Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from K-O

Nature Photography

photographers digital subject photographer

Magazine Publisher and Professional Photographer

Nature photography includes almost all branches of natural history, except anthropology and archaeology. Photographs that are posed, set up, or manipulated in any way that alters the truth of the presented image goes against the fundamental philosophies of the nature photographer. Therein lies the dilemma. Nature photography embraces a myriad of photographic styles: landscapes; seascapes; underwater; underground; wildlife and flora; close-ups of flowers and insects; and representations of climates, weather, and seasons, among others. The list is extensive, but different photographers have different interpretations of what a “nature photograph” really is.

Some photographers believe that “the hand of man” must not be visible in a nature photograph—indeed this appears in the rules of many nature photography competitions. A nature photograph should thus depict nature alone, without any trace of human intervention. This definition can make life difficult for the nature photographer, because it is hard to go anywhere in this world without seeing some sign of Homo sapiens —whether it is a power pole, or the vapor trails of an airliner over the sheep-manicured fells of the English Lake District.

Similarly, animals photographed in zoos can be thought unacceptable, because the look or demeanor of the subject after years in captivity could be considered unnatural, even if there is no hint of a cage. As our species’ influence on the planet expands, nature photography may have to accept some incidental signs of human activity. For instance, many animals are only found in large game reserves whose borders and preservation are artificial, but this should not disqualify photographs of them from being “natural.” However, the distinction between a large zoo and a small game reserve can be blurred.

Other lines of demarcation are similarly inconsistent. Nature photographers often photograph insects or flowers in a controlled environment, perhaps removing the subject from its natural habitat and placing it in a studio context. In the field, photographers may keep a reptilian subject outside overnight, cooling it so it stays relatively still the following morning for a photography session. Does this represent the hand of man? Undoubtedly, but if it is not evident and the creatures are not harmed, the superior photographs that result are probably sufficient justification.

Today it is easy to alter a photograph to remove or hide artifacts, thus qualifying it as a nature photograph, but this is unacceptable for other reasons. At its core, a nature photograph must have integrity because it purports to be a true representation of the natural world, and people recognize it as such. Although digital photography makes it easy to remove a power pole in a landscape, it also could be used to replace a missing petal on a flower. While this might create a perfect picture, in so doing the photographer has changed the essence of the image, and it is no longer a true record of nature.

Photographers are still discussing the extent of the acceptable range for editing a digital photograph. Darkroom skills were always used to enhance and correct images in pre-digital days, but anything much more than adjusting contrast or color balance was considered unethical in nature photography. The basic premise is that editing should not change the fundamental structure of a nature photograph, so adding, removing, or moving elements within the image is taboo. Of course, photographers could employ digital skulduggery and not be caught out, but the ethics of a true nature photographer would never allow this.

Many nature photographers are often experts in other fields—biology, zoology, botany, geology, geography—and their experience allows them to create more authentic nature photographs. An entomologist is more likely to know where and when to find suitable insects and to choose the most appropriate way to display their main characteristics. Similarly, the best wildlife photographs will be taken by a photographer with a working knowledge of wild animals and their habitats.

This insight is important. Just as the photograph itself must be authentic and “real,” so should the location, pose, and characteristics of the subject. One of the primary roles of nature photography is to educate, so it is important that the subject is photographed in an authentic manner. A true nature photographer would not photograph a hippopotamus walking in the desert or a caterpillar feeding on the wrong kind of leaf. Many people viewing nature photography will take what they see as the truth, so the context has to be authentic.

Given this, it is no surprise that nature photographers are exceptionally good technicians. Nature photographers were slow to adopt digital photography because early digital cameras simply could not retain the same amount of detail and information as film. Nature photographers tend to use the slowest, finest-grain films available so the texture and pattern of the film itself (the film grain) does not interfere with the rendering of the subject. Similarly, nature photographers would also tend to use medium and large format cameras, instead of the smaller 35 mm format, because the larger the negative or transparency, the more information that can be recorded.

Today digital photography has matured so that professional digital cameras can match or exceed the quality provided by film. Because digital images do not have a grain structure, they can be cleaner and clearer, providing a superior rendition of nature.

Whether film or digital capture, nature photographers rely on a range of camera and lighting techniques to ensure maximum image quality. The most elementary technique is control of depth-of-field using lens aperture. In nature photography, many images require sharp focus throughout the image so that the entire animal, flower, or landscape is rendered clearly and with detail, while some are more effective
with an out-of-focus background. Similarly, nature photographers will generally use a tripod and a cable release to avoid camera shake. A characteristic of nature photographers is their methodical and deliberate approach.

Appropriate lighting is also important. High-contrast lighting can be problematic if it produces deep shadows, which hide important details. Sometimes the subject can be posed or positioned so dark shadows do not fall on important parts of the subject, but generally it is easier to use supplementary lighting—such as a flash or a simple reflector—to remove the shadows. Fill-in flash is the technique where ambient and flash lighting are combined. The flash illumination fills in shadows produced by the ambient lighting, which results in a photograph with less contrast and full of subject detail. Flash is also used to photograph nocturnal animals.

One of the biggest challenges for the nature photographer is small subjects. For close-up and macro photography, more depth-of-field and more light are required to produce satisfactory images. To maximize depth-of-field, very small apertures are required, which in turn require more light if the shutter speeds are going to be fast enough to freeze an active subject. Many nature photographers use one, two, or more flash units to provide the necessary illumination. In all of these cases, artificial light is just that, and is not truly part of the natural scene, but is often an essential ingredient to make a picture that is truthful, informative, and attractive to the eye.

Ne'eman, Yuval [next] [back] Natta, Giulio

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or