GREAT TIPS FOR SHOOTING SUMMER NATURE PHOTOS

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 The Olympics may be coming to town this summer, but for nature photographers there s a marathon event already underway. Summer is a hectic time with long days and an abundance of photogenic and active subjects, so you need to be on top of your game.

Focus on flowers

One of the best places, if not exactly the safest, to photograph summer wildflowers is a roadside verge. Often actively managed by wildlife trusts and councils for their wildflowers, roadside verges contain a large variety of species, including rare ones, and are much richer in biodiversity than intensively farmed meadowland. You ll find a patchwork of colour to play with and good individual specimens to focus on for close-up work, as well as a great chance to photograph these important wildlife habitats in their own right. Quiet country lanes are, of course, a better, not to mention safer, bet than dual carriageways. Either way, take great care to choose a spot wisely.

Dynamic seabirds

There are few occasions when photographing wildlife that you can get close enough to use short lenses, so make the most of wider angles and dynamic perspectives whenever you can. Breeding seabird colonies such as those on the Fame Islands or Bass Rock are big seasonal highlights in the UK and, although they are much visited and photographed, they still offer you the chance to get a new take on an old favourite. While it is nice to try out your telephoto on such stunning subjects, the foreshortening effect can flatten results.

Go mobile with a car hide

Get closer to summer subjects with a mobile hide. Your vehicle is one of your best bits of equipment, as you can use it to cruise up and down quiet roads in good wildlife habitats, like wild uplands where you can sneak up more easily on breeding moorland birds. It s much easier to stabilise your long lenses effectively using bean bags supported on the car window than when youclumsily stalking subjects on foot over rough ground.

Warm up with amphibians

This is the best time of year to photograph reptiles and amphibians lazily sitting out to soak up the sunrays on warm days. At other times of the year, these guys can be notoriously difficult to find or are in hibernation. If your fieldwork turns up trumps, get down low, where possible, so you re at eye-level with your subject, and ensure the eyes, at the very least, are in sharp focus.

Target habitat hotspots

It s that old adage about working out beforehand wherebest to go and when, but it s still worth reminding yourself each season that research pays off. This summer, instead of looking for specific locations to visit, concentrate your information gathering on wildlife habitats you might not have photographed much before, such as rockpools, which are at their best in summer. You ll find the usual suspects in them year-round, including anemones, small crabs and blennies, which will have been joined by a range of other creatures that come inshore to breed at this time, making them fascinating places to poke around with a camera.

Make the most of mammals

Mammal photography can be a bit tricky in summer with so much cover, such as long grass, which can make your fieldwork more difficult. One good species that s commonplace and pretty easy to stalk, however, is the rabbit. They tend to get a bit overlooked as subjects yet itpossible to stake out an active warren and get pleasing images —particularly of the younger ones that stay close to the burrow. Stay downwind, keep low and still, and get into position before they emerge for the evening.

Perfect your portraits

Occasional overcast summer days still offer plenty of potential for brushing up your portrait skills because the soft lighting flatters subjects and renders detail beautifully. Look for characterful subjects that will work well in close-up. Be careful to ensure you use an aperture to have enough depth of field to get your subject in sharp focus without the background becoming distracting. Start off at around f/8 and open up or close down the aperture according to what the individual situation and your vision call for.

Peak time for breeding behaviour

The breeding season is at its peak in summer, which means lots of interesting animal behaviour to focus your attention on. Many creatures, such as the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) pictured below on the Fame Islands, off the Northumberland coast, will be feeding and aggressively protecting their young, while predators will be alert to the extra food rations on offer. Take time before you start photographing to observe what s going on, and spend as much time as possible with promising subjects, so you can see the best interactions unfold.

Love what s local

Good photography begins at home, especially when our own back gardens are increasingly becoming important wildlife havens. Even if you live in town, there should be a rich seam of garden photo opportunities to mine come the summer if you invest time and a bit of cash through the colder months providing food, water and potential shelter to attract local wildlife. We re often scratching our heads about where to go to photograph on fine summer days; daft really, when we add up just how many pictures we get during the season just a few strides from our back door.

