There is immense beauty in the natural world. And for as long as there has been photography, there have been nature photographers seeking to capture it in all of its glory; celebrating, embodying, and telling stories about earth’s natural elements in their art.
If you’ve picked up a camera before, then you’ve probably turned your lens on nature at some point. There’s always inspiration to be found in the outdoors, from broad landscapes to close-ups of plants, flowers, and wildlife. There are also endless sources of wonder, with nature photography shining a spotlight on some of the most magical parts of this planet that we call home.
- What is Nature Photography?
- Types of Nature Photography
- 6 Famous Nature Photographers
- Nature Photography Day
What is Nature Photography?
Nature photography is a genre of photography focused on elements of the outdoors. Specific subjects may include sky, water, and land, or the flora and fauna that inhabit these spaces—or both.
While the objectives of any individual photographer can and do vary, many seek to educate viewers through their work on just how beautiful—and just how worthy of conservation—nature is. In doing so, they share with people unique places and points of view they may never have had exposure to otherwise, reminding all of us just how lucky we are to live within such a stunning natural habitat.
There are lots of places to look if you want to see impressive photos of nature. The internet is one obvious option (particularly the social media pages of nature and travel photographers), but you can also check out publications dedicated to sharing the best of the best in nature photography, such as National Geographic, Outdoor Photography, and Audubon Magazine.
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Types of Nature Photography
Nature itself is extremely multi-faceted, so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few different types of nature photography. These types are often considered to be their own complete genres, with techniques, strategies, styles, and famous works that embody each field.
If you’re new to nature photography, it can be a useful exercise to explore each of these types separately, particularly if you’re interested in pursuing one or more as a hobby or career. Here’s a snapshot of the various types of nature photography to get you started.
Landscape photography is one of the most recognizable subsets of nature photography. It encompasses any photograph that displays a full outdoor scene, whether that’s a vast view of a mountain range or a pocket of forest captured at golden hour. Subjects of interest range from the location itself—a farm, field, orchard, beach, or cave, for example—to the physical objects within it (trees, hills, rocks, wildlife, and so on). Light and weather also play a strong role in this type of photography, with subtle shifts in the time of year or time of day having a profound effect on the overall piece.
Because they capture so much at once, photographs of landscapes have long been used in support of conservation efforts. There’s even a name for this—conservation photography—which refers to landscape images used with the express purpose of promoting empathy for the natural world. Not all photographs of landscapes are taken with the goal of conservation photography in mind, but any image that displays the wonder of the world can achieve that. That means all of us can use our cameras to spur further appreciation for the environment among ourselves and others.
Animals are as important a part of nature as land and water. Wildlife photography turns the lens on them, highlighting animals (generally undomesticated ones) in their natural habitats, wherever that may be.
Wildlife photographers must bring a number of key skills to the table beyond photography itself. That’s because a crucial feature of this type of photography is leaving the animals undisturbed, capturing not just what wild animals look like but how they inhabit their space. This usually requires a keen understanding of the behaviors, habits, and habitats of an animal subject, as well as the ability to take photographs without direct interference.
As such, professional wildlife photographers often must rely on specialized equipment and practices, sometimes investing thousands of dollars and days, weeks, months, or even years of their lives to get that one perfect shot.
Flowers are one of nature’s prettiest creations, and flower photography puts them into focus in remarkable detail. Also known as plant photography, garden photography, or botanical photography, it relies heavily on composition to provide us with a deeper look at something we may see every day but not really notice all of the nuances of.
In that way, it differs from nature photographs of hidden beaches and rare animal species, since the subject is one that most of us are quite familiar with. In capturing flowers in new ways, however, plant photography gives us a renewed appreciation for the blooms around us, from the common daisies in a suburban backyard to the extraordinary ghost orchids in Florida’s flooded forests.
Birds are another part of nature that we often spend a lot of time around without always paying attention to. When they get in front of the camera, though, amazing things can happen, especially when they’re captured in flight.
Bird photography is a unique skill, requiring a heavy dose of patience and a flair for hitting the shutter button at just the right moment. A bird photographer also needs to have a knack for composition, so that not just the bird but its surrounding environment come through in the image. For that reason, wide angle shots are common in this type of photography, allowing the photographer to put the bird into context with the habitat where it resides.
Ocean photography is a subset of general landscape, but there are some major distinctions. For starters, the ocean is a constantly moving subject, with waves, splashes, and reflections of light painting different pictures across the water from moment to moment. It’s also logistically a little tricky and demands specialized equipment that can handle getting wet.
In many ways, photographs of the ocean are as much about all that aforementioned movement as they are the vastness of the water itself. That’s where the strategic use of shutter speeds comes in. Shutter speeds are slowed down to capture waves and ripples without blurring the shot and can be further tweaked to mitigate movement in the shot and make the ocean appear more serene than it really is. Notably, this type of photography differs from seascape photography despite the similar sounding names, since the sea is an inherently calmer subject than the ocean.
