Ten Myths About Nature Photographers – Part 1

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

Myth 1: Serious Nature Photographers Shoot in Manual Mode

Photography Instructor:  “What does the ‘M’ setting on your camera represent?”
Student: “It stands for manual.”
Photography Instructor: “Yes it does, but what ‘M’ really stands for is ‘Master’; once you learn to use manual mode you will be the master of the camera!”

Oh puleeeeze! In this case ‘M’ stands for moron!

When a student is taught to use manual, he most often has no idea why or what he’s doing. He twiddles the aperture and shutter speed dials until the light meter returns an average or ‘proper exposure’. Instead of thinking in advance of the creative effects aperture and shutter speed provide, and what the photographer wishes for a given image, the shooter is just turning the dials willy-nilly to get an exposure. Sound familiar? It’s hard to be the master of anything without first understanding, one by one, what aperture, shutter speed and ISO do to the look of your photo.

The vast majority of creative nature photographers we know use aperture and shutter priority modes instead of manual. A creative photographer purposely picks an aperture for a specific effect (aperture priority mode) and the camera automatically picks a corresponding shutter speed for proper exposure. Or the creative photographer picks a shutter speed effect (shutter priority) and the camera automatically picks an aperture for proper exposure. The key here is that the photographer tells the camera what aperture or shutter speed effect she wants. The camera, like a good slave, does the rest! Now that is ‘mastery’. If the shooter does not like the exposure recommended by the camera, she can simply lighten or darken the picture using exposure compensation. Now the photographer is truly the creative boss of the camera!

Of course, there is a time and a place for using manual mode. For example, we use it when making panorama stitches to make sure each picture in the series is exposed exactly the same for easier blending in post-production software. But even in manual mode a specific aperture or shutter speed setting is chosen first and then we manually dial in the other variable for the exposure we want. The best way to master your camera is to learn the effects of aperture using aperture priority mode and the effects of shutter speed using shutter priority mode. For both aperture and shutter speed there are really only three different ‘creative effects’ you need to learn for each and we cover those in our Photography Fundamentals eBook bundle.

©Darwin Wiggett - Aperture priority, what is the story you are trying to tell?

©Darwin Wiggett – Aperture priority – what is the story you are trying to tell?

Myth 2: Without Good Light, You’ll Only Take Bad Photos

Nature photographers have been told that the best light is during the golden hour, the light that occurs one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset because the light is warmer and softer than when the sun is burning bright high in the sky. And yes, photos made during this ‘magic light’ can be exquisite especially given subjects that look beautiful in this light. For many nature photographers, if there is no sunrise or sunset (such as an overcast day), then there is no point going out because the light is bad for good photos.

If you know anything about us here at oopoomoo, you know that our favorite saying is “There’s no such thing as bad light – just bad photographers”. We wrote an entire article about this myth and our strategies to deal with so-called bad light. No matter what the light you’re given, there’s always something that’ll look great in that light! Our job as photographers is to learn to see the opportunities in any lighting situation and to not shut out potentially great images due to silly rules.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Dreary boring light, crusty old snow... no point making a photo... or is there?

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Dreary boring light, crusty old snow… no point making a photo… or is there?

Myth 3: Photographers Who Shoot in Raw Format are More Advanced than Photographers Who Shoot in JPEG Format

The myth here is that advanced and professional photographers shoot Raw while amateurs shoot JPEG. Ha!

We know plenty of creative and professional photographers who shoot JPEG especially on assignment when there is a tight deadline to hand over the photos. Lots of wedding, portrait and journalism pros shoot JPEG and they do the most they can to get it ‘right in camera’. Fewer nature photographers shoot JPEG and we think it’s probably a good thing because many of them have no idea how to get a good capture in the camera! Shooting Raw gives nature photographers the flexibility to ‘fix’ mistakes made in exposure, lighting, white balance, framing and composition in post production. Shooting JPEG means they would have had to perfect the capture in-camera. Shooting JPEG is like shooting slide film: there is little room for error and you need to know what you are doing behind the camera. Many Raw shooters just massage the heck out their pictures in post-production to make the poorly captured images look better.

