9 Ways to Build Your Confidence in Nature Photography

photographing aardvak

In a world of social media and “likes,” it’s easy to have your confidence behind the camera knocked. So building your confidence in nature photography is important to do to ensure your enjoyment of photography is retained.

When I recall my years as a husband and dad, my time helping to build a business in South Africa, and my journey as a nature photographer, there are times when I can clearly see how my own confidence was built.

Though wide and varied, there are common themes across my journey which are applicable to nature photography, that I will share here.

They involved moments where I learnt more about myself, what was important to me, what I was capable of, and times where I had to persevere and overcome goals or challenges in my life and business, all the while with wonderful humans encouraging me along the way.

hyena photograph
My family and I spent a week in the Kalahari after two years of facetime and WhatsApp, where we got to experience some incredible moments togethe,r as well as with these endangered African wild dogs. Having a family that has always believed in me has given me the confidence to step out and walk the paths less travelled. I am so grateful for them and their role in my life. It is important to surround yourself with people who will support your own nature photography goals.

Taking these experiences and what I have seen through others, here are some things to consider as a nature photographer, which will hopefully encourage and help you to build your confidence in this rewarding (albeit challenging) industry.

1. We all start somewhere, so don’t be hard on yourself

Sometimes taking those first steps is hard, but any starting place is a good one! Find the courage to begin.

The mere fact that we all start somewhere, and that this ‘somewhere’ is not winning awards or being on the front cover of National Geographic, should be a massive encouragement to all of us!

My ‘somewhere’ was at the low end of the spectrum, somewhere on the continuum of learning about who I was as a photographer, and discovering my own unique creativity.

When I started out, I knew nothing about getting down to eye level, the importance of backgrounds, or even that a word like ‘composition’ existed.

get confident in nature photography
I knew nothing about composition and design when I started photography. It was only when I started to step out and question the merits of my own work that I started to uncover the beautiful world of creativity and art. This beautiful black saw-wing was photographed a few hundred metres from my front door in the Natal Midlands.

I would crop too closely, over-sharpen my images, and leave distracting elements all over the show. Even after months of perseverance, my best images left a lot to be desired.

I still remember showing my work to a professional photographer in London. He didn’t say much, but the expression on his face revealed a deep concern for my photographic future.

For some, the road is speedy and much clearer, but for me the river flowed into many obscure tributaries before I found my way. This is all part of the beauty of photography and art; it is a wonderful pursuit that doesn’t need to be rushed.

If you love what you do and are willing to wander down the road, you will find your place. You undoubtedly have something to give; it sometimes just takes time to work out what that is.

Read more: How to Be a Professional Wildlife Photographer

2. Know your ‘why’

Understanding the purpose behind your ambitions is probably one of the best bits of advice I can give someone looking to build confidence.

Knowing your ‘why’ gives you one of the most powerful things in life: a deep conviction for what you do.

Being convinced as to why you want to be a nature photographer by something that is authentic, resonates with you as a person, and has deep significance, will give you deeply rooted confidence.

photographing birds in Africa and gaining confidence in your photography
We have some jaw dropping vistas in the Natal Midlands of South Africa. These three grey-crowned cranes were captured one morning over the farmlands of Himeville in the southern Drakensberg. They are endangered and we need to protect the remaining areas they call home.

This confidence will get you to step out and just try, to persevere when your images aren’t as good as the ones you see in magazines and wildlife competitions, and to keep going when you feel you want to give up!

Whether it be to tell stories, showcase the natural world, inspire the conservation of our natural spaces, or something else entirely, hold on to what made you want to be a nature photographer.

I used to get up at 4am twice a week, whilst running a business full-time, to drive two hours out of Johannesburg to photograph birds – I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a deeper reason for going.

3. Persevere and practice

Perseverance, like experience, is something you cannot buy. It comes from conviction, passion and a determination to realise a goal. It is also a key ingredient to increasing your confidence as a photographer.

Gary Player, a world-renowned South African golfer, has a catchphrase: “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.”

This is very applicable to photography.

From a wildlife photography perspective, it means long hours of observation and nothingness, waking up before sunrise and going back after sunset, waiting for the shot longer than anyone else would, and looking critically at your work, realizing you aren’t there yet and need to go back and try again.

