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A Guide to Nature Photography

by Bob Atkins

Q1: What's the best camera for nature photography?

A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one. You can't even say that there is a best format. For scenic
work, everything from 35mm to 8x10 plate cameras can be used. Each format is something of a trade
off between cost, convenience and quality. For wildlife work, most people chose 35mm, though some
photographers do use medium format even for wildlife!

Q2: OK then, so what's the best 35mm SLR camera for nature and wildlife

A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one (sound familiar?). However there are some features which
most nature photographers would agree are important.

• Manual overide of automatic functions. A camera which does not let you chose the exposure
and focusing point you want isn't very useful. The easier it is to overide the automatic
functions, the better. If it takes 3 hands to push all the buttons and turn all the dials to perform
some simple operation it's not very useful. If you can't overide the automatic camera settings,
forget it.
• A complete camera system should be available for when you want to expend. That means the
camera line should have a good choice of lenses and accesories. It doesn't matter how good
the camera is if you need a 500mm f4 or 20mm f2.8 lens and there isn't one to fit the camera,
or you need a wireless remote release and no-one makes one for your camera body
• It's nice to have things like depth-of-field preview and some form of mirror lock up (or prefire).
Not essential, but nice.

While just about every brand of camera is probably being used for professional nature work
somewhere in the world, most of the pros use Nikon cameras, and most of the rest use Canon. I've
heard it claimed that about 70% of working 35mm photographers use either Nikon or Canon
equipment. Of the remaining 30%, Minolta is probably the next most popular. My choice is Canon,
but sometimes I wish for some feature only available to Nikon users. If I were a Nikon user I know
that sometimes I would wish for features available to only Canon users. There is no perfect system or
one best choice for everyone.

See also the photo.net Canon v. Nikon comparison chart.

Q3: Do you need autofocus and autoexposure modes?

A: No, you don't need them. Superb photographs have been taken for the last 100 years without
autofocus or autoexposure. However, both features are very nice to have available and may get you
shots you would otherwise miss. This is probably much more important to wildlife photographers than
to landscape photographers. If you have time to work, you don't need automation. However, if you
are buying a new camera today, there is really no good reason not to buy an autofocus model. Just
about every camera has autoexposure modes. Just be sure you can overide both AF and AE when
you want to!

Q4: What's the best lens?

A: There isn't one, or better, there isn't one (sound familiar?). Landscape photographers use
everything from super wide angle lenses to super telephoto lenses. A good all-round starting lens
would be a 28-70 or 28-105 zoom. 28mm is wide enough to be a true wide angle. Zooms which start
at 35mm aren't so useful in my opinion. Wildlife photographers can never get long enough lenses!
300mm is the shortest focal length that is really useful for most wildlife work. A good starting lens
would be a 75-300 or 100-300mm zoom. When 300mm is too short (and if you are a wildlife
photographer, it will be!), think about a 400mm f5.6 lens. You can get a decent 3rd party lens like the
Sigma 400/5.6 APO, or you can go with a more expensive lens from a camera manufacturer if you
can afford it.

Q5: What about teleconverters as a way to get a longer lens?

A: On a really good prime lens a really good teleconverter can give excellent results. On a
"consumer" grade, inexpensive zoom lens an inexpensive (or even an expensive) teleconverter can
give results that aren't worth wasting film on. In short there is no free lunch here. All teleconverters
degrade the image somewhat, but if you start out with superb image quality and lose a little of that
quality by using a good teleconverter you can still end up with very good image quality. Putting a 1.4x
teleconverter on a 100-300/5.6 zoom will usually result in a marginal quality image. However, it may
be (indeed is) good enough to please some people, and the cost is low.

But Popular Photography magazine says you can get good results. They even say you can
stack a 2x with a 3x, then add another 2x, put the resulting 12x on a 75-300 zoom and still get
results which are "sharper than (Herbert Keppler) would have imagined" (PP, Feb 1996)

Yes, they do say that. They printed contact prints from 35mm negatives. If you make contact prints
from your 35mm work, then you probably can get away with all sorts of things. Most people find
1x1.5" prints a bit small though! Whether you can use a teleconverter and get good results depends
on (a) What you regard as "good" and (b) What size prints you want to make. If you are happy with
small prints or you only view your slides by projection, you may well be happy with a 1.4x or even a
2x teleconverter on an inexpensive zoom. Only you can decide.

Q6: Can I use a telescope as a telephoto lens?

A: You can, but you will probably be dissappointed. Most inexpensive telescopes make pretty poor
lenses indeed. They are very slow (f16 or slower isn't unusual) and their focal length is often too long
(>1000mm). Holding a 1000+mm lens steady enough for a sharp image is hard enough with a
reallens. When it's slow and not very sharp to start with you really don't have much of a chance.
There are a few telescopes capable of good results. An example would be the TeleVue Genesis, a
500mm f5 Apochromatic design, However, the cost is $2000+ and it weighs 10lbs.

