Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Improve your nature photography

Paying attention to lighting can
improve your nature photos.

Article by Jennie Carlisle
Photos by Dick Cicone

There you sit, wrapped in a blanket in your easy chair. Outside you see a flash of color, a vibrant red cardinal at the window bobbing gently on a branch. Granted, the branch may be bare, or still clinging to winter’s brown leaves. But it’s a perfect picture-taking opportunity, one well worth leaving the warmth of your cozy nest to pursue.

These short, sometimes frost-covered days can result in some of the most dramatic photographs of the year. Because the sun is lower in the sky and because its light is often more diffuse, winter offers some of the best light conditions for nature photography.

Leafless trees allow light to penetrate deeply into forests, illuminating details on tree trunks that would be difficult to photograph in the summer. Moss appears to glow. The delicate green spears of woodland plants begin to poke through the soil. Wildlife is easier to spot.

Public gardens such as Duke Gardens are perfect places to begin your search for signs of spring and to hone your skill at photographing flowers. Look for the purple-flecked petals of the Lenten rose, which typically blooms early in February. Other blossoms to look for are Japanese apricot (this began blooming in December this season), witch hazel, cyclamen and daffodils.

Close to home, keep an eye on your bird feeders. Beyond the usual suspects, look for yellow-rumped warblers, dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows. These winter migrants make guest appearances in our area this time of year.
Play with depth of field to get different effects

Duke Gardens volunteer photographers Dick Cicone, Wendell Hull and Charles Twine offered some additional tips for taking better nature photographs.

For starters, take some time to appreciate your lighting conditions. Experiment with different lighting techniques. Try using side light to emphasize a subject’s form and texture, or explore backlighting by positioning yourself so that the sun appears behind a branch or tree trunk for a silhouette effect.

Also, it is essential to know your subject. If you take the time to notice the way a bird tenses its feathers just before flight, you’ll be able to click the shutter at the right moment for a stunning “take- off” image.

Use selective focus to make your subject appear to pop out from its surroundings. Get close to your subject, or use a telephoto lens, and keep part of your image out of focus. On a single lens reflex (SLR) camera, and on some point-and-shoots, you can also experiment with using your widest f-stop (or aperture size) in combination with a fast shutter speed to achieve the same effect.

On damp gloomy days, bring along a tripod so that you can keep the ISO (the film speed, or its digital equivalent) on your camera down and the quality of your images up.

For more tips to help you prepare for the rewards of photographing in all seasons, consider taking one of Duke Gardens’ many photography courses, including the forthcoming 3-class course “Photoshop for the Nature Photographer,” which runs Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning Feb. 11. Read more about this class and our Nature Photography Certificate Program at gardens.duke.edu. To register, call 668-1707. Also, consider joining the Durham Photography Club at Duke Gardens, which meets on the second Monday of each month. See the club’s Facebook page for more information.

Please see Duke Gardens' education & events page for full information about our offerings, or see a quick rundown on this blog post.
Adjusting your exposure time can yield dramatic results.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Jennie Carlisle is an events assistant at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Dick Cicone is a Duke Gardens volunteer photographer.

This column first appeared in the Feb. 4 Durham Herald-Sun.

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