Getting close to nature

Nature photography covers the full spectrum of both fauna and flora in their natural environment. We all want to capture spectacular game sightings, but often your adventure does not yield suitable opportunities. That’s when creative thinking will lead you to find beauty in the often unseen or ordinary, helping to create something unusual. Marette Bennett from Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training offers some inspiration.

Flowers, autumn leaves, trees and bark, rocks, rock formations and lichen growths, spider webs, seed pods, shells, wild mushrooms, sun-bleached bones, driftwood and even footprints can all turn into the star subject of your next nature photo. This is the reason that I always carry my gear with me wherever I go – you never know when nature will inspire that next work of art!

Flowers and leaves

Flowers and leaves are one of my favourite objects to photograph. In South Africa, we are blessed with many seasonal wildflowers that can provide spectacular nature shots. And wow – does our country show off when it comes to flowers! Of course, we have the natural phenomenon that turns the West Coast into a spectacular flowerbed around August and September. The cosmos draping the roads in Gauteng and Mpumalanga brightens up our world around Easter time, while the Impala lilies flowering in late winter bring magic to the Lowveld. My absolute favourite time is when the Aloe flowers brighten up winter landscapes all over the country.

Flowers and leaves can be photographed in many ways: separate or include the background from the subject; crop close for detail or go wide to give a sense of place and space. Separating your flower or leaves from the background with a shallow depth of field (low aperture) will let it pop out from the background. In a field of daisies, I would employ one of my sharp lenses (50mm or 85mm) to single out a few flowers. It is important to get as close as possible and shoot them with the lowest possible depth of field (F/1.8 to F/2.8) to isolate one orange flower from a complete orange background through blur.

However, if you don’t have a sharp portrait lens, you can still add beautiful bokeh to the shot by standing back and zooming in with your telephoto lens, still setting the aperture as shallow as possible. Next, taking pictures of the same
flowers, I will stand back to capture the whole scene by opening the depth of field (higher-numbered F-stop). In post-processing, I can discard what I don’t like, but sometimes you can’t go back to retake the shots, so it’s best to shoot a variety.

Also very important is not to overexpose your flower photos as too much light will blow out the delicate detail. Since flowers don’t move around like the big cats or other animals tend to do, the feeling would be to keep the shutter speed low, but I don’t agree. To get a razor-sharp photo, you need a fast shutter speed, which will automatically compensate for any possible slight wind movement. Wind, of course, is your enemy when photographing flowers – too much wind will blow your flower in all directions, making it very hard to focus accurately. If you have a companion with you, they can use your reflector board to block the wind (a piece of cardboard will do the job too).

Overcast days are ideal for photographing flowers, as the soft light complements the delicate and intricate textures and there are no harsh shadows or light spots which can give you an uneven exposure. However, too early or too late on an overcast day will result in insufficient light, so make the available light count by shooting around midday on overcast days.

Another creative way to expose your flowers photos is with backlight. Since flowers’ petals are translucent, you can shoot directly into the sun, capturing beautiful glowing flowers. The best time for this would be late afternoon, when the sun is close to the horizon. Shaded flowers can be photographed very creatively with the use of a reflector, especially when you have a well-lit background. Bounce the available light onto the flower using the reflector and see how much more vibrant they will be.

Your angle or composition makes the difference between an exceptional and an ordinary flower photo. I always try to get in low for an interesting point of view, but that also depends on how the flower displays. Sometimes a flower shot from behind or from underneath add lots of interest. I move around to find light flares in the background, and I try to never get a plain blue sky as a background.

Since flowers are so delicate, you can focus through another flower in the foreground. Find the flower you want to photograph and adjust your position until you have another flower between you and your subject flowers. The closer the second flower is to your lens, the better. The result will be beautiful spots of colourful blur in the foreground.

Trees and bark

With more than 60 000 tree species worldwide, the variety in size, shape, colour and texture offers endless photo opportunities.

When shooting wide to capture a scene, you want to get the whole scene in focus by setting a wide depth of field (F/8 to F/16). When you move in close to capture detail on bark or mosses growing, you can tighten the aperture a bit, but generally, you want all the close-up detail in focus too.

Eye-catching tree photographs are composed, and not simply snapped. When working with a single tree scene, place the tree on the left or right “rule of thirds” line. If your scene features an open field with your tree, place the horizon on the bottom third’s rule line. In a plantation or wooded area, it is difficult to capture the whole tree scene, so you should focus on the trunks of the trees. Select a prominent trunk or a trunk with interesting roots for the foreground and include some of the forest floor or vegetation at a standard focal length. For something different, stand way back, use
your telephoto lens and zoom in on one trunk – this will compress the appearance of the trees.

In a densely wooded space, it pays to look up, and capture the long lines reaching for the sky. Be careful not to overexpose the sky, though! The soft light of overcast days, or even mist, are ideal for this type of photo. To add interest to your tree photographs, add a road, path, bridge or people – it will create a dynamic flow to the image, ramping up the aesthetic value dramatically. Repetitive patterns or colours also have a huge impact, creating drama in an otherwise bland photograph.

Bark varies in colour, texture and pattern, adding yet another dimension to tree photography. Look for deep cracks, interesting patterns and lines, moss, and fungus growths. Frame your shot to exclude the edges of the trunk and use a moderate small depth of field to get the whole shot in focus. For yet another perspective, look around for where the sun is peeking through the branches. Now shoot directly into the sun with an aperture of F/22, and capture a sun star.

The English writer, painter and philosopher John Ruskin once said that nature is a painting for us, with pictures of infinite beauty day after day. As photographers, we have a duty to capture this beauty in all its forms. Happy hunting for that perfect shot – until next time when we will explore sunrise and sunset photography.

Marette offers a wide range of photography workshops and individual training sessions. CONTACT: +27 82 553 4719 | refinededgesphoto@gmail.com

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