Q7: What about mirror lenses like the 500/8 designs?

A: Mirror lenses are much smaller and lighter than "regular" lenses. The 500/8 lenses are also
relatively inexpensive (less than $500). However, they are typically not really f8, more like f9.5. They
are not as sharp as a good 500mm lens (nor are they as big, heavy and expensive). They produce
odd effects in out of focus areas of the image (backgrounds). Some people find this distracting. All in
all, unless you are looking for a small light lens (e.g. for backpacking), they are not the best choice. A
good 400mm f5.6 APO lens will be much more useful and cost about the same (especially if you look
for a used one).

Q8: How good are 3rd party lenses?

A: Major 3rd party lenses (Sigma, Tokina, Tamron etc.) can be quite good. Generally, they are not
quite as good as the equivalent lenses from the camera manufacturer, but often they are significantly
cheaper. Some of them are excellent value and some of them are excellent lenses! However, if you
were to chose the BEST lens of a given type (say 300/2.8 or 28/2.8 or 100/2.8) it would be very
unusual to find that lens was a 3rd party lens. With sytems using a lot of electronic communication
between the camera body and lens (e.g. Canon EOS) it is possible that 3rd party lenses which work
just fine with current bodies might not work with future bodies. As far as I know, the 3rd party lens
makers "reverse engineer" the camera/lens interface. They don't normally get the full engineering
specs from the camera makers (this applies to Canon at least). All this doesn't mean you shouldn't
buy 3rd party lenses (I own a few myself), just that usually, low cost is their primary advantage over
camera manufacturer's lenses, not performance or quality. Many 3rd party lenses more than meet the
needs of many amateur (and even a few professional) photographers.

Another advantage of some manufacturers' lenses is the use of special motor technology (USM -
Ultrasonic motors - for Canon and "Silent Wave" motors for Nikon), which gives faster autofocusing
and allows easy manual overide of autofocus.

Q9: What's your favorite lens?

A: Tough question, but a 300/4 (with the option of a 1.4x teleconverter to make it a 420/5.6) comes
high on the list. A lot of the pictures on these web pages were taken using a 300/4 lens (especially
the wildlife shots). An 80-200/2.8 zoom is also a great lens for general work, but a bit short for
wildlife. In wide angles, I like 20mm lenses, but they can be tricky to use well. An ideal lens would be
a 20-600/4 APO. I don't think anyone is likely to make one very soon though - and even if they did, I
wouldn't be able to afford one! The closest thing is the Canon EF35-350/3.5-5.6L. It's $2000, a bit
slow at 350mm and could be sharper at the long end, but it's still tough to beat if you want one all
round high quality lens.

Q10: What's the most important accessory to buy?

A: Easy. The biggest, heaviest tripod you are prepared to carry around with you! Normally that means
something around 5lbs. The Bogen 3021/3221 tripods are very popular, quite sturdy and not
expensive. Most wildlife photographers like ball heads. The Arca Swiss B1 has a great reputation
(smooth, light) but costs $350. The Bogen 3038 is a very sturdy head that will hold the biggest
lenses. It's heavier than a B1 and not so smooth, but costs less than $150 (I use one). The Bogen
3055 is cheap (under $40) and OK for lenses up to about a 300/4 or 400/5.6. It will take a 300/2.8 at
a push, but I wouldn't really recommend it for use with a lens that large and heavy. Landscape
photographers might prefer a 3-way head. The Bogen 3047 does a good job for under $60. Gitzo
tripods (but not tripod heads) are popular with many pros. They are very sturdy but significantly more
expensive than similar Bogen models. They have a strong but light carbon fiber leg set (model 1228 -

See also the photo.net tripod section.

Q11: What's the best film to use?

A: There's that "best" question again! Film is a tool and what's "best" for one application may not be
best for another. In general, the best results come from using the slowest speed film. Slower films are
usually sharper and have better color. Most serious nature photographers shoot slides but if you just
want prints, there's nothing wrong in shooting print film. In slide film, Fujichrome Velvia is often
chosen for it's highly saturated colors and high sharpness. It's nominaly an ISO 50 speed film, but
some people prefer to shoot it at ISO 40. There are no hard rules here and the speed you shoot it at
depends on your taste and yout metering system. Experiment and see what you like best. ISO 40/50
can be a bit slow for wildlife work, so many people use a faster ISO 100 film. I like Fujichrome
Sensia/Provia 100, but others prefer the Kodak Elite/Lumiere ISO 100 films. At ISO 200 I like
Kodachrome 200. It's very sharp for a fast slide film and I've always been pleased with the results.
The quality of fast slide films isn't all that great. Something like Fujichrome Sensia 400 is about the
limit for me, and then only when there is no way to use a slower film. Print films of ISO 400 can be
quite good, and I hear that the ISO 800 Fujicolor is very good indeed for an ISO 800 film.
Q12: Are there any nature photography "rules"?

