8 Ways to Take Your Nature Photography to the Next Level

how to improve your photography

How to take your photography to the next level is a question often asked in today’s media-saturated world.

Another way of asking this is: how do we stand out from the crowd? Or how do we create images that are unique or different?

These are questions that I am often asked by photographers who are looking to break their moulds and start to explore and experiment.

how to take your photography to the next level
To help yourself stand out, consider what presentation technique will show off your subject and best tell its story. This ‘high key’ image of a red-collared widowbird was highly commended in the creative category of Bird Photographer of the Year. The desired look and feel were almost achieved in camera, but some post-processing adjustments were required to attain the pure white background and to give an increased dramatic effect.

Some standard answers to this question won’t come as a surprise, but perhaps the real question we should be asking is: how can we tap into our unique creativity as photographers? How do we learn to be more creative?

Although I believe some people are born more creative than others, there is little doubt that we all have so much creativity inside of us – so how do we uncover it? Are there practices or tools that can help?

bird photography tips
Being willing to experiment with camera techniques, light, and perspective are excellent ways to push your boundaries as a photographer. As in the case of this Southern red bishop – I often look for landscapes or habitats that lend themselves to more complex compositions. They allow me to play around with light and different shooting angle.

Let’s cover some of the ways to push the boundaries in your nature photography.

1. Find your voice 

There are very few animal species or landscapes that haven’t been photographed – likely you aren’t the first person to try and reveal your subject to the world. Before deciding what you want to do, look at what others have done before you.

If you are photographing a red-collared widowbird in his breeding plumage, have a look at how others have portrayed him previously.

What stories have already been told? What environments have already been captured? What behaviour has been uncovered?

high key bird photography
I spend time researching my subjects and what images have been captured of them previously. There are 1000s of images of ground hornbills out there and many have prey items in their beak. What caught my eye about this moment was the ‘high key’ setting and the little bit of salad that was accompanying the freshly caught breakfast for the hungry brood.

While exploring images, take time to research your subject. Identify what makes it unique or different, and what features it has that are interesting or could help it stand out.

Once you have gathered this information, ask what story you want to tell – make time to think about this and be more intentional. The power of art is in its ability to communicate with an audience.

The more intentional you are about communicating a specific message, the more likely you are to achieve this powerful outcome. 

Read more: How to Photograph a Wildlife Story

2. Be focused and fussy

It is difficult to master something (i.e. get to the next level) if you don’t focus. Trying to be a great macro, landscape and wildlife photographer all at the same time, means that your attention is split between competing genres.

Given that mastery requires lots of practice and repetitive application, I think it is good advice to focus on one technique at a time. 

Pick the genre or subject that you love the most, then try and become the best you can be at it.

Although you can (and should) still learn a lot of interesting techniques from other genres, you will have a much better chance of moving to the next level if you pick one and apply all your time/focus to it.

improve your bird photography
The black-winged stilt is a relatively common bird in our South African wetlands. I have photographed them on many occasions, but this particular image, while simple, speaks to me of their character and peaceful environment.

This also means you can move more easily into being ‘fussy’ with your photographs.

I have noticed that if I am short of time or my attention is spread across too many projects, my work is not of the same quality as when I am concentrated on a specific goal or objective.

So do what you can to give yourself the time and space that a subject or project deserves.

Don’t be afraid to take thousands of different images from all angles, in all lights, and from a variety of different perspectives, then give time and consideration when selecting the best.

Don’t settle for compositions that could be improved or images that have small distractions or issues – they will not help push you further along your journey. Be focused and be fussy!

Read more: How to Choose Your Best Images After a Shoot

3. Understand composition and how to apply it

The previous point leads to some practical ways to take your photography to the next level. 

First, assess how well you understand composition and design. Artists and graphic designers often study for years or undertake intense and practical courses to ensure they have the foundations necessary to master their vocations.

Why should it be any different for photographers looking to improve their craft?

As much as some would like to believe that photography is all about intuition, I would argue that this is foolhardy. I believe that to become a master at your photography, you need to do a deep dive into one of its most important elements: composition

Although there is a lot of material for this online, much of it only scratches the surface. You need to dig a little deeper to find the complexity and knowledge required. Instant gratification is not helpful when it comes to composition.

