You are not going to find this written anywhere, especially in nature photography publications, but here it is anyway.
Diversify! Your gear is generic; it will photograph anything that you want to photograph. Just point your lens at a given subject and, voila! Your camera will do your bidding.
You know that, of course.
What you may not have given much thought to is the fact that the majority of nature photographers shoot exclusively Nature. Nature shooters deliberately shun markets and crowds and special events and even interesting architecture for sunrises and sunsets and other tried and true nature subjects.
They will get up at the crack of dawn for nature but they are just as likely to fall asleep at the colorful bistro where they later take their mid-day break. The sun, after all, is in the wrong place.
It is a mantra that is hard to ignore – I think the NANPA union card, for one, probably even invokes sanctions if a photographer steps outside of Nature’s bounds, it’s that ingrained in us as shooters.
Nature, you see, is what we have painstakingly trained ourselves to shoot and our equipment is biased in the direction of macros and/or the longest possible telephotos. Most nature shooters own few, if any, intermediary focal lengths. A huge market has also grown up around nature photography pursuits, offering us gear that no self-respecting studio or commercial photographer would own: things like lens raincoats, carbon fiber tripods, extenders, bellows, Wimberly heads and Sidekicks, photo blinds, underwater housings, field vests, highly specialized photo backpacks, and more.
Nature photographers have become so specialized today that they do not even think in terms of expanding their photo repertoire!
Yes, nature photographers are just like everyone else; they crawl into dreary little boxes at times and this fixation with nature subjects is one of them.
Think about it. Nature photographers collectively limit their subject matter in their hunt for the perfect shot. In doing so they forget that life is not limited to our National Parks or to the Oregon coastline, or even to Denali or other exotic places. Life embraces us. Everything in life, indeed, everything around us, should be a potential subject for us.
Art Wolfe occasionally photographs people but mostly he does not. I recall when Frans Lanting went to Australia just to shoot Ayers Rock, not the Aboriginals mind you! Freeman Patterson is one of the few published nature aficionados who regularly experiments with a broad array of subject matter. Even Artie Morris is extending his reach these days. You may know a few others.
It could be magazine editors who are the limiting factor – perhaps they dictate subjects more than we realize. Or, it could be us! Maybe we just like to box ourselves in!
We have got to get over this preoccupation with limited subjects. The world frankly does not need one more glorious photograph of a lioness. And, waiting for the right light does not necessarily enhance your skills as an artist.
Shooting does. In fact, the more you shoot the better. You do not even have to travel far a field to become a better photographer. Your own backyard is the stage for all kinds of wondrous images, large and small, if only you will bother to look for them.
Colonial Williamsburg, for example, happens to be in my backyard. Is it a nature photography destination? No, it is not. Would Artie bring folks here to shoot birds? Probably not. Would Moose come here with workshop folks in tow? Would NGS send Frans here? Never. After all, this is a history destination. Nature is elsewhere.
Yet doing photography here is an expansive, enriching experience for photographers who want to enhance their compositional and technical skills, and to get to know their equipment under all kinds of shooting conditions.
I actually think nature photography is easy compared to other kinds of photography. Try shooting for a demanding client sometime, one who wants everything now, and perfect to boot. Try shooting fast moving human subjects at special events that take place in the most exasperating lighting conditions. Try shooting inside the chaos of crowds, or on the periphery of politicos who want to look pretty in pictures even though they make no effort whatsoever to assist in getting them. Try shooting a 7pm wedding in the Wren Chapel by candlelight.
And this one is a dare: try taking a unique shot of a tourist destination that has not been done before.
Under pressurized conditions or at popular tourist destinations, even at weddings, you have to know exactly what to expect from your equipment under diverse conditions – and what to do on the spot to fix sudden glitches. If you drop a lens cap in a helicopter it is GONE. If you miss that magical moment at a wedding it is forever lost. The sun may fade in the field today but it will be back, you can count on that.
Out there in the field you have time to think, to cogitate. You can park yourself in some pristine spot and shoot for hours without interruption save for changing weather. You can experiment with accessories in slow motion. A notable exception in nature photography is shooting in extreme environments, which most folks do not do anyway. Extreme environments are hugely demanding on both equipment and photographers and, as a result, photographer skills grow by leaps and bounds. These photographers are constantly stretching themselves.
Get out there and experiment!
One of the wonderful things about the digital era is that we can experiment to our hearts content without incurring additional cost.
Pick unusual and demanding subjects and learn to work them. Imagine yourself standing in front of the historic Christopher Wren Building in Williamsburg; are you going to take the usual shot? the one that everyone else takes? Or are you going to walk around the Wren Building until you find that unique perspective, however elusive?
Have you ever spent an hour trying to photograph a pile of polished green peppers at the local farmer’s market? If you have, you know that it is not as easy as it looks.
Forget the birds for a minute. Can you capture magical frames of a person executing a high dive? It is not the same kind of shooting experience, and in the case of the diver you now have a psychological dimension to consider.
Discover what you can do with a cascading drop of water. Explore the contours of a sculpture. Wrap your eyes around a cupola, or around a red caboose disappearing into the distance – look for the magic in reflections, or shadows, even in pipe organs. Have you ever even tried to use the BULB setting for fireworks?
I must warn you, though, it will not be long before you are totally hooked. Shooting will have never been such fun, or so interesting! You will suddenly see gaping holes in your focal lengths and new image categories to augment your photographic archives.
You will also enjoy exciting new challenges as you become a more accomplished photographer, and maybe an even more interesting person who enjoys extremely diverse subject matter!