Unfortunately, there is no substitute for time in the field.

how to get more confident as a photographer
One of my favourite places in Africa is the northern reaches of the Kruger National Park (South Africa). You never quite know what to expect and it feels that around every corner there could be your next sighting of a lifetime. On this occasion, the rock staring back at me turned out to be a very alert African wild cat – not an easy cat to find in the Kruger.

William Steel, a good friend and professional wildlife photographer, also provides some awesome advice in terms of practising and building your confidence as a photographer.

He says “Don’t chase after ‘wow’ subjects, search for ways to create art from the ordinary. Once you have learned how to make the mundane beautiful, then you can apply that to rare or iconic wildlife.

“The biggest step forward I had in my creative journey was to stop and look around me. Whether it is in my garden or walking around my local nature areas.

“The process of trying to capture something unique and interesting in a challenging environment will mean that when you are next in an incredible location you will no longer see the obvious photograph, and the creative process will flow.”

Keep going, even when it’s tough. You’re always making progress!

Read more: 20 Essential Tips on Wildlife Photography for Beginners

4. Fall in love with your subject

Creativity is aided by a deep passion or love for what you do and why you do it. My advice to up-and-coming photographers is to shoot what you love, and fall further in love with your subjects.

Loving your subject inevitably improves your photographs, as it drives you to learn more about what you are photographing, spend more time with that place/thing, and photograph it in new and exciting ways.

This philosophical take is reinforced by my own practical experience and results.

get confident with your photography
While visiting Ballot’s Bay Private Nature Reserve on the coastline of South Africa, I discovered an incredibly friendly Cape Grassbird near to where we were staying. I spent a week full of mornings observing him, and realised that the more you fall in love with a subject and get lost in their world, the more creativity tends to blossom.

Challenge: To illustrate this point, try going to a location for a day to photograph a specific animal or scene. When you get home with a memory card full of images, download and work through them to identify any good ones.

You should find one or two that you are happy with and feel are worthy of sharing or adding to your collection. Now, plan to go back to that same location for another 10 days. Each day, focus on the same animal or scene.

Look at all the photographs from this 11-day period and select your top ten photographs overall. What is the result?

In my experience, the first two images that I thought were good don’t even make it into the top ten.

Don’t get me wrong, you might get lucky on your first visit, but I believe that time with your subject allows for creativity to blossom, for your confidence to build, and for great images to be uncovered.

Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth

5. Be inspired by others

There is a quote by Igor Stravinsky who half-jokingly said “A good composer does not imitate, he steals.”

It can help your own creative confidence to admire and allow your own creativity to be inspired by the work of other artists.

I am often inspired by the work of street and landscape photographers and enjoy studying the work of famous artists to understand what made them so effective.

I find that I often take these ideas and concepts and apply them in a different context or way in my own photography.

Taking inspiration from others can undoubtedly add fuel to your creative fire and is something that has helped build my confidence as a nature photographer.

photographing aardvark
You don’t often get to see aardvarks during the day, but Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa is arguably the best place in the world to find and photograph them. Given the wind conditions, we were able to stay in close proximity to this cooperative individual without being detected.

Challenge: Find some photographers that inspire you for different reasons and try to identify what it is that you like; is it their use of light, their style, their unique take on composition or presentation, or their interesting use of camera techniques?

Be curious and use research or experimentation to discover how they do what they do. Then, have a go at applying this in your own photography.

You may find your own method in the process, and it will undoubtedly encourage and inspire you, as well as equip you to take better images.

Read more: How to Develop a Photographic Style

6. Know your camera

Know your equipment inside out. Get comfortable changing settings or lenses and other equipment quickly so that you won’t miss that magic moment when it comes along!

And if you want to build your confidence sooner rather than later, ask for help when you need it, and do your own research online.

Spend time mastering how to use your camera for different genres and light conditions.

For example, if you want to take flight or action shots, there are some standard camera settings and techniques that will really help give you confidence in this area.

The same goes for taking backlit, motion blur, high-key or low-key images.

Knowing this information ahead of time can be a real game changer and will allow you to make the most of your time in the field.

