I try to avoid making rules in my nature photography because they tend to hinder creativity and there seems to be exceptions to every rule. Instead, I refer to things that generally work as useful guidelines that work, but may be successfully broken.
One guideline that I frequently use is what I call the beautiful nature photo formula. Remember, this is not a rule, just a guideline that usually works but there are many valid exceptions.
(GOOD TECHNIQUE) X (GOOD SUBJECT) X (GOOD SITUATION) = BEAUTIFUL NATURE PHOTOGRAPH
This guideline seems simple enough, but let’s really examine what it means in detail.
Good technique covers the craftsmanship of photography. Getting proper exposure, sharp images of the subject when it is suppose to be sharp, good compositions, good color if using color films, pleasing backgrounds, good use of lighting, obtaining interesting perspectives, are all part of good technique. This is the most obvious part of what it takes to get a beautiful nature photograph and the part that most people spend all their time trying to master. And it must be mastered if you wish to easily shoot beautiful nature photographs because then you can spend all your time working on the other two elements of the equation which are even more important.
A good subject can be many different things. I once found a lesser golden plover during October that would allow me to easily photograph it from ten feet away without becoming alarmed. It was a good subject because it allowed me to approach closely enough so I could photograph it whereas most lesser golden plovers fled when I was still 75 yards away. The appearance of a subject is also critical. A wildflower that is past its prime or has been damaged by insects probably won’t make a beautiful nature photo no matter what you do because the subject is damaged. Photographing a blue jay during August probably won’t work either because blue jays molt their feathers during August and don’t look nearly as good as a blue jay during late October. I often hear people say they got great photographs of a great-blue heron during the summer. Invariable, when I see the photos, they got photos of an immature great-blue heron which are much easier to approach than adults. While in may be a good photo of an immature great-blue heron, it is unlikely the photos will ever be as beautiful as an adult great-blue heron in peak breeding plumage during late April. In fact, many birds don’t look good during their summer molts. Many mammals look bad during the spring because they are shedding their winter fur coats. Leg bands on birds and neck collars around moose or ear tags in belding ground squirrels are all man made conditions that inhibit successfully making beautiful nature photographs. Butterflies look great when they first emerge but soon lose some of their wing scales and their wings quickly get ripped from their daily activities. I call these tattered butterflies and tend to avoid photographing them in this condition because they seldom make beautiful photographs.
A good situation is the third critically important part of this equation. Let’s say you have great technique and a great subject like a snowy egret in peak breeding plumage hunting fish in a south Florida pond with a perfect reflection in the blue water with late afternoon sunlight. But, let’s say you have a fast food restaurant nearby and coffee cups, pop bottles, and other litter are floating around in the pond with the egret. This is a case where you have good technique, a good subject, but a lousy situation due to the litter. Now if the pond was not filled with litter, you have a great situation and a chance to shoot a really beautiful nature photograph. Wildflowers are usually difficult to photograph because bad situations tend to plague them. They often grow in places where it is very difficult to use your camera and they are especially subject to negative forces like the wind. Therefore, I tend to seek wildflower photos when I have bright overcast conditions for good lighting and color and when the wind is very calm in the early morning or late evening. When I used to photograph birds at the nest, nearly 80% of the nests I found could not be photographed because they were in bad situations. Either the nest was too high up or in such dense cover that I could not work my electronic flashes into the proper position without moving a lot of vegetation which I refused to do for the safety of the birds.
A bad situation that I frequently encounter in national parks occurs in areas where people feed the animals illegally. Feeding salted peanuts and crackers to small mammals like golden-mantled ground squirrels and yellow-bellied marmots does make them rather trusting of humans so they are easy to approach. But it is also bad for their health and tends to produce rather poor looking fur coats on them.
Barb and I ran into a bad situation recently. While photographing purple-fringed orchids along the wet edge of a pine woods, we heard a humming sound coming from the forest. We investigated and found a porcupine walking around on the ground eating various bits of vegetation. Previously, every porcupine I had found scampered off or climbed high into a tree. But, not this one. Instead, when the porcupine saw us, he waddled over to check us out. Barb starting humming to it which inspired the porky to hum back and it stood up on its hind legs to get a better view of us from about 2 feet away. Eventually, we were able to pat it (carefully) on the head as it followed us around but it would not leave the dense pine trees. The light was so dim under the forest canopy that it was impossible to photograph this incredibly trusting wild animal. We didn’t get any photos because the situation was so bad but it was still a wildlife experience we will never forget and we are pleased to have the memories even though we had no images.
by JOHN GERLACH