Be background aware

Taking a successful wildlife photograph depends on getting the right relationship between subject and setting. Consider backgrounds as much as you do the subject itself when composing your pictures. What change of feel/mood do you get if, for example, you photograph with plenty of depth of field to ensure most of the background is sharp? How does this compare to a shot where this is minimised so the area around your subject is in soft focus? Explore how different lenses have an impact on backgrounds. It s amazing how often a picture s success hinges on the choice of background and its treatment. It is also a good idea to make a last minute check around the outer edges of the composition before you take the picture, to make sure no rogue elements have entered the frame.

Beautify bugs

Bring your macro close-ups of garden insects to life by photographing the less colourful species on, or against, a backdrop of vibrant flowers, such as this hoverfly on a poppy. This will really help draw attention to these subjects. Single colour backgrounds work best here.

Frame wildlife shots to help communicate

Context is key your subject s story. Pull back from tight framing to include location and give a sense of scale, as this will help build a narrative framework. Remember, summer wildlife can be found in more locations than just the countryside these days, so don t forget to explore urban settings for fresh subject matter.

Hone your skills on still life shoots

Spend time hunting out still life subjects you can spend time working with (because they re not going to run away!) to practise your compositional skills. It s a great way to train your artistic eye and is a good exercise for cloudy days when the flat lighting is perfect for bringing out detail. You will need lots of depth of field —f/16 and upwards —for pin sharp detail throughout, so bring a tripod.

Get good eye contact and a catchlight

Eyes are the all-important feature you need to get right in wildlife photography. You should aim to make them the point of focus in your picture, the things that above all else are sharp. Try, if possible, to photograph at your subjecteye level (this often means getting right down to the ground for a good number of your subjects) and be patient, if necessary shifting viewpoints until you get that catch-light-the key to lifting your pictures.

Summer colour is your subject

Make the eye-popping colours you can find in the natural world in summer the focal point of your picture. Build these colour compositions around blocks or stripes of colours in a structured way; for example, a colour band of flowers, a layer of green grass or golden hay perhaps, then a stripe of blue sky.

Embrace chaos theory

Generally, we re staunch advocates of keeping compositions clean, simple and thought through, but when photographing a busy throng of animals or birds, like flocking gulls, for example, a more chaotic, cluttered composition (just point and shoot instinctively without really considering the framing) can sometimes work better. It also helps to convey a sense of numbers if subjects break the edges of your frame.

Added colour eguals value

This tip is a shamelessly commercial one, but well worth passing on. if you aspire to sell your pictures, then bear in mind that images of wildlife among colourful wildflowers still sell consistently well in certain markets, especially those that are seasonally led, such as greetings cards and calendars.

Set your alarm

Early summer mornings aren t just about sweet, golden light. You ll find diurnal wildlife is more active at this time of day and you may even spot nocturnal or crepuscular creatures before they disappear for the day. The atmospherics are often better, too —look for mist rising from lakes and dew sparkling in the grass. Early morning is also a good time to look for sleeping butterflies, before they take to the wing. The other advantage of being up early at this time of year is that nobody else is guite so crazy, so you are highly likely to have a location to yourself.

Don t burn out in the sun

If you must shoot in bright, high contrast light it s a good idea to check the histogram on your LCD occasionally, to make sure you re not clipping highlights. This is particularly important with white subjects, such as swans or some seabirds, where iteasy to burn out detail in white feathers. If you are shooting in Raw, the histogram shows the range of brightness values for a JPEG derived from the Raw, so you will actually have a little extra leeway with the Raw image to salvage some highlight detail in post-processing. In these instances, don t dial in too much underexposure —a little apparent clipping on the histogram isna problem.

Take a midtone reading

High contrast scenes can play havoc with automatic metering. Keep an eye on your LCD, and if your images are turning out seriously under —or over —exposed then consider setting exposure manually, perhaps using a midtone patch of green grass or blue sky to meter off. A typical example where this can help is when photographing birds against a bright sky. Be sure to adjust exposure as the light changes, too, for example if the sun disappears behind a cloud.