In our workshops when we give an assignment we make everyone shoot in JPEG format so that we can see what their true skills are behind the camera. Shooting in JPEG levels the playing field. Man, you should hear the complaining from the Raw shooters about having to shoot JPEG! And guess what, their lack of skill and thought behind the camera is clearly revealed when they are forced to hand over JPEGs straight from the camera. People used to shooting in JPEG format do much better work on our assignments than those who rely on the flexibility of Raw to fix their mistakes.

It takes more photographic skill to make a good JPEG capture than it does to shoot Raw. Don’t believe us? Then try shooting JPEG yourself. Would you show and share the JPEG photos you captured in the camera or does the idea of not being able to do post-production work on your images make you cringe? We discuss even more myths about Raw vs. JPEG in this post.

©Darwin Wiggett - Sam loves to watch Raw shooters squirm when they are forced to shoot in JPEG format!

©Darwin Wiggett – Sam loves to watch Raw shooters squirm when they are forced to shoot in JPEG format!

Myth 4: Real Nature Photographers Use a Tripod

Tripods allow photographers the flexibility to use any aperture or shutter speed they want and not introduce hand-held blur. To get the sharpest pictures that your camera and lens combination is capable of, you’ll need to use a sturdy tripod. As well, tripods allow you to make fine tweaks in composition not easily done when hand-holding. All in all, serious photography demands a tripod. Right? Well, we thought that too.

One time we had a workshop participant come on one of our offerings and during the introductions he said, “I don’t use a tripod, I know I am supposed to but I don’t, so please don’t bug me about it!”

“Hmmm… do we have some lessons to teach this guy!” we thought. Well, the lessons was for us! During the portfolio review we expected this guy’s photos to be lacking. Instead we were stunned by the creativity we saw. Don’t believe us? The person in question was Mark Wainer, go to his website to be amazed by what you can do without a tripod.

Another favorite example of creativity without a tripod comes from Michael Orton. Don’t be quick to pass judgement when you see someone hand-holding their camera!

©Darwin Wiggett - Can you judge a photographer by the tripod they use or don't use?

©Darwin Wiggett – Can you judge a photographer by the tripod they use or don’t use?

Myth 5 – Serious Photographers Shoot with Serious Gear!

Whenever people find out that we’re professional photographers, the first question we get is about the gear we own. Then they tell us that they are into photography too but need to buy a better camera because their current camera doesn’t take good enough pictures. When asked what camera they own, it’s usually newer and ‘better’ than the ones we are using! And so, no matter how often photographers hear “it’s not the gear, it’s how you use it”, nobody really believes it. The answer is always more megapixels, newer features, and the highest end cameras. During our recent trip to Antarctica almost everyone owned the most expensive top end camera models from Nikon, and Canon. And the vast majority of these people were running their cameras on fully automatic! They didn’t know aperture from Adam or shutter speed from Steve. How can you be creative if don’t understand the creative controls of your camera?

There’s a trend among many of our professional peers to ditch the big professional cameras in favour of smaller, lighter point-n-shoot or mirrorless cameras. All these cameras offer the flexibility of good image quality in a small size but with all the controls a creative photographer needs. As well, travelling with a small camera keeps your load light, makes you less conspicuous to theft or prying authority and keeps you flexible to capture great moments because you always have your camera with you. In the end, many of our peers feel more creative with small cameras than they do when they have to haul out the big guns. Owning the latest and greatest top end camera may get you ooh’s and aah’s from other camera geeks, but it’s doubtful your pictures will improve. Art comes from within. Invest in learning, practice and seeing before investing in gear.

©Darwin Wiggett - Great photos can be made with any gear; this one was made with a point-n-shoot digital camera.

©Darwin Wiggett – Great photos can be made with any gear; this one was made with a point-n-shoot digital camera.

See Ten Myths about Nature Photographers – Part II

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

44 Comments

  1. Al Dixon
    February 18, 2015

    Sam likes to see Raw shooters squirm by making them shoot jpg?? Huh… you don’t say?!?!? 😉

    Reply
  2. Rakesh Malik
    February 18, 2015

    Great article 🙂
    I like the idea of forcing people to shoot JPG instead of RAW. I did it the hard way, by learning to shoot slides on a Real Camera ™ (a view camera 😉 ) which is even more demanding than just shooting jpg, but I’m quite certain that the RAW images I capture are a lot better as a result of learning that discipline.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 20, 2015

      Master JPEG shooting and then you will be a better Raw shooter and really get the most out of your camera!

