6 Steps to Better Nature Photography — Review of Rob Sheppard’s New Book

6-Steps-Paper-RevHere is a fine new print book (which contains a downloadable video component) by master photographer and teacher Rob Sheppard.  6 Steps to Better Nature Photography lives up to its name.  It’s not about technical basics, nor about postprocessing—there are any number of good books on the market (e-books as well as print) that cover those topics—but about six essential considerations for anyone who wants to improve their nature photography to be aware of, take to heart, and put into practice.

What is more basic, more essential to photography than light? And so Rob opens with light. A beginning photographer can be so focused (pun intended) on the subject that he or she is totally unaware of how the light—its presence, absence, quality—is affecting the scene. (It’s a trap into which even experienced photographers can fall.) Chase the light, yes, but cultivate an awareness of how it interacts with your subject. On the theory that a picture is worth 1,000 words, Rob provides three of his own stunning photographs from Acadia National Park as examples of how light at different times of day affects the subject and thus how the image is composed accordingly.

And indeed, composition is the second step Rob covers—specifically, how to go beyond relying on your zoom lens and standing in one spot, zooming in and out to vary your compositions.  Different kinds of lenses influence how the viewer perceives the difference between the foreground and background in a photo, and Rob wants to make you aware of this; he also points out that a macro lens isn’t your only choice if you wish to make close-ups. I remember Rob teaching this very effectively in an online course several years ago. It can be a complicated topic, and I think that the presentation of this “step” could have been improved a tad just by some tweaking of the layout and formatting.

Rob Sheppard cares deeply about the environment—not simply as a collection of photographic subjects but as a living thing, a divine creation; and not only the environment as a whole or as a general concept, but every individual facet of it, from a mountain to an insect or a tiny flower. This reverence (that really is the correct word) is what, more than anything else, informs his approach to his work and to teaching it. Thus in the third step more than anywhere else, about macro and close-up photography, his knowledge of nature, of the habits of living things, comes into play. First, you can’t get pictures of insects the way he does without knowing something about how that insect behaves. Second, whatever kind of postprocessing he does, the end result remains a photograph that tells you some kind of story or conveys some information about the subject – about its natural surroundings and/or its behavior. He doesn’t exploit his subjects as raw material for “digital art,” for example.  The many inserts headed “The Nature of the Photo” not only inform you about Rob’s subjects; they also inspire and challenge you to find out something about the subjects you’re likely to encounter in your neck of the woods.

Again, Rob’s reverence for his subjects inform step four, “Avoiding Boring Photos of Nature” (if you’ve ever read his “Nature Photography Manifesto,” available as an e-book, you’ll know what I mean). This alone is worth the price of the book. You could do worse than write some of them out on index cards and tape them up where you’ll see them regularly.

Rob has been evolving into a master black-and-white photographer and, in step five, shares the fruits of his experience by outlining general principles to keep in mind if you aim to create effective black-and-white images. In step six he covers practical information about something every photographer is going to encounter while out shooting – the weather.

Rob Sheppard presents himself as an experienced photographer who is passionately in love with his craft and eager to share from is knowledge and expertise with the reader. But he never comes across as a big-shot know-it-all. He’s still on a journey too; in fact, the first words in the book are “It’s a Journey.” That’s what makes him entirely credible and what instills complete confidence in you, the reader/learner.

6 Steps to Better Nature Photography includes a video course on composition. The URL is in the back of the book, and you can watch the segments or download them to watch when you want so you needn’t be online to take advantage.  The information is basic but essential and, as always, benefits from Rob’s gifts as a teacher “live” as well as in print. Click on the title of the book or on the image of the cover and you’ll get right through to the relevant page on Rob’s website.

New e-Book by Rob Sheppard

A Nature ManifestoRob Sheppard is a well-known name in nature photography. He has enjoyed an impressive career as editor of Outdoor Photographer, that indispensable Bible for all whose vocation or avocation is photographing the natural world, his photographs and writings (do check out his Nature and Photography blog) continue to inspire and delight all who are interested in this field, and he is a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher of online courses at BetterPhoto.com.

Rob has just published a new e-book, A Nature Photography Manifesto, and I urge you to visit his website to download it. A personal nature photography manifesto is precisely what this book is: Rob’s philosophy about the relationship between nature and photography and how this informs his approach to his nature photography. But–and here’s why I strongly recommend that you download the book–he goes beyond that: he challenges you to examine your own relationship between nature and your photographic approach to it, and to ask yourself where you may be wanting.

Rob challenges us to go “beyond pretty pictures.” The trap inherent in photographing nature is that it’s relatively easy, with even a decent point-and-shoot and a basic knowledge of composition, to go out and get pretty pictures of nature scenes, some iconic and some not. But nature deserves better. The world deserves better. How can you go beyond the cliche shots, the merely pleasant pictures, to craft images that express your own unique relationship with nature and thereby make the viewer really sit up and take notice? This is what’s urgently needed today. People have an innate need for and a right to beauty. We can provide this through our photography. Further, the natural world depends on us to get our pictures out there–images that produce that instant “awe and wonder” reaction–to show the world what’s at stake, what we have to lose, if we don’t take proper care of the natural environment.

A Nature Photography Manifesto will probably make you uncomfortable; it did me. Which is as it should be. Discomfort is a major factor that propels us to grow, or to be healed of something that’s niggling us. But Rob doesn’t just leave you with that niggling feeling: four of the chapters end with “Consider these ..” — points for you to reflect on; questions or observations for you to ponder. Go back to these questions and points when you have time, perhaps even keep a notebook to write your responses. You’ll end up approaching nature photography with a strengthened sense of your own unique potential contribution to this increasingly important art (or, dare I say it, documentary) form.