I live in Suburbia, plain and simple. The streets in my Southern California town have been plotted out in a grid formation, with strip malls on most corners and tract homes that resemble one another. Besides the beach being only a few miles away (my favorite part of living here), many of the natural elements around me have been placed there by human hands, rather than from Mother Nature herself. Even still, I don’t feel deprived of the beauty and wonder of nature. In fact, it’s likely because of where I live that I appreciate every wild thing that grows here, no matter how it came to be.
One may not consider wandering the perimeter of my house or walking the dogs around my neighborhood exactly a nature walk, but I beg to differ. I’ve always subscribed to the idea that inspiration can be found in the most unlikely and even mundane places—for goodness sakes, I’ve written books about it—and seeking out photo-worthy elements of the great outdoors in my own backyard (and beyond) is at the top of my creative to-do list.
It probably helps that we don’t aspire to a well-manicured or perfectly coiffed landscape style. On the contrary, we let our yard grow a little more wild and free than some. Reflecting on it, I recognize that it’s no accident that we let things go, or perhaps better said, grow. With a deep love and appreciation for the beauty and wonder of nature, we choose to surround ourselves with sprawling vines, overgrown trees and overgrown groundcover. This is something that, I must admit, helps in my quest not only to cultivate more nature in my everyday life, but also capture it in my photographic work.
Over the years, I’ve become totally tuned in with my surroundings here, and I realize there are some specific ways I’ve honed my nature explorer skills. They’re the kinds of things that have enabled me to better focus on the constant evolution of my immediate surroundings in a way that not only enhances my life, but enables me to capture the beauty of the natural world without even having to leave my neighborhood. I’ve identified a few of the key points that can enable you to elevate your own backyard images from blah to beautiful.
In any photography genre, I’ve always believed that observation comes long before a great picture is taken. I have a window box in my kitchen that allows me to look upon our backyard every time I’m at the sink. It’s gotten me into a habit of observing a unique world that transpires back there. Watching, waiting, wondering and watching some more help me to better understand, and even predict, what might be coming next. Patience and practice aren’t just virtues in expressive portraiture. They’re equally invaluable, if not more so, when it comes to shooting nature photography. The great outdoors is an ever-changing, living, breathing subject that demands our close attention. Constantly being in observation mode helps me to anticipate when a perfect shot may present itself. Pay close attention to what goes on around you (even when you’re not a participant), and you’ll discover all kinds of fresh photo opportunities you may have missed before. The more you observe, the more aware you become.
I first realized how important audio cues benefited my backyard photography when I discovered the first hummingbird nest in our magnolia tree. I knew that if I wanted to shoot the progression of the baby birds, I had to know when the mother bird was on her way back to the nest after her frequent food forages. I not only learned her rhythm (as far as timing), but I could hear her coming. The activity of the local birds has become something I’ve been more and more in tune with since then. It’s as though all of my senses have had to become more heightened. Lucky, for me, there have been a number of birds that have chosen to nest in our yard. Even beyond the photographic, bird watching has been and likely always will be a highlight for me. Challenge yourself to use senses beyond just your sight. It’s amazing what you can discover just by listening.
In Southern California, we don’t get severe seasonal shifts, but there are still changes in the landscape, the light and the sky. Even the slightest shifts in weather can totally transform a photographic opportunity. The “same old tree” in your backyard, for instance, can look different in the winter than it does in the summer and can offer a fresh new perspective (and photograph) with each picture you take. And, as I’ve paid closer attention to how images even can subtly differ from season to season, I’ve taken note that there’s no more breathtaking coastal sunset than those that come with our mild, but beautiful SoCal winters. I’ll dare to peg spring as the most active of seasons, boasting rapid growth that seemingly comes from nowhere, with blossoms, blooms and an explosion of color. The entire progression from first determined sprout to proud flower to final wilt—every day can bring something new and inspiring to shoot, and that goes for every month of the year.
TIME OF DAY
There’s not a photographer I know who isn’t aware of the importance light plays in photography. Because it’s a subject that’s always on my mind, I’m often surprised by how many people don’t really take note of the evolution of light in their immediate surroundings. When seeking out prime nature shots, it’s key to notice how the movement of the sun (or lack thereof) changes the surrounding landscape, depending on the given hour. For example, when I walk my dogs in the morning, the neighborhood looks totally different than when I walk them at night. Everything about the light affects our subjects—its intensity, its direction, its position in the sky, etc. What’s nice about shooting close to home is that you have the luxury of testing and trying different approaches of shooting at different times of the day. Once you know the kind of effect you’re after, you can wait until the light is exactly how you want it before you shoot.
Although I’ve found photo-worthy elements close to home, that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things (key word there is “things”) that I don’t want to include in my photographic frame. We had a lot of play equipment in our yard when my kids were young, as a perfect example. We have patio furniture, power lines, soccer balls, a garden hose and even dogs that I often have to shoot around. And that’s not even the half of it. I’ve learned how to conveniently and creatively work around the more unsavory parts of the yard by implementing strategic cropping techniques. Interestingly enough, I’ve often stumbled onto some highly effective cropping options that I may not have dared to try if I had another option. Never underestimate the artistic power of a unique and compelling crop. And, if cropping can’t help (those power lines aren’t going anywhere), you can just move to another spot. Shooting clouds or sunsets from the front yard (or from the neighbor’s front yard sometimes) makes for much more sweeping skyscapes than shooting from my backyard.
SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD
Beyond merely getting creative with your cropping, there are other types of photographic manipulation you can use to remove (or at least minimize) otherwise unavoidable background distractions. Not only can it keep the focus on the part of the image that matters the most, it blurs out par
ts that don’t matter at all. Keep in mind the best part, however: When using a shallow depth of field to calm visual disturbances, you may yield a number of other desirable outcomes in regard to shooting nature photography. The best-case scenario is when the shallow depth of field doesn’t just “hide” something you don’t really want in your frame, it actually improves your overall image because it makes the parts that are out of focus a more interesting, integral part of the image as a whole. Shooting outside, in nature, with a shallow depth of field can be creatively inspiring and rewarding, especially when you learn how to harness the power of light and learn to use beautiful bokeh to enhance your wonderfully wild images.
TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com.