  3. Dave
    February 18, 2015

    Thank you for pointing out some of these things! Particularly number one. I used to listen to this one photography podcast, but got annoyed because the host pretty much insisted that you weren’t a real photographer unless you shot in M mode. Thing is this guy was a wedding photographer, so of course he had complete control over the lighting, the subjects and had plenty of time to meter the light and set the scene. Try doing that with nature or street photography!

    And your other points are right on the money as well.

    Reply
  4. Suzan
    February 18, 2015

    Shot my entire vacation on a D700 in JPG mode last year, and this year, invested in a Nikon P600 for my holiday cam. Giving my shoulders a break from the event/wedding season. I take great pics with it.

    Reply
  5. Dave Benson
    February 18, 2015

    The connecting thread…. there are no absolutes…

    thanks for the food for thought

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 20, 2015

      The only absolute is that there are no absolutes!

  6. Connie Quinton
    February 18, 2015

    Thanks for this part 1. I like that you two say it as it is. Your newsletters have very helpful and inspiring.

    Reply
  7. Dominic Byrne
    February 18, 2015

    Hallelujah with regard to point No.1 – this seems to be a never ending battle as some photographers will automatically consider you 2nd rate if you use Aperture or shutter priority. We pay good money for our cameras and 95% of the time they are smarter than we are so let them earn their keep. But I am a RAW shooter haha!! Great article as always – thank you

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 20, 2015

      Thanks Dominic… those of us letting the camera make decisions are not ‘lesser photographers’, we are just smarter to take charge of the creative control that matters most to the message we are trying to tell.

  8. Allison
    February 19, 2015

    Thanks for sharing…loved it

    Reply
  9. Ten Myths About Nature Photographers Pt 1 - Darwin Wiggett | Brian Snyder Photography
    February 19, 2015

    […] Today’s blog post is by a couple I have followed and learned from their articles over several years.  Click on the link to read their most recent post which is part 1 of Ten Myths About Nature Photographers. […]

    Reply
  10. Eric Fredine
    February 19, 2015

    I don’t conflate rules and preferences. I prefer using a tripod and shooting in manual mode, but I frequently make exceptions. I’ll shoot hand-held, especially when I’m feeling stale. Aperture priority with auto-ISO is great when shooting hand-held in dwindling light.

    I favour simplicity of gear – I rarely carry more than one lens anymore. I carry as little weight as possible even if I’m just walking out my door on an urban expedition.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 20, 2015

      Eric,

      Rules are made to be broken when you understand why the rules works and even more understand what it is you are trying to say with your images. You have always had your own unique voice in photography and so whatever method you chose to use if fine by me!

    • Eric Fredine
      February 20, 2015

      Thank you Darwin, that’s very kind.

      After our chats in the mountains I was inspired to further reduce equipment weight for mountain travel. I decided I liked the reduced weight set-up so much that I use it most of the time now!

  11. Karin De Winter
    February 19, 2015

    Haha, truely good piece ! It is not the camera, it is the photographer that creates the image. Seems like there are so many people relying on buying the latest stuff, only to find out that their photos are not up par, even if they use the best equipment. This means also, there is a lot of workshop giving opportunities for those that want to learn to use their most valuable tool, which is their eyes !

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 20, 2015

      Hi Karin,

      The problem is that people so believe that it is the gear that makes them a good photographer that they refuse to invest in learning to see and being an artist 😉

  12. Tom Kredo
    February 20, 2015

    The only reason you would shoot jpgs instead of raw is because you are in a class and they make you do it as an exercise. Yes it is harder, but so is shooting slide film, or standing on your head. To not take advantage of the capabilities of the camera to shoot raw would be wasting your money.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 23, 2015

      Take a picture in JPEG and then the same picture in Raw and process it as you see fit. If your processed Raw looks better and is more like your creative vision than the JPEG, then you are ready to shoot Raw. IF the JPEG looks better than your processed Raw, then you need to learn more post processing before you move from JPEG.