Seek the shade

Harsh midday light isnflattering for any natural subject. You can often dramatically improve an image simply by waiting for a cloud to pass over the sun. Alternatively, try to find subjects in even shade, as the soft, indirect light avoids harsh contrast. Use Auto or Shade for your white balance setting, to counter the blue cast, or be prepared to fix it in post-processing. Try to avoid dappled shade, as this can just make matters worse.

Get rid of dark shadows

It might seem counter intuitive to use flash on a sunny day, but a little fill-in flash can be invaluable for softening shadows in the middle of the day. The goal is to balance natural light and flash so that thereno evidence flash was even used. This can mean dialling in as much as minus three stops flash exposure compensation, if your subject allows —try a few test shots. Occasionally, it s possible to bounce flash onto the subject, from a pale, sandy ground, for example, and this helps further subdue any unwanted . We use fill-in flash for subjects such as birds in dappled shade, and also to illuminate backlit subjects.

Manipulate the light for macro

Combining natural and artificial light is sometimes the only way to tackle the technical challenges of photographing small creatures, such as insects, amphibians and reptiles. Even the little pop-up flash on many cameras can be useful to open up shadows and add sparkle to, for instance, iridescent beetle wings or the translucent wings of dragonflies. A separate flashgun is more flexible, though, and can be bounced off reflectors for more diffuse illumination.

Explore the allure of contre jour

Few things convey the mood and warmth of a summer evening better than backlighting (or contre jour) so, rather than always shooting with the light behind your shoulder, turn round to face the soft light of late afternoon and search for subjects, like poppies, that stand out when rim-lit by a golden halo.

Frame with foliage

Give much-photographed subjects a fresh and natural perspective by framing them through colourful foreground flowers or bright summer foliage. Get down low with a long lens placed close to the foreground interest. The foreground will be completely out of focus and will partly obscure your subject, but donworry. The trick is to compose the shot so the soft focus elements of the image neatly frame your subject and lend it intimacy. You need to minimise depth of field for this; an aperture of about f/5.6 is about right to ensure your background is out of focus.

Play with white backdrops

Not every summer sky is an azure blue, but that s okay because you can still be creative on cloudy days. White clouds make great neutral backgrounds to boldly offset your subjects.

A little tweaking at the postprocessing stage will help  whiten  your original background to taste.

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Break with convention

Ittempting to fill the frame with nature subjects whenever you can, but try being a minimalist sometimes instead, framing pictures where your main subject is quite small within the overall picture space. Moody lighting helps enormously in these sorts of images. Keep things simple, elegant and graphic to pull this effect off.

Let rip and experiment

Flowers make great subjects for exploring different creative techniques with your camera. Find a pristine specimen that interests you, and frame it in as many different ways as you can until you see something that excites you. Start with an idea of what concept or aspect youmost like to illustrate, such as the translucence of the petals. To reveal the paper-like quality of the petals you could start off by photographing them so the light shines through. We used this technique recently in a shot of sweet peas taped to our window; a bit like the way school kids make stained glass pictures with tissue paper.

Try double exposures

Double exposures are a great way of adding an ethereal mood to images. Bold summer blooms are excellent for this technigue, which involves merging one in-focus image with one out-of-focus image; both framed in exactly the same way to give a glowing, impressionistic effect.

Selective focusing

The delicate structure of plants and flowers lends itself well to selective focusing techniques, where not all the image is rendered in sharp focus. Experiment by shooting summer flowers, either wild or cultivated, using minimal depth of field —around f/3.5 or f/4 —and selecting a single key focus point, like the curling edge of a petal.

Paint with your camera

Photograph drifts of wildflowers as an impressionist artist might paint them. By setting a very slow shutter speed, say around a guarter of a second, and then moving your camera quickly through a vertical plane at the same time as firing the shutter release you can achieve some harmonious and fun abstract effects. It takes a bit of practice and not every image will be a keeper, but it s a great exercise in developing your creative eye as you assess why some shots look pleasing while others are destined for the trash.

