Improve Your Nature Photos

Tips from a Pro

We asked self-taught nature photographer Steve Brimm to help you elevate your photos from "pretty" to "pretty spectacular."

Q. Was there a turning point in your shooting career when suddenly you realized something about photography that made your images rock?

A. There was, actually. I checked out a book called Mountain Light, by Galen Rowell (a California-based nature photographer). And in the book he spent a long time talking about seemingly boring things, like how we interact with light, how light affects what we do, our reaction to light. And especially how photography was really all about light. I realized that until then my photography had been more subject driven and never really went deeper.

Q. So how do you get the light?

A. Well, you can’t control natural light, so it’s about increasing the odds. What I have often done is find a place that looks like a nice area to photograph. I look at the directions of light, where the sun would be any given time of year. I try to figure where the shadows will fall, when the sunlight will highlight something I want to highlight. Or do I want to photograph under flat light, under overcast sky? There is no other way to get the light than to be out there. Sometimes that means being cold, dirty and miserable.

Q. Do you need a $10,000 camera?

A. One of my best selling images was taken on an off-brand lens with film I bought at a supermarket. Good gear increases your odds, but it is not necessary for getting a good image. But you do need to be able to manipulate the shutter and f-stop, and ideally the focal length of the lens – even with digital cameras.

Q. How do you light something in a dark forest without blasting it with the flash?

A. Ninety percent of nature photos are taken on a tripod, so you need one of those. But also we use reflectors to bring more light to the subject while still keeping a natural look.

Discover Steve Brimm’s work in his book Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at brimmages.com, or at his studio in Copper Harbor. Also check out his second book, Copper Harbor, Images From Michigan’s Northernmost Outpost.

Gorilla Stability

Traverse art director Diane Kolak, something of a photo buff herself, got a Gorillapod for Christmas and is enthralled. "It’s way better than any mini-tripod I’ve ever used," she insists. The legs wrap around things for stability and the head swivels easily for horizontal or vertical shots. Super lightweight and can fit in your pocket. joby.com

Spy on Wildlife

What’s really going on in the woods (or the garbage can) when we aren’t there to see it? Trail cams got it covered. Attach the weatherproof case to a tree and it bides time waiting for something to trigger the motion-activated camera. Peggy Simmons, salesperson at Jay’s Sporting Goods in Gaylord, likes the Moultrie 3.1 megapixel Game Spy 200. A battery charge lasts for weeks. She and her husband each have one. Her tip: get a bungee cord because the fastening straps are a little iffy.

Jeff Smith is editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was first published in March 2007 and was updated for the web February 2008.

Article Comments

  • http://community.mynorth.com/members/mgrabisch/ Marc Grabisch

    I find that also having filters such as a split or graduated neutral density filter along with a polarizer helps one control the light better for different naturally lit scenes.