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Why Nature Photographers Need to Learn Photo Styling

By February 15, 2023February 16th, 2023No Comments
Vashon Island, Washington © RayPfortner

Fallen Big Laurel and Labrador Tea Blossoms, Whispering Firs Bog,
Vashon Island, Washington © RayPfortner

Speaking with Ray Pfortner

What the heck is “photo styling” and why should nature photographers learn it? To answer these questions, we turned to Ray Pfortner, a professional photographer, educator, and consultant with more than two decades experience as a photographer working with luminaries like Art Wolfe, agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service and as Director of Education at Seattle’s Photographic Center Northwest. Ray is leading a Super Session on photo styling at NANPA’s 2023 Nature Photography Summit in Tucson, Arizona, on Sunday, May 7, from 8 – 10:00 a.m.

Photo Styling

First, a definition. Photo styling is the process of selecting and arranging elements in a scene to create the intended look and mood for a photo. It’s almost always a major component of commercial photography, where specific colors, arrangements, lighting and props might be selected and staged, but it also has elements that a nature photographer can use to dramatically improve their photos.

Why should nature photographers learn photo styling?

Ray says that, “as nature photographers, with great perseverance we all seek that special moment that makes our work not simply derivative of what has been done before, that captures the glory of the moment before us to share for all time. Sometimes we travel far and wide to improve the odds of success. We shoot in the worst weather and at the craziest times of day to increase those odds.

“’Photoshopping’ has added unbelievably to our ways of increasing the odds of success in our quest.  Most nature photographers have embraced the power of editing to expand the options exponentially, resulting in more and more images like nothing ever seen before.

“There is another tool – and an often rather simple one – that very few nature photographers practice:  photo styling, re-arranging and arranging what is in front of our lens.  For many it requires a leap of faith not unlike editing in its early days.

“Some nature photographers have dabbled in photo styling out in the field.  Moving or removing an object in the frame.  Repositioning an insect or amphibian.  Perhaps even including an object brought from the home studio out in the field.  But few really embrace photo styling and its enormous potential – in the field and even in their home.”

Evolution Series © RayPfortner

The power of photo styling

“Photographers,” he continued “from studio and product to portrait and wedding, have long practiced photo styling and demonstrated the incredible power of the practice.  Many camera clubs have also explored photo styling for years with great success.

“Photo styling has the power to make our nature photographs one of a kind, to be more compelling than what we simply capture as is out there.  Rather than relying on chance and light and weather, we take control, we make the image our own. Photo styling also requires a key element – restraint – so as not to gild the lily, literally.  And of course it requires as always complete respect for the nature we are capturing.

“The styled image is a product of our own imagination, it often better tells the story we want to tell.  In the end photo styling makes for some of the most memorable, evocative and yes, even salable images, we can create.”

So, if you want your photos to better tell a story, more powerfully convey a mood, be more attractive to potential buyers, think about how photo styling can help. And sign up for Ray Pfortner’s Super Session at Summit! You and your photos will be glad you did!

NANPA’s 2023 Nature Photography Summit will take place at the Westin La Paloma Resort in Tucson, Arizona. The conference runs from Thursday, May 4 through Saturday, May 6, with optional field and classroom activities on May 3 and 7. Among those options are several Super Sessions, which are deep dives into specific topics, like photo styling, macro photography and other subjects. Super Sessions immerse you in the topic, drill down in greater detail, have time to provide examples and give you chances to put into practice what you are learning.

Already registered? You can add a Super Session (Field Trip, Portfolio Review, or anything else)! To add something or make changes to something you already registered for, contact us at 618-547-7616 or email us at  See you in Tucson!

Photo credit: Nancy Wing

Ray Pfortner has been photographing professionally for over 20 years – in New York City and the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest and Canada, Europe and Asia. On Vashon-Maury Island, his home in the Northwest, he is known for his Island landscapes captured in the magic of pre-dawn light and increasingly at night. Ray’s photographs are used to support the preservation of Vashon’s natural areas and historic sites with such groups as Keepers of Point Robinson, Preserve Our Islands, Vashon-Maury Island Chapter of the Audubon Society, Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association, and Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust. He is a member of the Waterworks Coop Gallery.