A: There is really only one "rule" - do no harm. That means not harming your subject. Harming
covers a lot of ground from picking flowers to harassing wildlife. It's easy to do harm even when you
don't mean to. If you step on an alpine flower it may take 10 years or more to grow back. If you
disturb an animal you may harm it by preventing it from getting food or exposing it to predators.
Remember that you may only disturb the animal for one minute, but if the next photographer does the
same, and the next, and the next, the cumulative effect can be severe. If you feed an animal you may
harm it by habituating it to humans. "Begging" animals are frequently hit by cars and even the ones
who aren't may suffer from eating an unnatural diet. Feeding birds in your garden at a feeder is
generally taken as an exception to the "no feeding" rule though!

Q13: Are there any good books on nature and wildlife photography?

A: Yes. Just about anything that John Shaw has written for a start! Specifically his Close-ups in
Nature for macro work and his The Nature Photographers Complete guide to Professional Field
Techniques for all aspects of nature photography (if you get only one book, get this one!). Also, one
of my favorite books is Galen Rowell's Mountain Light. Though it's not really a "how-to" book, it's one
of the best insights into how a nature photographer works and thinks.

Q14: My pictures aren't very good. What should I do to improve them?

A: Take more pictures! Take notes. Study what works and what doesn't. Read books, maybe even
take a workshop, but in the end there is no substitute for taking pictures. If it's the technical quality of
the pictures, and you are working with prints, try a better photofinisher or try shooting slides. Many
low end "drug store" photofinishers are truely aweful and no-one could be happy with their work.
Maybe you aren't as bad as you think!

Also, consider the effects of lighting. Most of the really great pictures are taken in great light, and that
usually means when the sun is low in the sky, i.e. dawn and dusk. One of the reasons that nature
pros spend large amounts of money on fast lenses is to give them the ability to work in low light. If
you can't afford the fast lenses, you can at least try fast film (maybe Kodachrome 200) to catch the
"good light".

Q15: Where should I buy my equipment?

A: If you can afford to, buy from a local store where you can get good service and support. If you
want to save money and you know what you want, you can buy mail order. The first rule of mail order
is always pay by credit card. That way, if you have a problem it's not just you vs. the store. The
second rule is that if you buy from the store with the absolute lowest price you stand a good chance
of regreting being so cheap! Lots of stores advertise in magazines like "Popular Photography", but
the general experience is that the "rock bottom price" stores aren't much fun to deal with. Not that
they will steal your money, just that they may promise what they don't have, or take many weeks to
ship your order, or ship the wrong items, or post the wrong charges, or try to sell you things you don't
need, or not meet the prices in their ads - and so on. I don't want to single out any stores as good
and bad, but I've had good service from B&H Photo, and Adorama and Camera World of Oregon also
have a decent reputation. Anyone can make a mistake, so don't expect 100% perfection from
anyone. The good stores don't make you suffer for their errors, while the bad stores just make you
suffer regardless!

There are number of good online sources of information about camera shops:

• Philip Greenspun's "where to buy" page

• photo.net Neighbor to Neighbor service
• Net-wide mail order survey
It depresses me to get questions like "I just ordered from XYZ Photo - did I make a mistake". At that
point it's a bit late to ask!

Q16: What's the best way to photograph nesting birds?

A: This needs great care so as not to harm the birds. You can easily cause damage without ever
knowing it. One example is that of a photographer who returned to a nest site he had been working at
the previous day. It had been destroyed by a predator (Racoon??). The probability was that his
presence (food, disturbed vegetation,smell?) had attracted a predator to the area who had
discovered the nest. Moving branches so a nest is more visible can have the same effect.

As far as equipment goes, the longer the lens, the less disturbance you will cause. A 400mm lens is
probably the absolute minimum you should consider. Serious bird photographers usually have at
least a 500mm lens, sometimes even a 600mm or 800mm.

Q17: What's the best place for wildlife photography?

A: Well, the easiest place for wildlife photography is an a place where the animals don't fear humans.
This means somwhere they don't get shot at several times a year! In the US, this means the National
Parks. The best park for wildlife is probably Yellowstone, and the best time is anytime but summer
(unless you want pictures of tourists and traffic!). Many other parks are good too. I've had good luck
in Rocky Mountain NP several times and Yosemite can be interesting (even when there's no wildlife
around, Yosemite isn't at all bad for scenic and landscape work!). For bird Photography, Ding Darling
NWR and the Everglades in Florida are hard to beat. The ultimate in approchable wildlife is probably
found on the Galapagos Islands where most of the wildlife has virtually no fear of man at all.

Q18: Are there any good nature photography magazines?

