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NATURE’S VIEW: Know Your Subject

By August 31, 2013March 1st, 2024No Comments


by Jim Clark

Welcome. What an honor it is to share with other NANPA members my love for nature and nature photography through this column. As the title attests, my columns will focus on techniques you can use in the field to capture images that convey a true sense of place. After all, the joy of nature photography begins with our time in the field. Without nature, there is no nature photography.

What makes nature photographers unique in the world of photography?  It boils down to three words: knowledge of nature. The more you know and understand nature, the better you become as a nature photographer. I guarantee it!

Folks attending my workshops soon realize I am a naturalist first and photographer second. I begin our field sessions with a tailgate session about the ecology of the location along with a bit of natural history about some of the wildlife we might photograph.  When equipped with this information, the students can be ready to capture a defining moment.

My fascination for nature started during childhood growing up in southern West Virginia. My desire to learn about nature sharpened my skills in identifying plants and animals. I learned about the phenology of wildflowers and life cycles of the wildlife around my home. This insatiable thirst for learning all things nature continues to this day.

But it’s not just me who feels this way. As a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine, I interviewed many of the world’s best nature photographers: Joel Sartore, Art Wolfe, Jack Dykinga, Theo Allofs, Elizabeth Carmel and Brenda Tharp, to name a few. Many of them were nature lovers long before they ever picked up a camera. One piece of advice was repeated in each of the interviews: The more you understand nature, the better you become as a nature photographer and the more you will enjoy those days in the field. Take it from these extraordinary photographers, be both a naturalist and a nature photographer.

This recent image of an eastern amberwing skimmer is an example of how understanding what it is we are photographing can help us capture a great image. In taking time to learn about the identification, behavior and natural history of dragonflies, I discovered that the amberwing hovers inches above the water’s surface and perches horizontally on the tips of vegetation near the shoreline. With this information and through my field observations the previous day, I found the perfect location for photographing a moment in the life of this beautiful inch-long dragonfly.

Nature photographers know when to chase a moment and when to anticipate one and this comes about by understanding the subject or landscape. Knowledge of nature separates you from the pack and defines you as a true nature photographer.

Be a naturalist first, photographer second. I guarantee your images will be much more appreciated and welcomed by your audience. Oh yeah, you’ll have more fun, too!

A past NANPA president, Jim Clark is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine and nature photography instructor for the Marine Science Consortium at Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. To learn more, visit Jim’s website at , blog at or visit him on Facebook.

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