
1. Messenger Woods (Forest Preserve District of Will County). Noted for spring wildflower carpets of blue-eyed Marys, trillium, and Virginia bluebells. The latter peak a week before Mother’s Day.
2. Montrose Point (Chicago Park District, Cook County). Famous as the Lake Michigan rest stop for migrating birds. At the “Magic Hedge” during migration, 50 species may be seen in one day.
3. Waterfall Glen (Forest Preserve District of DuPage County). Rugged landscape and much plant and animal diversity.
4. Illinois Beach State Park (Illinois Department of Natural Resources). Marshes, forests, and a beach ridge shoreline, great for landscape photography.
5. Wolf Lake (William W. Powers Conservation Area at Illinois-Indiana border). Excellent for waterfowl.
6. Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve (Forest Preserve District of Will County). Dolomite prairie with healthy fields of prairie plants.
7. Ryerson Woods (Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area, Lake County Forest Preserves). Spot the blue-spotted salamander in this Illinois Nature Preserve.
8. Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie (near Calumet, Forest Preserve District of Cook County). Five ancient ridges, each with different ecosystems—and wonderful prairie flowers.
9. Volo Bog State Natural Area (Lake County). A National Natural Landmark, home to many waterfowl and unusual wetland plants.
10. Reed-Turner Woodland (Long Grove Park District, Lake County). An Illinois State Nature Preserve featuring woodland and savanna habitats and a restored sedge meadow.
Books and field guides
National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America
Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers
National Audubon Society Field Guides (Trees, Rocks and Minerals, Reptiles and Amphibians)
Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guides. Easy keying and cross-referencing.
How to Photograph Close-Ups in Nature by Nancy Rotenberg and Michael Lustbader, 1999.
How to Photograph Insects and Spiders by Larry West and Julie Ridl.
Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm, 1994. The bible for flower photographers, as it includes bloom times (though no pictures).
A Birder’s Guide to the Chicago Region by Lynne Carpenter and Joel Greenberg, 1999.
websites and hotlines
Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts (IBET). For bird sighting locations and dates, plus lots of local chat.
Digital Photography Review. Side-by-side equipment comparisons, buying guides and problem solving. A forum for nature photographers. Post your questions, get advice.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. List every high-quality forest preserve and natural area in Illinois.