A: "Nature Photographer", a small circulation magazine based in Florida. Subscription is around

$16/year for 6 issues (glossy, color). Also sometimes available from a few large book/magazine
stores. Not a bad magazine (I've written for them a few times). General hints and tips, places to visit.
Some advertizing. Not much in the way of equipment tests or reviews.Some articles at the beginner
level, some at a more advanced level. Contact Nature Photographer, P.O.Box 2037, West Palm
Beach, FL 33402-2037

"The Natural Image", a small black and white magazine/newsletter published by George Lepp.
Available by subscription only for around $20/year for 4 issues. Lots of equipment tests (mostly Nikon
and Canon) and film tests. Some general articles, travel tips etc. No advertising (except for George's
workshops!). Probably of more interest to serious nature photographers with some experience rather
than beginners. Most of the newsletter is written by George Lepp himself. Contact Lepp and
Associates, PO Box 6240, Los Osos, CA 93412 or call (805) 528 7385.

"Outdoor Photographer", major magazine, available at many book/magazine stores. 10 issues/year.

Very glossy. Often has nice pictures. Some interesting columns (Rowell, Rue, Lepp, Jones).
Equipment rewiews are very uncritical and read like product endorsements. Tends to wander off into
"yuppie" teritory with clothing and 4x4 advertisments. Lots of ads for wokshops, photo tours etc.

"Popular Photography", major magazine, available at most book/magazine stores. Quality varies
from good to bad, but subscription is cheap! (ca. $10/year for 12 issues). Good magazine for
advertisements. Best equipment tests of any of the major (high circulation) US magazines (just don't
believe everything they say!). Some nature articles and a semi-regular nature column.

Q19: What is "depth of field"?

A:In any photograph there will be a range of distances over which objects appear to be in sharp
focus. This range of distances is called the "depth of field". The important word is "appear". Only
points at one distance from the lens will truely be in focus (i.e. as sharp as they could possibly be).
Everywhere else the image will be less sharp. The range over which the image looks sharp is the
depth of field - and obviously this is somewhat subjective since what looks sharp to you may not look
sharp to me! It also depends on how much the image is enlarged, how closely you view it and so on.

Clearly then, "depth of field" is a slightly arbitrary concept. In practice it is usually defined in terms of
an acceptable "circle of confusion" size. This is the size (on the slide or negative) of an image of a
point at the limits of the "depth of field" and for 35mm its value is about 30 microns (0.03mm). For an
8x10 print, viewed from about 1ft, the image will look sharp anywhere the circle of confusion is less
than this value.

There is a concept known as the hyperfocal distance. For any given focal length lens at any given
aperture, there is a distance at which the lens can be focused where points from infinity to 1/2 the
hyperfocal distance will be "in focus" (i.e. have a circle of confusion value less than some fixed
value). Lenses once had hyperfocal distance markings on them, but today (especially on zoom
lenses) they are often missing.

Q20: How can I do macro work without buying a macro lens?

There are two routes to macro work which don't involve the expense of buying a real macro lens. The
first is the use of an extension tube. This allows you to get closer to the subject and thus get a larget
image. Just how much closer and how much larger depends on the lens in use and the length of the
extension tube. The second way is by using a "closeup" lens which screws onto your lens just like a
filter. There are cheap closeup lenses which are not worth buying, and there are better closeup
lenses which are very good. The better ones are two element lenses made by Nikon and Canon.
They cost in the $60-$100+ region depending on size. A table of magnifications given using Canon
extension tubes and close up lenses is given in the Canon EOS FAQ v3.0.

Extension tubes can be used with any lens, but the screw in closeup lenses will only fit lenses of a
certain filter size. Closeup lenses have the advantage of losing less light and you can cange
magnification by zooming a zoom lens without refocusing. With an extension tube, each time you
change the zoom setting you may have to move the camera to get focus back. Don't forget that you
can increase magnification by 1.4x or 2x using a teleconverter too!

You can get more information on the technical side of nature photography (depth of field etc.) and
optics in general by visiting Bob Atkins' Basic Optics Guide and Hyperfocal Distance Chart and by
reading David Jacobson's Lens FAQ ftp://butler.hpl.hp.com/jacobson/photo/lensFAQ will and lens
tutorial ftp://butler.hpl.hp.com/jacobson/photo/lensTutorial

getting beyond the snapshot by Gloria Hopkins

With today's high-tech pro cameras and IS and VR lenses, learning to take perfectly sharp, expertly
exposed photographs is a snap. There are thousands of technically perfect photographs in print and
on the web and it seems there are as many talented amateurs emerging every day. But there is a
notable difference in the work of a photographer who takes the time to think about the composition of
their image. The composition sets the mood for the shot and tells the story. Compositions can be
used to evoke powerful emotional responses in a viewer, a goal for many photographers, but
something that is achieved by few.

In order to create a technically good, visually pleasing photograph it would make sense that a
photographer have a solid understanding of both the technical and aesthetic sides of photography.
The ability to intertwine the two is what propels the work of masters like John Shaw and Galen Rowell
far above the seas of documentary shots.