Browse through examples of nature photography and you’re bound to come across plenty of macro images. Macro photography simply refers to close-up images of small subjects, with the composition scaled in such a way that they appear to be life sized in the frame. Insects are a popular focus for macro photographers and can appear surprisingly majestic when put into such an extreme perspective.
A macro lens is a must-have for this type of photography, since zoom alone won’t cut it. On the bright side, you can buy affordable macro lenses that attach to your existing camera, even if you shoot on a smartphone.
Micro photography gets us even closer to subjects, giving us a look at things that we wouldn’t be able to see at all without a specialized lens (in this case, a micro lens). It’s sometimes referred to as microscopic photography or photomicrography, and is just a step further in the magnification process than its macro cousin. If you want to get technical, the magnification of photomicrography is between 10:1 and 20:1, while macro is 1:1 up to 10:1.
6 Famous Nature Photographers
Nature in all its many forms may be a ubiquitous subject in photography, but it takes exceptional talent to be considered among the top nature photographers. Fortunately, history has presented us with true visionaries in the field, and their work continues to be the gold standard. It would be impossible to list them all here, but here are six that have set the bar for what can be achieved when you bring a camera and an imagination to the outdoors.
1. Ansel Adams (1902-1984)
Ansel Adams was a landscape photographer who is often referred to as the “grandfather” of the genre. His work is defined by its use of full tonal range—a photography technique that seeks to capture the entire spectrum of color in the frame, from the darkest blacks to the lightest whites.
Even more so, Adams is known for his conservation photography, including his active role as an early member of the Sierra Club. His work was instrumental in facilitating the expansion of the National Park system, and in 1963 he was awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior, followed by the Presidential Freedom Award in 1980.
2. Galen Rowell (1940-2002)
Photojournalist Galen Rowell brought the wilderness to the people through images that took the viewer along on his adventures through the great outdoors. Rowell was known for centering himself in the scene, giving enhanced context to his photos by positioning the adventurer within the realm of exploration. He was also deeply committed to environmental advocacy, and won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography in 1984. To get a feel for his techniques, check out Rowell’s 1986 how-to book Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape.
3. Cristina Mittermeier (1966-)
Cristina Mittermeier is a marine biologist, activist, and photojournalist who has pioneered the field of ocean conservation photography. Her passion for ocean health and activism can be seen throughout her work, as well as through her dedication to supporting other photographers in their conservation goals. In 2005, Mittermeier founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), a platform for environmentally focused photographers; and in 2014, she co-founded SeaLegacy, an art collective working to turn the tides on oceanic destruction.
4. Ami Vitale (1971-)
Ami Vitale is a renowned photojournalist and documentary filmmaker who tells compelling stories about the wild creatures we share the planet with. Through her lens, Vitale has allowed us to witness such awe-inspiring feats as the release of pandas and white rhinos back into the wild, and has also helped spread awareness about human-wildlife conflicts around the globe. She’s received ample amounts of much-deserved recognition for her talents and her mission—most recently winning the National Geographic Photo of the Decade award in 2020.
5. Eliot Porter (1901-1990)
It was a failed book proposal for a collection of black and white images of birds that spurred Eliot Porter on to becoming the master of color photography he is known as today. He was one of the first professional photographers to shoot with Kodachrome, an early color film released in 1935, and his work is saturated both literally and figuratively with an appreciation for the many colors of nature and the creatures within it. Published works include American Birds: 10 Photographs in Color (1953) and In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World (1962).
6. Art Wolfe (1951-)
Perhaps the best way to encapsulate Art Wolfe’s career is to share a quote from William Conway, the former president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who once referred to Wolfe as a “prolific and sensitive recorder of a rapidly vanishing natural world.” Wolfe has spent his career devoted to capturing epic—and, in some cases, fast disappearing—landscapes across all of the continents, and has had his work published in more than 60 books, including Rainforest of the World and The Art of Photographing Nature. He is a fellow of the ILCP, and the former host of Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe, a public education television series.
Nature Photography Day
Held on June 15 and overseen by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), Nature Photography Day is an opportunity for photographers and everyday nature lovers to join together and share their enthusiasm for wilderness images. It’s an annual event designed to promote this field of photography and the vital significance of its role in advancing the cause of conservation efforts. It’s also the perfect day to seek out inspiration for your own projects.
How to Celebrate Nature Photography Day
Taking out your camera and shooting the outdoors is the best way. You can also further your education on naturalism and conservation photography, bring your camera along on a nature scavenger hunt, and browse through the work of famous photographers.
Even better: share all that you do and learn with others on your social media accounts, and help your friends, family members, and followers become just as knowledgeable as you are about nature photography and why it’s worthy of celebration.
More Than a Hobby, It Can Be Your Mission
It’s impossible to improve upon the natural beauty Earth offers us every day. But you can capture it in ways that inspire and move those who see your work. Perhaps even move them to take care of the only home we have.
The natural world could always use more people on her side. Start photographing nature, and join a long list of talents who have used their skills to teach others about the wonders of our planet.
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