Wilderness Underfoot: Taking nature photos, Part 2: Camera tips

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Learn to use presets and manual settings to get great pictures.

The point-and-shoot mode of your camera, often called auto, gives good results in a range of situations. The camera automatically judges focus, lighting and flash settings. This mode is fine for taking many kinds of nature pictures, and some people are happy to let the camera do all the guesswork.

But for those who want to explore other features, most cameras offer relatively easy-to-use presets that allow you to quickly click between portrait (for several people in a shot, with the focus tight on the group and fuzzy in the background), sport or action (fast shutter speed to freeze action), night (the shutter stays open longer), landscape (for distant focus with no flash), and close-up (typically for shots within a few feet of a subject).

The best way to get to know your camera’s preset modes is to spend a day practicing with each of them. Go out into the wilderness and take dozens, if not hundreds, of photos. Get to know how the presets work before you need to use them; if a butterfly has landed on a flower at the edge of the path, it’s too late to fumble through the guide trying to figure out how to set your camera for close-up photos.

Next, you’re ready to learn manual settings. This is where most dedicated amateur photographers will begin to emerge from the pack. If you can learn how to adjust depth of focus, how to use a fill flash, or how to adjust for extremes in lighting, it will really make your photos pop. But reading the manual and experimenting with your camera won’t give you the depth you need here. It’s time to check out books about photography. Digital Nature Photography by Jon Cox is an excellent guide.

You can review your pictures in the little LCD screen on the camera, or better yet, by using a computer. Cameras and computers usually include software for photo reviewing and editing. Scrutinize photos for common errors such as fingers or cords in the frame, blurriness from a shaky camera, or uninteresting angles and viewpoints. Then, shoot more photos and try to improve your results. You can toss out bad digital shots by the thousands without wasting film, prints or money. Bits and bytes resting on a memory chip don’t cost anything.

To capture interesting photos, try changing your approach. Do you always take a picture while standing the same distance from the subject, with a level camera, in clear daylight? Boooooring! If a leaf is on the ground, get down next to it. A snowy patch of forest can be attractive, but how about a tight shot of a single twig with a tiny icicle hanging from its tip? How about the same photo with a soft sunrise creeping up behind it, or a brilliant sunset burning through the branches? Why not tilt the camera on a severe angle? If a hazy reflection shows on the lens, why not keep it in the picture? Why not focus on the background? Keep experimenting and throw out the pictures you don’t like.

Next week: Taking nature photos, Part 3: Cool tricks

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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