I have always felt that the best way to improve composition skills is to first learn how to see
compositions. Try to see the compositional elements in every photograph you can find. Look at the
lines in the image. Do they work together or against each other? How does your eye travel around
through the image? Does it flow smoothly from one thing to the next or jump all around in the image?
Look for space distribution, color, mood, perspective, depth, light and time of day, shapes, etc. How
did the photographer use major components of the image like light and shadow, shape and form,
background and foreground?

Below I have created what I call "composition maps." They are photographs that I have marked in
Photoshop highlighting various aspects of the composition. I use them as visual teaching aides to
break images down to their basic parts and see the underlying composition. There are many aspects
of these photos that could be addressed such as quality and direction of light, patterns and repetition,
balance, weight, shape vs. form, negative space, perspective, contrast, etc. The list goes on but there
is not enough space to put it in writing here, so I focused on one compositional element for each

In this image I highlighted the spacing in the image and how it could be viewed on The Rule of Thirds

Here we examine only the lines in the image:

Many other maps discussing different highlights could be drawn for a single photograph. I
recommend practicing at home with your own photographs. Studying compositions builds good
design skills even though you are not actively designing the image. Seeing is half of the art of
photography and this exercise will help you to recognize that prize-winning shot when you have it in
your viewfinder.

If you keep composition in mind when in the field, it will eventually become second nature to you. It
will go from being a source of uncertainty to a powerful tool that will enable you to speak to the world
through your images, exactly how you want and on your own terms.

Composition in Nature Photography

the Elements of a Photograph -- Part II by Gloria Hopkins

If a photographer asked you to explain composition as it relates to photography, do you know what
you would say? If your answer would be "I'm not 100% certain" or "I don't know enough to explain it"
don't fret, you are in very good company. Aside from mastering exposure, composition is one of the
most difficult parts of photography for many to learn, and with this series I hope to take some of the
mystery out of it for you.
Composition in Nature Photography

In photography, composition refers to the

structure, organization, and visual characteristics
of the elements in your photograph. Compositions
can be complex, powerful, boring, moody,
uplifting, and a plethora of other adjectives. When
you hear photographers refer to the composition
of a photograph, likely they are talking about
things like subject placement, lighting, color, lines,
space, balance, and more.

A Marriage of Crafts: My photographic learning

curve has the benefit of 3O years of experience
designing and painting wildlife art. In order to best
reach my viewers I have spent my lifetime
studying the compositions of paintings,
photography, graphic art and works of countless
other visual mediums.

Evaluating my first serious bird prints three years ago confirmed something that I have suspected
about photography for many years. Photography, like many other visual arts, is a marriage of two
separate crafts: image design and execution. In life you can't have a long, fulfilling marriage if one of
the spouses is not involved or only weakly participates. The same is true of photography. In order to
consistently create technically perfect, visually pleasing images, I feel that both sides of photography
need to be understood. Take a look at some of your favorite shots; I would be willing to bet that many
of them have a good balance of technical strength and effectiveness in composition and design.

Composition Guidelines: Tools, not Rules: The value of guidelines in some photographic
discussions can be a controversial topic. There are some who feel that trying to remember and apply
rules stifles their creativity and hinders their photographic experience. There are others who follow
every rule imaginable, never experiment, and create photographs that look like 95% of the
photographs out there: compositionally sound but nothing special. Composition can be so distant a
concept to some that they avoid learning it altogether or worse, dismiss it as nonsense, taking refuge
behind artistic license and creativity.

Composition guidelines are not our enemies but exist to help us. I think of them as tools and not
rules. They originate from different arts, people, places, times, and ideas. Some common guidelines
for nature and wildlife photographers include:

• Don't center your subject unless doing so strengthens the image;

• Arrange your scene so objects in the image guide the viewer's eye around the image. This
gives you a small measure of control over how your work is viewed; and
• Shoot in sidelight to reveal the texture of your subjects and add a 3D feel.

Experiment, have fun, and play with the guidelines! You may do something so innovative that you
create a new guideline and retire an old one. Whatever you do, treat composition guidelines as what
they are: tools and not rules.
Moving Beyond the Guidelines: The beauty of understanding composition guidelines is that when
you want to experiment and try something new, if you build on solid, proven guidelines, success is
already on your side. You can pass beyond those "compositionally sound but nothing special"
photographs that everyone else is making and create images that nobody has ever seen. Images that
nobody has ever seen but that are compositionally solid and technically perfect. Those are the kinds
of images that make people stand up and take notice; regardless of your specialty. Push the
boundaries of technique and creativity in your photography and start creating images instead of
recording nature. If I had a digital camera and no cost of processing, there would be no stopping me.

The Elements of a Photograph

In the first article we discussed the importance of being able to identify the various elements of a
composition so you can see how they work together to create a whole image. In the remainder of the
series we examine these elements in detail, starting with light.

Light Light can speak for us. It can suggest things like time of day, mood, and it can even tell stories.
It can also do practical things like guide the eye around an image, reveal hidden textures, act as the
main subject of the image, or help to emphasize a subject. In order to do these things, a
photographer should have a good understanding of light, its properties and how it is rendered on their
chosen capture medium.