Help your camera focus

Acquiring and maintaining focus is the most challenging aspect when it comes to photographing birds in flight, so do everything you can to help your camera. Even the most expensive camera is only as sophisticated as the photographer behind it! Read your manual to understand the best way to set up your camera for autofocusing on moving subjects. At high shutter speeds, the image stabilising capabilities of your lens or camera are made redundant and merely slow down your camera s ability to acquire focus —switch it off. If your lens has a focus limiter switch, use it to restrict the range through which the lens must hunt; this significantly improves the chance of it acquiring focus quickly.

Take flight

What summer light lacks in subtlety it makes up for with brightness, making this the perfect season to capture crisp action shots that demand high shutter speeds.

A bright blue sky may be boring for landscapes, but it s a clean, undistracting backdrop for images of flying birds. Even in perfect conditions, getting all the elements right in a flight shot takes lots of attempts, so head for locations with plenty of birds and activity; that s the reason summertime seabird colonies are such popular locations with wildlife photographers.

Snap flying dragonflies and insects

Birds aren t the only flying subjects worth shooting during summer; large insects, such as dragonflies, are also eminently photogenic. Stop and observe a dragonfly skimming over a pond and you ll see it often has predictable flight paths and favourite hovering spots. Bees can also be easier to photograph in flight than you might imagine —the key to success is to identify a source of pollen where they hover repeatedly. Butterflies are another matter entirely, as they flutter so erratically —if you succeed in capturing one in flight, let us know!

Anticipate behaviour

No, not boring! Anticipation is half the battle in capturing flight shots. Try to identify regular flight paths, such as where birds are flying in or out of roosts, nesting or feeding sites, and position yourself so you get repeat opportunities. That way you can check things like exposure, choice of lens and shutter speed, and adjust them as necessary. Try to choose a position where the sun is behind you, so birds are evenly lit from the front.

Think fast

It s difficult to generalise as to the minimum shutter speed you will need to  freeze  a bird in flight, as it depends on the speed of the bird, its wing-beat freguency, distance from your camera, etc. As a rule of thumb, anything less than 1/500 second is generally too slow for all but soaring large birds, and we don t start to feel confident until we ve got at least 1/1000 second. With good panning technique you might get away with something slower, and a little bit of blur in the wing tips won t usually spoil an image.

Shoot over water

Getting a good exposure on the underside of birds photographed flying against a bright summer sky can be tricky, as they may appear underexposed. This is often less of a problem with birds flying over water, as the surface acts like a big reflector, bouncing light upward. Photographing at the ends of the day, when the light is at a low raking angle, can also get round the problem, but you need to consider shooting position.

Don t stop too soon

As the light fades you may struggle to get fast shutter speeds, but that doesn t mean you can t capture great

flight shots. Try using a slow shutter speed for artistically blurred wings, perhaps panning on your subject as well to add to the feeling of movement. Alternatively, if you still want sharpness, try shooting into the sunset, to silhouette your subject against the glowing sky. If you bump up your ISO, it can be possible to get fairly fast shutter speeds even after the sun has disappeared below the horizon.

Easiest isn t always best

Maintaining focus on a flying bird isn t easy, even with the most sophisticated focus tracking systems. Itoften easier to hold focus on a bird flying across your field of view, than one flying directly towards you, as the distance between you and the subject doesn t change so rapidly. But italso harder to capture an aesthetically pleasing wing position with a side view. So, try persevering with fronton or three-quarter profile viewpoints to get more dynamic images.

Capture mammal movement

If you want to photograph mammal action then you really do need to rise with the lark, as few mammals are active in the middle of the day in summertime. The problem is you wonnecessarily have lots of light first thing so, unless you have a top-end camera that produces low-noise images at high ISOs, ittime to think laterally. Try capturing a running fox or roe deer using a shutter speed of 1/15 second, panning with the animal to produce motion blur in both the background and subject. Keep the subject in the same part of the frame as you pan.