      We see people shooting with megapixels cameras like the Nikon D800 and then cropping the hell of the photo because they did a poor capture in the fild. We think that is a waste of money! A properly captured in-camera JPEG is better than a Raw that is a fraction of what the camera is capable of.

  13. Russ
    February 20, 2015

    Very interesting read. I think I’ll try shooting in jpeg for awhile. See how it works for me.

    Reply
  14. Richard Montemurro
    February 20, 2015

    Great article. It’s about time someone set the record straight.

    I have been taking photographs for many years and have had no real problems with ignoring the myths you debunk.

    I like shooting aperture or shutter speed preferred, not using a tripod, and recording jpegs. Doing so gives me the freedom to be creative.

    Reply
  15. DJ
    February 21, 2015

    Enjoying this article and looking forward to part 2.
    I’m not happy with my JPG images as they do not represent what I see. The composition, etc. tells the story, but the colors, etc. are not representative of the scene. What suggestions/recommendations can you provide for improving the in-camera settings so the JPG represents what is seen?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 23, 2015

      JPEGs are processed in the camera according to the settings (white balance, and picture style and contrast settings you chose). Some cameras have very punchy JPEGS (Canon) while other cameras have more neutral JPEGS (Panasonic). Experiment with your picture style settings. Try the same photo with ‘faithful’ picture style, then try ‘landscape’ picture style with the same composition. The differences will be amazing. Get out your manual and vary the processing factors in the camera to get JPEG settings that give you the look you like.

  16. Joel Pointer
    February 21, 2015

    Thanks for the article. No.1 was a bit preachy but overall a good read. I am looking forward to Part 2.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 23, 2015

      I wrote point 1 from a pulpit with my robe and sandals on!

  17. Al Kressler
    February 21, 2015

    The six worst words in digital photography are, “I can fix it in Photoshop”. Those of us who used slide film in our SRT-101’s and EOS-3’s very quickly learned to “get it right in the camera”, as every click cost us $0.50 to $1.00. Just because pixels are “free”, is no excuse to be cavalier about exposure. Slow down, think; what composition choices, and camera settings will give me the effect I desire?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 23, 2015

      Yes, slide shooting forced you to get it right in the camera – no chemical darkroom to fix things later either.

  18. Drama….Yesterday and Today | Wayne Nelson's Earth Images Blog
    February 22, 2015

    […] Ten Myths About Nature Photographers by Darwin Wiggett […]

    Reply
  19. Craig Taylor
    February 22, 2015

    Great article and I think it may have reset my opinion of manual mode. I shoot aperture or shutter priority mode but I learned using manual mode. So of course everyone else should too. (What’s that buzzer I am hearing???)

    I like to shoot in JPG once in a while because getting it right in camera forces me to slow down and think about what I am doing. Even better is shooting film because if I don’t get it right I’ve just wasted a frame.

    Reply
  20. annamrie parson-mcnamara
    February 25, 2015

    after reading part 2 today I wanted to come back and give some input about #3 of part one. ive been a photographer since being trained in ’76 by the US air force. so my long-term background is in the darkroom, with film, chemicals and prints. for the past 10 yrs I was unable to have much in the way of gear and haven’t “done” as much, photographically, as I would have liked… (maybe? maybe not, its ALL good!) anyway, I recently have been very fortunate to aquire a whole new line of gear, and since I didn’t have any OLD stuff to speak of.. I am VERY pleased with what ive gotton.
    AND I have a strong interest in HDR, have been doing a tiny bit of research and now a tiny bit of shooting, (waiting for winter to pass). Your number #3 has been a bit baffling to me as I totally agree that shooting raw (as EVERYONE SAYS YOU MUST ((nowdays)) is just a way to set myself up for hours and hours and then a few more… hours… LOL of post processing.
    in fact if I read the term “workflow” again I may puke.
    it was very nice to read some intelligent input on this topic. and to know that I have the talent and knowhow (should I choose to use it) to SHOOT what I want, close enough anyway, that I don’t need to always shoot raw.
    thanks! (O:

    Reply
  21. the Atkins film challenge | poodlewalks
    February 27, 2015

    […] is done in Adelaide’s summer heat and in the harsh, glaring summer light. So it challenges the myth of only taking photos in good light. This time round the day was very hot but overcast and the […]

    Reply
  22. Ann Nickerson
    February 28, 2015

    I really enjoy all your posts, thank you so much for introducing me to Mark Wainer and Michael Orton in this article, their work is beautiful and inspiring. I feel validated by your posts – I hate a tripod (one more thing to carry), prefer to shoot jpeg ( Way less processing time) and don’t have fancy equipment, yet I can still take photos that make me happy and capture what I related to at the time.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 28, 2015

      It is how you take photos or the gear you use but the results that count… too many photographers forget that photography is about expression.