The Color of Light: To reach us, light waves of color must travel from the sun and through our
atmosphere, which acts as a filter. Because of the curvature of the earth, at sunup and sundown,
these light waves must travel through more of our atmosphere than they would if coming from directly
overhead at midday. As these light waves swim through our thick atmosphere, the shorter
wavelengths on the cool end of the spectrum get lost in atmospheric dust and water and cannot
reach us. This leaves the longer, warmer waves of light to penetrate our atmosphere and illuminate
our subjects.

As the sun climbs higher into the sky, it shines more directly through our atmosphere, allowing the
shorter, cooler wavelengths to reach us, better balancing the color of the light. On a clear day when
the sun is directly overhead, it should exhibit no color when cast onto a white surface.

Because many nature photographers prefer the rich, warm colors of early and late light, they will wait
until the time is just right to make their magic.

Reflected Light: A well-known fact about light is that light colors reflect light, and dark colors absorb
light. A great illustration of this fact is a soaring bald eagle in a beach environment. Because dark
feathers absorb light, if the bird is flying over dark blue water, the detail in the dark underside of the
bird can be difficult to see unless the bird banks into the sun. We can solve this problem by using
flash as fill or rely on light reflected from the water to light the underside of the bird.

Imagine that same bird flying over brightly lit white sand. The light will be reflected, or bounced, back
up to the bird, softly illuminating its underside. The degree of brightness depends on the intensity of
the sun and how close the bird is to the sand.

Indirect Light and Partial Light: Indirect light is light that has been obstructed by clouds, fog, heavy
rain, snow, smoke, mist, and other atmospheric particles. This light is usually soft and diffused,
minimizing or completely eliminating dark shadows. Many landscape and flower photographers shoot
on overcast days as the colors appear more saturated and harsh shadows are kept to a minimum.

Partially obstructed light is referred to as dappled or partial light and usually involves some amount of
shade. An example of dappled light would be sunlight streaming through the leaves of a tree, leaving
spotted shadows on your subject. It is a good idea to evaluate the darkness of the shadows falling
onto your subject to see if fill flash will save some detail in those areas. To do this, throw your entire
scene out-of-focus using the focusing ring on your lens. This breaks your scene down to shapes,
values, and hues for easy inspection.

Front Light: A good use for front lighting is when you have an image with a lot of color that doesn't
rely on depth and texture. With front lighting the part of the subject to be photographed is facing the
sun. If the light is bright, it can render your subjects flat and texture less in spite of exposure
compensation efforts. Because front light creates few shadows on the subject, it's not very useful in
creating a three-dimensional effect in your scene.
Sidelight: Side lighting is helpful in emphasizing the texture of
an object. It creates shadows and depth and gives the viewer
a good sense of what the object might feel like, further
enhancing the viewing experience. It works great when you
have objects of varying textures on different planes. When
shooting in sidelight, use a lens hood to avoid stray light
creeping into your image.

Backlight: Backlighting is often used to show a subject in a

striking or unusual way. With backlighting the sun is behind
your subject and whatever is translucent in your scene will
glow in the backlighting.

When shooting backlit, exposure composition and/or the use

of fill flash may be required to properly expose your subject.
Protect your vision by not looking directly into a bright sun
through your lens. Lens flare can be problematic so make sure
to examine the highlights in your image carefully.

Top Light: Many nature photographers will avoid shooting when the sun is directly overhead. The
sun is usually at its brightest and as we discussed earlier, the light is its least colorful at this time.
This angle could result in high contrast images with short, dark vertical shadows. It is wise to not rule
out top light for all situations. There are times when it is useful such as when capturing abstract
patterns and repetition in nature.

Artificial Light: When there is not enough sunlight to illuminate a subject or scene, photographers
will often rely on flash to lend a hand. Flash can be used as main light, an additional source of light or
as fill, which is referred to as "fill flash."

Using the flash as main light means that the majority of the scene is lit by the flash's burst of light. Fill
flash is used to fill in shadows or areas that would be rendered too dark without additional light.
Examples of using fill flash are: bringing details out of deep shadows, as a supplementary light
source for dark objects in soft light, lighting the dark side of a backlit subject, and lighting the
underside of a dark bird in flight. Some cameras will restrict the use of flash to the capabilities of the
in-camera flash or, "pop up flash." For better control over flash output many photographers will invest
in a separate, more sophisticated flash unit.
Other Sources of Light: Some creative photographers use other sources of light to illuminate their
subjects, such as: flashlights, candles, streetlights, firelight, and colored lights. I suggest reading a
book on lighting for photography to see what options are available for nature photography and how
they are safely used.

It is my great hope that you use this information as a base for your own exploration of composition
and the aesthetics of nature photography. In the next article we examine the following: purpose of the
image; format; subject placement and the Rule of Thirds; foregrounds, middle grounds and
backgrounds; and, color. Until then, happy shooting!