Luckily, there is so much helpful material online regarding technical tutorials and camera specifics, and I would really encourage you to take advantage of it!

7. Get feedback and input from others

Some of my best confidence-building experiences in life have involved the input of others.

Having someone take interest in you, believe in you, or give you advice (ideally in a positive and supportive manner), can undoubtedly change your photographic journey.

Finding the right people to give you feedback and to walk the road of learning with you is such an important part of building your confidence and growing and a nature photography!

starling with mount Kenya in background
A Superb Starling with Mount Kenya in the background. I often find it difficult to share the images I really love, as it feels like I am putting myself out there and on display (and I am not a big fan of rejection). Getting over this fear and deciding to focus on the hope that others may share my excitement, has helped me get things over the line. Having an incredible supportive wife has also been a massive encouragement!

You ideally want to find people who you can trust with your feelings, as getting helpful feedback on your work is not always easy, and a foundation of trust is key.

This can be done by finding a mentor who is authentic, interested in your growth and fits with how you want to learn and grow.

Or you can find a fellow photographer who has different strengths and/or styles to you and can help push your boundaries.

If you are more courageous, you could join an online critique forum where they give you both positives and negatives about your images.

What is key is that you find a way to get constructive input on your work. This will develop your eye for detail, help you to understand what others look for in an image and eventually enable you to confidently evaluate your own work.

Ultimately you want to become your own best self-critic!

Entering competitions is another way to get feedback on your work. That said, it is important to enjoy the process of entering and how this fosters growth, as opposed to making it all about recognition.

I have entered many competitions and got nowhere, but I have learnt a tremendous amount through each entrance, and you will too!

8. Place yourself in learning situations

Besides practising on your own and getting input on your images afterwards, there is also a lot to be said for going on workshops or tours, where you can learn in person from an expert.

Being able to put theory into practice and get immediate guidance and input is an excellent way to gain skills and confidence.

It is key to find the right expert and trip, which combines enough hands-on coaching together with ample, practical application in a subject or location relevant to your work.

Rosy-throated Longclaws, Africa bird photography
I love images that show off the bird and its environment. They encourage viewers to notice both the bird and its habitat, and the importance of conserving both. If we don’t preserve wet or flooded lowland grasslands, we won’t have these stunning Rosy-throated Longclaws for future generations to observe.

You also want to find experts who have a passion for teaching and the growth of their guests or attendees. Ideally, these workshops will also be held where photographic options are excellent, varied and high volume.

Online courses are another possible option for expanding your knowledge and getting into a working environment. Sometimes, all we need is a little push in the right direction from someone with more experience in our field to find our feet.

Taking part in workshops and courses can also help you to build and foster relationships with other professional photographers in the industry, which is always a good thing!

Try this: The Ultimate Wildlife Photography Course

9. Back yourself

My final tip is to always back yourself. Once you know what you don’t know, and have a good sense of what makes great photographs, believe in yourself and share the images you love!

Social media and the feedback you get on these platforms is awesome, but it doesn’t define you as an artist.

Often your most creative, interesting and unique work may not get as many likes as a bright red bird that fills the frame, yet has little creative merit.

Hence, learning to back what you love becomes important if you want to separate yourself from the crowd and start to increase your confidence as an artist.

I recently read this quote; “If you follow what everyone else is doing you will get the same results as everyone else, which are average.”

Stepping out and showing people what you love gives you the chance to grow.

And while you must back yourself, the support of friends and family shouldn’t be overlooked.

It can be a tough industry with ups and downs, so having people close to you for support can help.

My wife Eileen for example, has been my biggest encourager! If it wasn’t for her, I may never have shown some of my most loved images, and I may never have come to realise the creativity hidden within me.

In conclusion

I hope the above article has given you some food for thought as well as practical ways to build your confidence and grow as a nature photographer!

If there is one last thing I could leave you with, it would be this: share where you can, be vulnerable, and be authentic.

These are qualities that will make this beautiful pursuit called photography all the more awesome. The world needs more sharing, caring, and feeling nature photographers.

Do this, and I have little doubt you will learn, grow and build confidence in bounds!

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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