Environmental photography aims to tell a story by connecting an image with the natural world. You can find it in many photographic niches, including portraits, wildlife, and nature photography. As the world focuses on environmental concerns, this style of photography conveys a strong message.
Whether you’re a novice or have some experience under your belt, getting into environmental photography is accessible. This guide will outline everything you need to get started shooting incredible photos that tell a compelling story about the environment around you.
What is Environmental Photography?
Technically, any photographs of the environment around you can be considered environmental photography. This is why it overlaps with other genres, specifically portrait, landscape, and wildlife photography. What sets a good environmental photograph apart from others is how compelling the story behind the shot is.
Inspirational environmental photography comes from conveying a message that addresses a specific issue while remaining meaningful. For example, environmental photography is perfect for conservation efforts since it can be used to raise awareness on subjects like climate change.
Since you can incorporate the theme into other genres, it is a really powerful photographic niche that can grab the attention of multiple audiences. Historically, photographers took environmental images to showcase the beauty of nature. It is now used to educate people and draw attention to human activities on top of that.
Influential Environmental Photographers
Ansel Adams was one of the most influential environmental photographers in history. He was an American photographer and played a significant role in the evolution of environmental photos. Adams is known for his extremely sharp black and white photos of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks.
At the time the areas he was photographing were remote and far out of the reach of any regular person. Many of the areas had never been visited by modern-day people. Those photographs helped lay the foundation for the current conservation laws for those national parks.
Today, you can find an environmental photographer like Antonio-Aragón Renuncio and his famous image of the child sleeping in a house that has been destroyed by coastal erosion in Ghana. The message in the image is that the rising sea levels in West African countries are forcing inhabitants to abandon their homes and try to establish a life elsewhere. Contrary to Ansel Adams and his natural images, this image portrays a sense of resilience and adds perspective to a current issue.
The Uses and Benefits of Environmental Images
An upwards popularity trend can be seen as environmental issues become more prominent in the public eye. However, returning to the roots of this photography niche will show you that there are various benefits, both for your portfolio and the natural world.
Shows Environmental Issues
This is the common definition that most associate an environmental photographer with, and for a good reason. It is a potent piece of the proverbial formula used to push a movement forward, in this case, the fight against climate change.
The flexibility lies in how you figure out the messaging for your photograph. For example, Ansel Adams used his photography to instill the image of natural beauty to help conservationist efforts to an effective degree.
Alternatively, you could show an image of a clear-cut or dry river bed. In the end, you’re showing the impact on the environment in your images, both of which are thought-provoking and provide conviction.
All photographers are looking to improve their craft, amateur photographers even more so as they discover their rhythm and define their style. Capturing images is driven by a desire to push oneself, and an easy way to do that is by adding to their Instagram feed.
As a landscape-focused photographer myself, I still feel the satisfaction of completing a journey for a specific photograph. I’m not looking to be a photographer of the year, but I want to improve my photos every year.
Regardless, picking up environmental photography can be a creative outlet without you having to be an advocate necessarily. The important thing is that you’re getting outside and exploring what nature has to offer.
The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies strongly to this shooting style. A photograph can be a direct visual link to the status of a natural habitat. This is particularly handy for an environmental issue that may have repercussions years down the road, such as an oil or chemical spill.
For example, monitoring a prescribed forest burn with photographs over time visually represents the aftereffects, including plant growth and animal migration patterns. If you’re a local photographer, reaching out to conservation efforts in your area to lend your skills is a great way to make contacts while learning environmental photography.
How to Shoot Environmental Photography
If you’re a landscape, portrait, or wildlife photographer, you might also consider yourself an environmental photographer. However, you may be surprised that it falls on a broad spectrum of different sub-niche categories. Remembering to tell a story about the environment around you should be at the core of what you’re trying to accomplish.
Unlike portrait photography, where you focus on the person, environmental portraiture bridges the gap between the scene and the subject. This is an incredibly powerful tool in the climate change fight since it shows the impact of environmental issues on human beings.
Using a 35mm lens gives you a wider perspective of the scene. Not only will you catch the emotion of your subject, but you’ll be able to see the surrounding environment and its impact. This combination contributes greatly to the story-telling aspect that creates those powerful photographs we love.
Cultural traditions are another great example of storytelling in environmental photography. Many countries rely on the techniques passed down from the older generation. The majority of these pictures include the natural surroundings to give context.
For example, the cultivation of plant life is different everywhere you go. Photographing a farmer harvesting his field with machinery portrays a very different image than a farmer tending their field by hand in the sweltering heat.