I would like to thank Mark LaGrange for his assistance and adding his wonderfully creative insights to
this part of the series.

Image information:

Image 1: Waimanu Valley, Hawaii. Looking down at the valley floor of an enormous, waterfall-lined
amphitheater on the Kohala coast of Hawaii. Canon EOS3, Canon 28-70, Sensia100+1, evaluative
metering at -1/3

Image 2: Snow Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6,
Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1/3

Image 3: Snow Goose, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. Canon EOS3, Canon 500 f/4.0IS,
Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1/3

Image 4: Least Bittern, Wakodahatchee Wetlands, FL. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6,
Provia100F+1, evaluative metering at -0

Image 5: Feeding Great Egrets, Alligator Farm Zoological Park, St. Augustine, FL. Canon EOS3,
Canon 500 f/4.5, Provia100F +1, evaluative metering at -1

Image 6: Immature Green Heron, Anhinga Trail, ENP. Canon EOS3, Canon 400 f/5.6, Provia100F
+1, evaluative metering at -2/3

Image 7: Canon EOS1v and Mountain Bluebird, watercolor on paper

Equipment for Nature Photography

a beginner's guide by Bob Atkins

For someone who wants to get into nature photography for the first time there is a bewildering
amount of equipment available. Which body, lenses and accessories to chose is the question most
heard from beginners. This page will attempt to answer those questions:
First of all though, read the Nature Photography Guide for a broad overview. I'm going to try not to
recommend any particular brand names (but I will fail in that attempt). Whether "A" or "B" is "better"
frequently turns out to be a subject for endless (and often pointless) debate. Check out the reviews
on photo.net for one set of opinions.

I'm assuming that a beginner isn't going to want to spend many thousands of dollars to get started.
The suggestions made here assume a budget of around $1000, which I think is the minimum amount
(if you are buying new equipment) needed to get started on the right track. You can do it for less, but
unless you really had to, you wouldn't want to.

Camera Body

You need a body which allows full manual override of any automatic function. You must be able to
use manual focus, even if it's an autofocus camera. You must be able to set exactly what shutter
speed and aperture you want, even if it differs from what the camera's built in light meter says. You
also really need some kind of provision for a mechanical or electronic remote release.

It's very nice to have a depth of field preview function, mirror lock-up, an auto-winder, a viewfinder
display that shows exposure information, multiple exposure capability, manually setable film ISO,
exposure compensation and so on. These are not absolutely essential, but if you can get them, take
them. You don't have to use all the functions, but if you need one and it isn't there, you'll miss it.

You can probably find all the essentials on the mid range models of most camera manufacturers. The
extras are available on some mid-range models, but not on others, so check the camera features
carefully. Canon tend to provide more features on their mid and low end models than other
manufacturers do. You don't need the top-of-the-line body, but you should probably avoid the bottom-
of-the-line model too. Your budget will decide which exact model, but as long as it has the basic
functions mentioned above, it will be just fine. For a current AF camera, the cost will probably be in
the $300-$500 range.

If you ever intend to get really serious about photography, you should probably think hard about
going with either Nikon of Canon. Though other camera makers make excellent products, the Nikon
and Canon systems are probably best tuned to the needs of the serious nature photographer.


For someone starting out who wants the best "bang for the buck", I'd recommend two lenses. A wide
angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. The wide angle should start at 28mm and go to somewhere
between 70mm and 105mm. It need not be too fast (= expensive). A typical lens would be a 28-
105/3.5-4.5 or something similar. 28mm is wide enough to be a real wide angle (35mm isn't). The
second lens would be a telephoto zoom, starting out between 70mm and 100mm and going out to
300mm. Again, this will not be a fast lens, probably something like f4 or f4.5 at the short and and f5.6
at 300mm. 300mm is just long enough for wildlife work, but don't expect the ultimate in sharpness
from a mid range zoom like this. The total cost of this pair of lenses will probably be in the $400-$600
range. If you can find two lenses that have the same filter size (58mm would be typical), it will make
life easier for you.

I would not recommend starting out with a 28-200 zoom. Though such a lens covers a lot of ground, it
has a number of problems. First, 200mm isn't really long enough for wildlife work. Second, it probably
won't focus very close at 28mm (you need this feature for those "everything in focus" landscape
shots). Third, the optical quality of such zooms isn't that great.

I would also recommend sticking with the camera manufacturer's lenses rather than buying cheaper
3rd party lenses. They will hold their value better and probably function better (especially on complex,
all electronic cameras like the Canon EOS system). There are, no doubt, exceptions to this. Some
3rd party lenses are quite good - just be careful.

You will need a tripod. If you don't have one you might as well not bother trying to do any high quality
work. Most of your images will not be sharp, and since you don't have premium optics to begin with
you can't afford to lose any sharpness at all. You might say that some great photographers never
used a tripod. Quite true, but they weren't trying to do nature photography.