Adjusting white balance; less is more

Digital cameras are generally very good at obtaining a neutral white balance when set on auto white balance, but as wildlife photographers, more often than not, we don t want our light white. If youshooting in Raw ita simple matter in postprocessing to warm up the neutral colours obtained under a bright sun, or the slight bluish cast of a subject photographed in shadow, but the key is not to overdo it-overly-warmed images look unnatural.

Noise abatement

Watch out for excessive noise, in particular when lightening dark shadow areas. Noise reduction is pretty good in the latest Raw processing software, but comes at a cost of some loss of sharpness. So, if your software allows, target it on the shadow areas. If it doesn t, you can apply selective noise reduction in Photoshop, using a duplicate layer and mask. An alternative approach that we often use is to apply noise reduction only to the blue channel of your RGB image.

Keep your blues blue

A little gentle warming can enhance your subject, but can make a blue sky or blue water go muddy.

It can be fiddly to correct this in Photoshop using layers and masks, but with the latest iteration of some Raw processing software, such as Adobe Lightroom and others, itnow possible to apply localised white balance adjustments to different parts of the image. This allows you to make the sky cooler and bluer, while warming the subject and foreground.

Soften the shadows

There are numerous ways to tone down excessive contrast in post-processing, though all methods essentially involve adjusting the tone curve. The thing to remember is not to  flatten  the image so much that it loses punch —you need to retain contrast in the midtones. Overdoing tonal adjustments can produce all sorts of unwanted artefacts and noise in the image. Sometimes, the only solution for an image that has excessive contrast, or where the exposure was way off, is to send it to the recycle bin.

Lose the colour

Itusually pretty obvious when a mediocre image has been converted to black & white as a last resort, but there are occasions when monochrome treatment really does suit summer images, so bear it in mind as an option. High contrast scenes with strong shadows are obvious candidates. Conversely, a front-lit subject with little shadow, washed out colours, but interesting texture, can also work in black & white.

Polarise those skies

A circular polarising filter will punch up blue skies, reduce reflections on water, and deepen the green of foliage by removing some of its sheen. Used at full effect a polariser will absorb up to two stops of light so, if you re shooting action, leave the polariser off. Polarisers don t work well with very wideangle lenses, as they can produce an uneven effect and ugly dark vignetting, though it may be possible to remove this in post-processing.

CD screen hood

There are a range of LCD hoods and loupes available that make it easier to see your LCD screen and check the histogram in bright conditions. We re happy using our hands to shade the screen, while other people use DIY cardboard hoods, but if you regularly struggle to see the screen properly, consider one of these third party solutions.

Flares are out of season

Bright sunlight increases the risk of lens flare-stray light that hits the lens obliguely from outside of the image area, reducing image contrast and colour saturation. The humble lens hood is a simple and effective way to avoid flare.

If your lens doesn t have a hood, shade the front optic with your hand, or try shooting from a shaded position, or from inside a vehicle.

Reflect or diffuse

You don t need high-tech flash to manipulate light for close-up work. A simple reflector can be very useful for bouncing natural light into shadows, especially for subjects too close to use flash on.

A lightweight, fold-up reflector-white on one side, gold on the other (for warming light)is very handy for this, but you can manage with a bed sheet, a sheet of paper, tinfoil glued to cardboard, or even a white T-shirt. A lightweight white sheet also doubles as a diffuser, allowing you to build a makeshift light tent when photographing small flowers. What really helps, though, is an assistant to hold it in position!

Protect and survive

Iteasy to lose track of time when photographing in the field, and sunburn and dehydration can be a real hazard, so wear a sunhat and use sunscreen. We once spent six hours on Bass Rock with no shade and not a sip of water-the outcome wasn t pretty, so don t make the same mistake. Insects can be bothersome in summer, so use a good repellent, and if you ve spent time in areas with livestock or deer then check your body afterwards for ticks.

Every summer, we use gallons of Avon  Skin So Soft , an unorthodox but very effective midge deterrent.

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