100611 autumn hikers-3.jpg

A woman takes a photograph in a field in autumn.
Photo by MDC Staff, courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation.

Nature photography generally falls into two categories: landscape and wildlife. Both require different equipment and involve different techniques.

While you don't need thousands of dollars of equipment to take decent nature photos, equipment does matter. It is unlikely that you will be able to take great nature photos, particularly wildlife photos, with your smartphone.

Landscape Photography

This category is probably the most accessible to the amateur photographer. It doesn’t require as much specialized equipment as wildlife photography, and landscapes don’t move around, so they are much easier to catch!


To take a good landscape photo, the only equipment you need is a decent camera with good resolution and a good lens. While it is possible to capture good landscape photos with a point-and-shoot camera, it is important to have a camera with adjustable settings, such as shutter speed and aperture, to improve your chances of success. Adjustable settings allow you to select a small aperture to maximize your depth of field, or select a fast shutter speed to minimize wind movement, or slow shutter speed to emphasize the movement of water in the scene or similar effects.

Cameras with interchangeable lenses or zoom lenses are also helpful, but if you only have one lens, the best choice is a wide-angle lens. The only other piece of equipment that is very helpful, though not essential, is a tripod, which will help you increase your shutter speed and aperture options.

Scene, Light, and Composition

The key elements to a successful landscape photo are interesting scene, light, and composition. The first is obvious. Presumably, you are taking the photo because you see a particularly special or beautiful scene that you want to capture. Light is less obvious but equally important. In fact, with the right light, a scene that is somewhat ordinary and mundane can be transformed into something special and beautiful.

Most of the best landscape photos are taken within an hour or less before or after sunrise or sunset. Photographers call this the golden time, and the quality of light created by these times of day greatly enhances a scene's drama and detail. The interplay between light and shadow becomes richer, textures are enhanced, and the light takes on an inviting golden quality.

Composition — what to include in the frame, and where to position it — can be tricky. We tend to concentrate on just the center of the frame, and we often overlook what is going on around the edges, which can include distracting details. An important rule of photography is to “fill the frame,” to include only that which is important. For example, if you are shooting a portrait, you want to get close and fill the frame with the subject's face. You don’t want to shoot so loosely that extraneous objects become a distraction. The same thing applies to landscape photography. Look over the whole scene captured in your viewfinder. If you see something that detracts from the scene and the feeling and mood you are trying to convey, crop it out. Change your shooting angle or the focal length of the lens.

Many of the most successful landscape photos include a strong foreground element that guides the eye into the scene but doesn't dominate it. This could be a flower, or a small waterfall, or any number of other things. The wide-angle lens helps with this, as it tends to emphasize things in the foreground. Use the rule of thirds when composing a landscape shot with a strong foreground element. Imagine your frame is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The best place to position strong foreground elements and other key elements is at the four intersections created by those imaginary lines. In other words, you don’t want your strong anchoring elements to be centered in the frame.

Wildlife Photography

Good wildlife photography requires equal bits of luck and preparation. You don’t need a lot of specialized equipment, but it is really essential that you have one good, big, telephoto lens. Most wildlife is shy and will not allow you to get very close to it. Even with a long lens, many people are surprised at how close they still have to get to their subject in order to “fill the frame.” Using a blind, vehicle, or some other kind of cover to hide yourself, and keeping as still as possible will improve your chances of getting close to your subject matter.

Choosing and Using Telephoto Lenses

Long telephoto lenses and long zoom lenses can vary widely in price and size. You can have two lenses that are identical in focal length (magnification factor) but one of them may be three times the size and three or more times the cost of the other. This is because of two main things. The larger lens has a larger maximum aperture, which will allow you to shoot in lower light conditions and/or use a faster shutter speed, which is important for stopping the movement of wildlife subjects. The larger lens also likely has better optical quality. There may be nothing wrong with the smaller, cheaper lens, but you just need to understand its limitations. Using a tripod can help.

Do Your Homework and Network With Others

While luck plays a large role in wildlife photography, most successful wildlife photographers spend a lot of time researching their subjects. They learn the habits and behaviors of their subjects, including preferred habitats and foods. This helps them maximize their chances of success by putting themselves in the right places and at the right times. . They also network with other nature photographers and enthusiasts who share notes about sightings of certain wildlife.