With a basic lightweight body and zoom lens outfit like this, you can get away with a fairly light tripod
(say 3 or 4 lbs). I'll break my "no brand name" rule here and suggest looking at Bogen and Gitzo
tripods and the small Bogen ball heads. With Bogen this should cost about $100, with Gitzo probably
$200+. Be aware that if you get really serious, you will be buying another, bigger, heavier, more
expensive tripod and head. You can buy it now, if you think you will be prepared to carry it around!


• A copy of John Shaw's book "The Nature Photographer's Complete Guide to Professional
Field Techniques". This is #1 on the list for a reason!
• A high quality, two element, close-up diopter to fit the telephoto zoom for macro work
• A remote release for the camera
• A polarizing filter (a circular polarizer for all AF and some MF cameras)
• A warming filter - 81A, 81B or 812
• A UV filter (maybe - you can probably use the warming filter instead)
• Lens hoods for each lenses
• A bag to carry it all in

You will now have spent something like $1000+ to get a good basic outfit that should be capable of
excellent images if you use it right.

Specific recommendations

I know, people just hate generalizations. They want to be told what's best. Here then is my own
personal pick of items for a low cost introductory camera system. You may well have other opinions
(that's what the comment server is here for, see the bottom of this web page). You can also check out
the photo.net equipment reviews.

• Camera Body - Canon EOS ElanII - best "bang for the buck" in my opinion.
• Wide Angle Zoom - Canon EF28-105 USM - If the EF24-80 USM becomes available. it might
be an equal or better choice, depending on quality and price (both unknown right now).
• Telephoto Zoom - Canon EF100-300 USM, or EF75-300USM depending on your budget.
Optically there is nothing to chose between them. The 100-300 USM is nicer to use and has a
non-rotating front element.
• Tripod - Bogen 3001 or 3021, depending on how much weight you are prepared to carry and
how tall you are.
• Tripod head - Bogen 3226 or 3055 Ball Head. Both are cheap ($40 or so), both work fairly
well, neither is great - but you don't get a great ball head for $40!
• Filters - Tiffen and Hoya are fine. Multicoated filters are desirable and not that much more
expensive than uncoated filters. Coated polarizers are hard to find though.
• Where to buy it all - I like B&H Photo. They are not perfect, but they are less likely to try to
screw you than any of the other mail order discount stores I've ever dealt with and they have
decent prices. Also see Where to buy a camera on photo.net.

Alternate Views

There is a certain school of thought along the lines that all "consumer grade" lenses are inferior, and
you might as well start out by buying the "pro grade" lenses from the start. There is some truth here,
but not so much as to make this line of thought "the one true way". John Shaw (and many others I
assume) have pointed out that an average lens used with excellent technique can produce
remarkable (and marketable) images, while the best lenses used with sloppy technique just waste
film. So sure, if you have lots of spare cash and don't mind the weight, buy the really expensive 28-70
and 70-200 f2.8 APO lenses. It will increase the basic system price though, from around $1000 to
maybe $2500-$3000 (if you stick with manufacturer's lenses).

You can also, of course, buy used equipment. This can either be current AF bodies and lenses, or
older, manual focus equipment. If you plan on expanding your system then it's probably wise to stick
with current equipment systems (e.g. Canon EOS) or a system that allows use of older, MF, lenses
on current bodies - basically this means Nikon. Used equipment typically sells for between 65% and
80% of the current discount price (i.e. the price B&H Photo advertise) depending on age, condition
and desirability. The downside is that you don't get warranty protection. The upside is it costs less,
and will probably hold 100% of its value (it may even increase in value if it's a high quality item)
should you ever sell it.

Looking to the future - what comes next?

What comes after this outfit? Well, most wildlife photographers would want to add a longer lens. If
you are still looking for the cheapest (but still decent) way to go, that's probably a 400/5.6 APO lens
from one of the 3rd party lens manufacturers. This will cost somewhere in the region of $600. Know
that if you get really serious about wildlife work, you won't be happy with this lens and you will want a
longer and/or faster and/or sharper and (but not or) much more expensive lens to replace it. Note that
it's actually cheaper to buy it now than first buy the lower cost lens, then sell it at a loss, then buy the
lens you really wanted in the first place!

If you are a landscape photographer you might want to add a really wide angle lens, which, on a
budget, probably either means a 20mm f2.8 lens or something like a 20-35mm f3.5-4.5 zoom. Expect
to pay $300-$500 for either one. The fixed 20mm will probably be faster, have less flare, be smaller,
lighter and take smaller (=cheaper) filters. The zoom will give you more flexibility. Your choice.

If you get hooked on macro photography, you might want a macro lens that focuses down to 1:1 (life
size image on film) without adding a close-up lens. A 100mm macro is a good choice since it allows
more working distance than a 50mm macro. Expect to pay from $200 to $500 for a decent macro

If you get really hooked, you will want to start collecting "pro" series lenses. Big, fast, expensive
glass. Be warned that photography can become a large bottomless pit you shovel money into if you
reach this terminal stage.