Practice Makes Perfect in Nature Photography

Learning Photography the Hard Way in the School of Hard Knocks

I happened to see the old expression “Practice Makes Perfect” and got to thinking about how that relates to all that I do in my Wildlife and Landscape Photography endeavors. Of course, no one ever achieves perfection, we just do our best to constantly get better at our craft.

It is not my intention to be an instructional resource in photography. There are many articles and videos of a purely instructional nature available online from individuals who focus on that. My purpose here is to relay my own life experiences where I did things wrong and found out I had a lot to learn and was a long way from anything in the ballpark of “perfect”.

"Fall Slant" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of Aspen trees on a remote road in the fall in Colorado. Click on Photo to Purchase

I Read Just Enough to be Stupid

I subscribed to magazines and was reading online articles about camera equipment. I thought the first thing I needed to do was to buy the best equipment and good photos were sure to follow. It was about 2006 when I purchased my spiffy new Nikon D200 11-megapixel camera and lenses. I was heading to Alaska and I thought all I had to do was go out, shoot and look at all the amazing photos. I was in deep trouble and didn’t know it.

The vast majority of my reading was about equipment and not about photography itself. Mistake Number 1.

I Should Have Read More and Practiced

I only recall having read that low ISO would not have that pesky noise in the photo. That sounded good. I took my new camera out on a tour boat in Alaska, where we pulled up near a cliff to shoot puffins. I shot away on the moving boat with my 400mm lens set to ISO 100. I did not even look at what the shutter speed was and needless to say, it wasn’t very fast. The little birds looked good on the camera LCD screen.

I downloaded the photos to my laptop and, big surprise, not one of them was in focus. So much for having any puffin photos. They were so bad that even today’s AI sharpening programs could not have done anything with them. I had not read about the relationship between ISO, f/stop and shutter speed. Feel free to laugh. I did a lot of reading that night along with some serious practicing the next day.

Fortunately, years later, I got another opportunity with Puffins, this time in Iceland. I was pleased to capture this image of Flower Puffin in perfect focus.

"Flower Puffin" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of an Atlantic Puffin in Iceland. Click on Photo to Purchase

Learning to Photograph Wildlife

Now that I knew how to have a faster shutter speed and to pay attention to it, I was off to various National Parks and other locations to obtain amazing wildlife images. Of course, in my excitement of the prospect of doing this, I didn’t read much about it. You would think I would have learned.

I thought how hard can this be? Find the animal, get out of the car with a camera and tripod, set up quickly and shoot away. On many occasions, there were other photographers shooting so I figured I might be okay. I got a few good images, but I was also getting quite a few “butt shots” of animals walking away from me.

I started noticing a few other photographers passing on the initial shot and positioning themselves where they calculated the animal was going to go. Another lesson learned, which paid off for me many times. Experience and practice were becoming invaluable.

For the image Defiantly Caribou below, I was hoofing it all over a hill in Denali National Park staying in front of a small group of Caribou as they were migrating through the area. I was exhausted by the time they moved on, but the results were very satisfying.

"Defiantly Caribou" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of a caribou in fall color in Alaska. Click on Photo to Purchase

Learning to Photograph Landscapes

After years of photographing wildlife, I made the change to landscapes as there were so many new locations I wanted to go to. I had learned enough about wildlife photography to know that I was now “stupid” again and would be learning again from my mistakes. However, I was going to try to minimize them.

Now, before I went somewhere, I was reading all I could about the location and looking at dozens of photos. At the end of the day, I would download and review my photos. While I did like some, there were many that I could see I should have done differently. My feet were getting “stuck in the mud” and I wasn’t moving around enough and trying other compositions. I was too locked into one composition and what the light was doing.

It is possible to practice moving around by going to a location early or during the mid-day scouting time. I have learned to get out and practice the options, look at them later or on the back of the camera. They’re all throwaways, but I have improved my photography by practicing options.

For the Aqua Pool image below, I waded all around the area, left and right, close and far, I wanted to show not only the falls but the drop off from the river into the deep aqua pool in front of the falls. At least 50 images later, moving around paid off. The previous practice of doing this had me making these moves without a thought.

"The Aqua Pool" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of Lower Lewis River Falls in Washington State. Click on Photo to Purchase

Practicing a Technique

Sometimes you read or hear about new techniques that you have not worked with before. Focus stacking is one of these, I wrote a separate article on this that is worth reading if you are new to it. It has become so popular that camera manufacturers are building it into the cameras.

By now I was smart enough to know I needed to practice this before using it on something important. My first attempts were not very good as there are a couple of ways to do it when not automated by the camera. If you want to do landscape photography, I strongly suggest purchasing a camera that has this capability built-in.

A common reason for focus stacking is the desire to get within inches of the ground and to get everything in focus from front to back. You wouldn’t necessarily think so, but getting set up inches from the ground and keeping your tripod legs out of the shot also takes practice.

The image below of the Pemaquid Lighthouse in Maine was achieved with Focus Stacking. Fortunately, by the time I shot this I had the concept of crawling on the ground and focus stacking down well.

"Pemaquid Point Lighthouse" - A Limited Edition print of 100 of the lighthouse at Pemaquid Point in Mainex. Click on Photo to Purchase

Some Practice Never Ends

The 800-pound gorilla in the room relating to practice is the processing of images with software. Software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop is constantly improving and changing. I feel like I’m never done learning new abilities with luminosity masking or with AI sharpening or noise removal.

I want my images to be the best they can be. More than once I have gone back and re-processed images using newer capabilities and techniques. When software gets a new feature, I can’t wait to practice it.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I’m outside shooting about 150 days a year and I still feel like I’m practicing and learning. So my advice to anyone is to get out there and shoot, trying different compositions, focal lengths, shutter speeds and anything else you can think of. Then try different ways to process the images.

Sure, there will be some ugly stuff, but you’ll also get some stunning images and feel great about them when you do.