For example, ‘the rule of thirds’ is a good guideline and many articles on composition will encourage you to use it. Unfortunately, it is incredibly misleading if you don’t consider it within the context of the principles of composition.

These include balance, harmony, movement, contrast, proportion, and variety. 

how to take your photography to the next level
Repetition is a key principle of composition. Our eyes are drawn to repeated elements and patterns, they can be powerful tools if you want to create harmony in your images, as well as maintain focus on your main subject. Understanding the intricacies of composition and how to apply them in your work are extremely important building blocks for growing as a photographer.

Many of us don’t move to the next level because we don’t have the right foundations in place and haven’t been able to apply them in practical situations.

This can be compared to reading a summary of business strategy and then thinking you can run a strategic planning process for a big corporation.

I encourage you to go deeper; study the elements, principles, and guidelines, and then look to actively apply them in your work.

One good example of how we can improve our work as photographers is by studying the use of colour in composition.

It has only been through my learning of composition and colour theory that I can now purposefully employ this exciting element in my work.

I now have a deeper insight into how complementary and harmonious colours can be used to create the feelings and impact I want in my photographs.

how to take better bird photos
Colour is just one element of composition, learning how to use it to create peaceful or dramatic scenes is a very helpful tool. The colours surrounding this lesser swamp warbler help create a sense of peace in this scene from one of my favourite, local wetlands.

It has allowed me to be more intentional and has pushed me to develop my skills. So, I would encourage you to explore this aspect.

Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography – Getting Creative

4. Diversify your light 

When I started out, any light other than direct light on my subject felt like a foreign land. Fortunately, curiosity got the better of me and I experimented with different types of light.

I had seen how back, side, diffuse, and strobe lighting had been used effectively in the work of other photographers. I could also identify how these different sources could tell exciting stories about my subjects. 

light in bird photography
Light is a powerful tool for a photographer. But getting comfortable with it takes time and experimentation. This image of a kori bustard on the open plains of northern Kenya would not have told the right story if I had used direct light. Silhouettes can be wonderful ways to show a different aspect of your subject and its environment.

For example, side and backlighting can be used to create moments of drama, intrigue, and interest. Diffuse lighting can produce impactful ‘high key’ images in cloudy conditions.

By playing around with different lights, subjects, and settings, I started to expand the tools I had at my disposal to communicate the stories I wanted to.

Light is one of our most important tools as photographers – I encourage you to embrace it and learn how it can be harnessed for your own storytelling. 

Read more: Backlighting in Wildlife Photography – Creative Use of Light

5. Change your perspective

A technique that’s been helpful in my journey is learning to look at a scene from all possible angles.

In my early days, I used to have a very narrow thought process when it came to my bird or wildlife photography. I would approach from the front, get as close as possible, take the best photograph I could manage, and then leave after a few minutes. 

I encourage you to become more interested in the scene as a whole and how it lends itself to potential compositions. Consider how being flat on the ground, high above, further away, or in multiple different positions could change the photograph. 

how to take your photography to the next level
By moving around this Verreaux’s eagle, the photograph creates a unique perspective, one which I hadn’t seen before of this pair from the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. By changing perspective and immersing ourselves in the world of our subject, we can often take our photographs to the next level.

Think about how different lenses could influence the final product. Could a wide-angle lens be used to better effect than a zoom or prime lens

If you believe that something can come from the situation, be patient and give time for the subject, light, and moment to come together.

Sometimes, I have found this type of perseverance is rewarded with success, but I often leave with nothing at all.

Learning to discern whether it is worth waiting, or making an early departure, is something that takes time and experience. It feels like a constant work in progress.

Read more: How to Use Perspective in Nature and Wildlife Photography

6. Change your presentation

Giving thought to how you want to present your photograph is a helpful consideration, both before and after shooting.

I consider what I want to communicate through my photograph or about my subject before heading into the field. This influences where I go, what conditions I look for, and my camera settings.

For example, if I believe my subject will be best represented by a ‘low key’ image, as its personality would be best expressed through this presentation technique, then I will look for habitats and light that enable this.

how to improve your photography
These four grey-crowned cranes were seen near my home in the Natal Midlands. The nature of the bird and the available conditions allowed for a ‘low-key’ image. It was, however, only after the session when talking to a fellow photographer that the true potential of the images was realised. I was able to use post-processing to create a unique presentation of these stunning birds.

