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Home > Photography Tips, Videos & More > Photography Tips & Tutorials > Understanding Nature Photography

Understanding Nature Photography

by Jim Clark (Contributing Editor for Outdoor Photographer Magazine)

Source: Jim Clark

Anyone who has attended my nature photography workshops knows that I’m a naturalist first and photographer second. This stems from my childhood days using a pair of binoculars and the Peterson field guides to explore and roam the mountains surrounding my home in southern West Virginia. It was my prime source of entertainment and passion, long before I ever put my eye to a camera’s viewfinder. I just could not get enough nature into my system.
As I became an adult, the camera was for many years simply a tool to help me document what I was doing as a wildlife ecologist. But the more I used this tool, the more I discovered that it released my creativity and artistic vision – something that now helps me excite thousands of others about the natural world. But still, I have never lost that fascination to just be a naturalist.   
With or without a camera, I savor every moment that I’m immersed in all thing nature. When in the field, it’s the immediacy of the moment that I cherish the most, to enjoy what I’m seeing or hearing at that very instant, not so much the anticipation of what’s to come next. For me, nature is such a wonderful gift, waiting for us to unwrap it each time we explore its nooks and crannies. The joy is not so much the image I capture, but the memory I get from what I’ve experienced at the time. To understand what I’m experiencing adds to the enjoyment.

I try to instill this appreciation into my workshop students as well. I’m always letting them know what it is I’m hearing or seeing, and before we even start photographing, I do a tail-gate natural history session about the area we are photographing. I like to set the stage for what they will experience and to know what to look for when they embark on their photographic journey for the morning or afternoon.Red Fox Kits

After the workshop, when students send me images to review, my first reply to them is to tell me what the subject is and to describe to me the experience they had photographing at that moment. Why do I do this? Well, what I have discovered most as a nature photographer is that the more I know about nature, the better I become at capturing it with my camera. It becomes a skill to know when to chase a moment and when to anticipate one, and this comes about by understanding what it is I’m photographing. Having that understanding helps me know when to make that critical snap of the shutter to get a moment that really stands out. And this is not something that is unique to me.

I have been fortunate during the past decade to have interviewed some of the best nature photographers in the world. Each and every one of them have emphasized to me that it’s imperative to know the subject, to understand the landscape, and to savor the moment that they are experiencing. They have never lost that child-like curiosity or fascination with the natural world; in fact, they embrace it even more as adults. For them, the knowledge and understanding of nature is as important for nature photographers as the most recent lens or camera body.  Thunderstorm over Montana Prairie
Knowing the subject being photographed, knowing the phenology of the seasons (the timing of natural events), and understanding the ecology of a landscape helps define one as a nature photographer. And your images will stand apart as well. Be a naturalist first, photographer second. I guarantee you that your images will be much more appreciated and welcomed by your audience.

This article is used with permission from Jim Clark.


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