Shooting Trash: Become a Better Nature Photographer with These Expert Tips

The trick to shooting great photos is in shooting lots of photos. Most of them will be trash; don’t let that get you down. Work on your skills instead.

Reader Contribution by Andrew Weidman
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by Andrew Weidman

Photography has a deep, dark secret — one people don’t realize, especially when they look at other photographers’ work, whether in a gallery or on Instagram. It’s one of those best-kept secrets because…there’s no secret. It’s just that no one thinks about it.

So here it is: Everyone shoots trash. Everyone. I shoot trash. You shoot trash (yes, I said it). Anyone who picks up a camera shoots trash. Who’s your favorite photographer? Guess what? They shoot trash too! They just don’t share the trash shots. That’s all. If you’re not shooting trash, you’re not shooting photos.

Advice for Improving Your Skills

The trick to shooting great photos, National Geographic-quality photos, is in shooting lots of photos. Most of them will be trash; don’t let that get you down, or worse, stop taking photos. My photography didn’t begin to improve until I made a New Year’s resolution to take at least five photos a week, no matter what the conditions. If the weather was horrible all week, I tried shooting indoors or moody outdoor shots. If I could only shoot at night, I tried shooting interesting lights. The point is, I shot lots of trash.

The second half of the shooting trash equation is in looking at the shots and figuring out what worked, and why — and figuring out what didn’t work, and why.

You can usually look at a photo and know if it’s good or not, even if you don’t know why. Study each one you like to figure out what you like about it, then figure out what ruins it for you. Remember what you noticed the next time you’re out shooting, and see what you can change.

You can also study the pictures of other photographers you admire. Just remember: you’re only seeing their best, not their trash.

This shot is not one of the author’s favorites.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

This shot is worth sharing.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Why Your Photos Aren’t Great

The three biggest problems with trash photos are exposure, focus, and composition. If you can spot them, you can begin improving your good shots-trash shots ratio. Figure out which one of the three you need to work on first, and go from there.

Exposure

You would think that exposure would give most beginning photographers the most trouble. Thanks to a feature on many modern cameras, that’s not often the case, at least not at first. That feature is automatic mode. Automatic mode sounds like a great thing — just point the camera at your subject and let the onboard computer do all the calculating for you.

After all, why not? It’s not going to miss a detail or be overwhelmed with panic or adrenalin, right? The problem is that it also doesn’t allow for creative expression. Auto mode doesn’t care if you think that scene would look better dark and moody; it “knows” the shot is underexposed. (Hint: dark and moody can be better than “properly exposed,” it all depends on the subject.) Auto mode becomes a crutch, preventing you from learning proper exposure and when to over- or under-expose for those dramatic breath-catching shots.

This shot was overexposed.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

This shot was properly exposed.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Skip the Auto and watch your light meter (it’ll be located somewhere in your viewfinder) until exposure starts making sense. And don’t worry. Exposure has only three moving parts: exposure time, aperture opening, and ISO, or how sensitive your sensor is to light. Here’s a quick breakdown of each.

Exposure time is how long your camera’s shutter is open.

Aperture is how wide or narrow the opening of your lens is, controlling how much light can pass through it.

ISO is just how sensitive your camera sensor is to the light. 100 ISO is good for full sun, 1600 is good for heavy clouds or freezing action. Above 2000 is fine for low light like night skies, but it can cause digital “noise.” And always double check your exposure. Make it a habit.

A noise, high-ISO image.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Focus

After exposure, focus is the next big spoiler of photos. This is a hard topic for beginning photographers to accept. Either a photo is in focus, or it isn’t. As much as you may want your super-rare shot of a green heron eating a crawfish to be a great shot, if the focus is soft, it’s soft. (I still share some of those shots on occasion; I just can’t help it.)

People look at eyes first, so that’s where you need to focus. Get in the habit of focusing and refocusing as you shoot, and make full use of autofocus. Learn exactly where your camera autofocus points are and leverage them to your best advantage. At the same time, learn to recognize when to focus manually, like when you’re shooting through leaves or branches.

The focus is soft in this photo, despite having a good subject.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Better focus going on for this photo of a similar bird.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Composition

Composition is a lot harder to pin down. That’s how you frame your shot, how your photo tells its story. That one is subjective and while there are rules and guidelines — like the Rule of Thirds or Fibonacci Whorls, Leading Lines and Frames in Frames — it’s really all about what you like or don’t like.

You can develop your composition skills by studying other peoples’ photos and recognizing what you like or don’t like. Just remember not to compare them to your shots. After all, you aren’t seeing their trash, just their good shots. You are seeing all of yours, trash and treasure. And there is treasure there; you just have to find it and polish it.

Add to all that, if you’re shooting wildlife, they don’t often wait for you to snap the shutter. I have enough shots to publish a Field Guide to Branches Recently Vacated by North American Birds! Sometimes the trash you shoot isn’t your fault.

Good bird, bad composition with too much clutter.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Better composition.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Get out and shoot. Take chances. Get creative. Then take some time and see what worked, and what didn’t work. Then go out and shoot some more. I guarantee you’ll shoot more and more treasure as time goes on.

That new year’s resolution I shared earlier? The one to shoot at least five photos a week? These days I regularly shoot 500 a week. Five hundred. Sometimes twice that. How many do I share? On a good week, maybe 25. On a bad week, maybe five. Or none at all, if all I shot was trash. And that’s OK.

Next time we’ll talk about what to do with those 500 photos a week.

Auto-exposure would never have delivered this shot, one of the photographer’s favorites.

Photo by Andrew Weidman

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Penn. Follow him on Instagram at Andrew Weidman Photography or on Facebook at Andrew Weidman.

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