That said, we are often presented with unexpected moments in nature where we have little chance to consider what we want to say and have to make the best of a fleeting moment.

In this case, review your image afterwards and consider whether you can use post-processing to change the presentation.

For example, images with plenty of contrast, shadows, and textures can lend themselves to black-and-white conversions. Experimenting with this in editing can lead to some fantastic discoveries and expand your story-telling toolset. 

7. Utilise different camera techniques

Consider what camera techniques you can use to add variety to your photography. The techniques you select will come down to your personal style, likes, and dislikes. However, it is always good to be open-minded and imagine how each technique can be used to enhance your current work. 

Slowing down your shutter speed to create motion blur is a wonderful way to create a sense of movement, or to experiment with the more abstract side of photography.

how to take better wildlife photos
Using a slow shutter speed to blur part of the habitat, in this case moving water on a small stream in the Natal Midlands, is a super way to add variety to your work. I would not have been able to isolate the subject and show the movement without employing this technique.

Using camera and lens movement can also produce unique and ethereal images. If anything, learn what techniques are available to you and experiment with them before deciding that they aren’t for you.

The process of experimentation can help you grow as a photographer. 

Read more: How to Develop a Photographic Style

8. Learn to be more creative

This leads us back to where we started. Given you have tried all the above, how do you then take things to the next level? The answer, in my view, is learning how to tap into your creative side and become more imaginative. 

Creativity can be defined as “the use of imagination to produce something new and valuable” and its meaning can be described as the “practical outpouring of imagination” (Creativity Explained by David Priilaid).

It is about taking what has been discussed above and using these tools to create something unique and of worth.

The famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson adapted the techniques used by master artists in their compositions to street photography and created his own, differentiated approach.

He would find a beautifully composed scene and then wait for a subject to move into it, taking the picture at exactly the right time, when the subject lined up with the pre-existing composition.

He called this “the decisive moment” and it is a good example of creativity in the field of photography. 

how to take better photographs
By learning from photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson I have been able to take concepts such as the “decisive moment” and adapt them to my work as a professional wildlife photographer. Here I found what I felt was a perfect scene and waited for this buff-streaked chat to position himself perfectly within it. When he jumped on this specific rock and started to call, I knew I had achieved my own “decisive moment”.

So, what does being more creative entail? Here are a few thought-provoking questions to consider: 

  • Have you practised enough to develop the skills required to take advantage of creative moments? If not, what can you do to practice more? Studies have shown that the vast majority of ‘great’ artists were experts or masters in their fields of expertise. The power of practice and being able to recognise and take advantage of creative moments have been key to their success.
  • Are you as curious as a child? Being curious about your subject, techniques, environments, and behaviours helps to encourage greater creativity. 
  • How intentional are you with creating your photographs? Do you imagine what your image could look like before you take it? Pre-visualisation is a very popular way to be more intentional about the image you want to capture and the reasons behind it. This process activates your imagination and gives a chance for an outpouring of creativity. 
  • Have you considered the importance of slowing down and being still? Many famous artists and musicians speak about withdrawing from their surroundings to find their “still waters”; a place where they could escape, be quiet, and listen.
how to take better photos
It is difficult to find creative ways of showing off common photographic subjects. I often identify a subject and then look for unique environments that could give me this opportunity. In this case, I found red-collared widowbirds displaying in front of a dark, high-altitude forest. I had never seen them photographed displaying in front of dark, green backgrounds, so I set about trying to bring a specific vision to life. I love how the backlighting highlights the wings and how his red neck glows against the dark backdrop.

I have found by answering these questions, I have opened myself up to a variety of disciplines, practices, and toolsets that enabled me to tap into my creative self, and I trust they will do the same for you. 

In conclusion

I hope that this article has helped challenge some of the status quo and has been encouraging.

I also hope that it inspires all of us to push against our boundaries and see where our passion for nature photography could take us.

Visit Richard's website

Richard is a husband, dad and professional wildlife photographer from South Africa. By capturing birds in their unique and magnificent environments, he hopes to promote Africa's birdlife and raise funds for their conservation. More of his award winning images as well as his curated mentorship programme, workshops and tours can be found on his website.

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