  23. Jay Patel
    March 3, 2015

    Hmm…I must not be a real landscape photographer as I love to shoot with my iphone. 😉

    Reply
  24. Curso Fotografia Bruno
    August 18, 2015

    Darwin Wiggett, just fantastic your article, I have traveled a lot and part of my life I got my money photographing nature. The questions you putt here I listen hundreds of times.

    Reply
  25. Al Hart
    March 20, 2017

    Darwin es Sam:

    A while ago, I thought I had sent to you, some comments on your Myth #1 About Nature Photographers. I never saw any of it printed, and don’t know whether you ever received it. So, I’m sending my thoughts again because I feel strongly about the subject matter. If this is submission is a repeat, feel free to wash it, wax it, and burn it.

    I address your remarks about Aperture Priority metering vs. Manual metering. You say that the creative photographer merely picks a suitable aperture and and the camera automatically picks a corresponding shutter speed for proper exposure. Alternatively, you correctly note, the camera can be set to “Shutter Priority” and the camera automatically picks an aperture for proper exposure. You go on to say that if the shooter doesn’t like the exposure recommended by the camera’s meter, she can simply lighten or darken the picture using exposure compensation.

    Now I’m a shooter that has thrice visited lovely Alberta, but I never got to drink whatever you’re drinking! Humbug!, I say. Please consider this: Anybody interested in these matters at all, is a photographer (or should be) that routinely asks whether the camera’s metering should be relied upon or adjusted according to the tonality of the subject matter. Whether most or fewer than most images require modification of the metered exposure or fewer than most is, I suppose, a matter of what one likes to shoot, but let’s assume the reader does it lots of times.

    The Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority shooter, to enter her desired compensation, must seek out a separate control, an Exposure Compensation Control, and move her fingers or hand, to operate that third control.

    The Manual Exposure shooter already has his entered her aperture or shutter speed according to the subject matter, and now has his hand on the other control. In but one example, for a landscape, at a given ISO, she has entered an aperture for her desired depth-of-field, and her hand centers the meter by adjusting the shutter speed. Her hand is already on the shutter speed control, and being an astute shooter, she enters the desired compensation merely by using a shutter speed different from the one offered by the meter.

    No need to use a separate compensation control, no need to move the hand or even the fingers. An efficiency expert would be pleased with my thoughts, but what about real dyed-in-the-wool photographer

    Darwin? Sam? Can you tell me where I’m going wrong here?

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 24, 2017

      The creative photographer uses whatever tool they need to get the job done… our point is most photographers who espouse manual have no idea what they are doing. You sound like you are a rare exception!

  26. Al Hart
    March 24, 2017

    I think that was a compliment, so thank you. I’m embarrassed though, reading the submission and wondering whether I wrote it at 3:30 am or after I had had way too many cold ones. My editing skills were as feeble as my pictures. It’s a lot easier to talk a good game of photography than it is to make good pictures. You two, at least, have mastered both! -ah

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 26, 2017

      It was a compliment; you do sound like you have a great handle on manual even after a few cold ones 😉

  27. beats
    April 14, 2017

    I do not even know how I stopped up right here, however I believed this submit used to be great.

    I don’t recognise who you might be however definitely you’re going to a well-known blogger in case you aren’t already.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  28. al hart
    April 21, 2017

    Mr. Beats:

    I’m unsure as to why you want to know “who I might be,” but my name has been already sent as “al hart” and I’m the guy who thinks that M is really faster than A(a) or A(s). While I’ve admitted to talking a better game of photography than applying it, even Darwin agrees that in certain circumstances, the idea is valid. It’s one of my favorite subjects to argue about, so if you want to banter about exposure methods, write to al@w8vr.org. 🙂

    Reply

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