Wilderness Underfoot: Taking nature photos, Part 3: Cool tricks

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Digital picture-taking tricks for the amateur nature photographer

Cloudy days aren’t bad: People often mistakenly believe sunny days are the only time to shoot good outdoor photos, but, actually, brightly colored subjects such as butterflies or flowers often show richer color saturation on cloudy days. And if it has recently rained, you can achieve dramatic contrast between bright objects and background elements such as soil, leaves, wood and stones—all of which become darker and more intense when they’re wet. Woodland scenery is quite striking on wet days, with tree trunks, the forest understory, and the soil turning nearly black, while the leaves seem to radiate with color.

Natural indoor lighting: If your subject is indoors—perhaps a shell or an insect that you’ve found—you can achieve softer, more balanced lighting by turning off the camera’s flash and shooting photos next to a window on the north side of your house. It’s less harsh than a flash or bright sunlight, and often reveals more detail. Also, use your camera’s close-up setting if you’re close to the subject.

Subtle flash: You’ve probably been less than thrilled with the harsh look of certain flash photographs. You can subdue the harsh lighting by placing a single layer of thin tissue over the flash itself. This spreads and softens the light. After taking the photo, you may want to increase the overall brightness slightly using your camera’s controls or your image editing software.

Pictures in low light or darkness: This technique requires a camera with settings that allow it to hold its shutter open for several seconds or longer to make time exposures or night exposures (most digital cameras can do this). In nature photography, this method is especially interesting around sunrise or sunset, when the horizon has subdued light. Generally, the subject is very still, such as a tree or a landscape—but it can also be in motion, such as a flowing stream or a waterfall. The camera must be mounted on a tripod or placed on a steady surface, and set to take a time exposure (see your camera’s manual for this setting). Find an interesting scene, and experiment. There is no absolute rule guiding you on how long to set the time; start with 10 seconds, and then adjust the setting until your photos look good. Usually, the flash is turned off. Click the shutter button, and then avoid touching the camera to prevent camera shake and image blur. After the shot, review your photo in the LCD, make adjustments, and keep shooting. You’ll be surprised at how the lighting in the photos evolves as the sky changes.

Next week: Taking nature photos, Part 4: More cool tricks

From the Jan. 10-16, 2007, issue

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