Conservation of an area starts by looking at past environmental data and extrapolating it to see trends in the future. Photographing a local area over time can highlight important information such as population changes, environmental degradation, and other natural phenomena through direct visual representation.
Shooting your photos from the same vantage point is an effective tactic to capture the history of a location. This is done by visiting the same spot multiple times over the years. The interesting thing is you’ll also become familiar with the landscape, being able to pick out any changes in the area, making you a research instrument. This insight into the land will help you effectively tell the story in your image.
Marine and underwater photography have their section because what happens under the waves is vast compared to what’s on the land. Unfortunately, whatever happens on land can find its way into our waterways. An example of this effect can be seen in photographs of toxic algal blooms that threaten to suffocate underwater life due to runoff from local agriculture and other factors.
Documenting what’s happening underwater with the local flora and marine wildlife takes a lot of skill and expensive equipment. However, raising awareness of the impact of the climate crisis on our oceans can help lead to a better environment. Additionally, it’s an entirely new world that many don’t have the luxury of exploring.
Using the Right Gear for Environmental Photos
Creating effective photographs with inferior gear can lead to problems conveying your message properly. Luckily, technology has advanced so that even a smartphone can capture incredibly detailed photos. Most will still opt for a DSLR or mirrorless cameras, both great options for environmental shots.
Here are some gear considerations for the budding environmental photographer:
- Tripod or monopod
- Remote shutter release
- 35mm lens
- 18-24mm for wide scenes
- Neutral Density filters (if you’re shooting during the day)
- A camera backpack that can hold items aside from cameras (snacks, hiking gear, etc.)
You might want to consider a drone for its aerial photographic viewpoint. If you’re interested in shooting large areas with a significant environmental impact, then a bird’s eye view is key to conveying a good story.
Everyone’s kit is going to be different based on personal preferences. However, the strategy for what you bring should remain the same. Packing for a trip outdoors involves ensuring that your gear is safely protected and that you are comfortable carrying it.
Ethics in Photographing the Natural Environment
Our environment can be fragile, and your presence could disturb a balance if you aren’t careful. Here are some ways to leave no trace other than the photos you take.
- Pack out what you pack in.
- Be respectful and considerate of local laws and regulations.
- The welfare of the environment should be above personal publicity.
- Learn about your surroundings to accurately portray the scene.
- Avoid organizations that knowingly harm habitats.
- Be as transparent as possible with your work.
Photography has a lot of power, and your ability to influence the thoughts of others needs to be for their benefit. If you choose to photograph environmental issues, it’s wise to understand the situation thoroughly and collaborate positively with other professionals to get the right message out.
Tips to Help You Shoot Inspirational Environmental Photographs
Finding that perfect shot of a natural environment takes skill, dedication, and probably some photos you won’t approve of. Although, if you want to photograph for National Geographic, these are some factors you’ll want to address. To help you along your journey, here are some tips to inspire you to crank out some beautiful images.
1. Tell A Story Compositionally
Placement of your subject and environment is important when bringing awareness to something like environmental problems. Using a technique such as the rule of thirds can help you place points of interest within your shot.
The rule of thirds is simply a 3×3 grid divided evenly and then shown as an overlay of your scene. All DSLR and mirrorless cameras should have this feature, as well as high-end smartphones.
There are 4 intersecting points in the grid, which our eyes are naturally drawn to. Placing objects or people into these intersecting points will help you keep the viewer engaged. This technique also gives you much space to include the environment around your subject.
2. Try Local First
Keeping it close to home is usually easier than going out and spending large amounts of money to travel. The large vistas and impressive cities are important, but everyone shoots those images. Chances are your local area may not have nearly as much exposure as a larger area.
Building your brand or image is important as a photographer, and getting lost in a sea of other talents can be demotivational. Staying local enables you to interact with other community members to raise awareness for whatever you advocate.
3. Don’t Over Edit
If you’re looking to showcase the natural world in all of its beauty, then editing your photos too much is the worst thing you can do to it. Now I’m not saying you can’t do it; however, environmental photographers are looking to show the environment as it is and not what is in their imagination.
Keeping your camera settings as clean as possible (meaning the scene is properly exposed to the subject) is the easiest way to avoid lengthy editing sessions. If you feel more comfortable using your camera’s automatic or semi-automatic settings, stay within those bounds if the situation requires it.
Environmental photography is a versatile niche since it bridges the gap between different verticals such as wildlife, portrait, travel, and landscape genres. Being respectful and transparent is important for any photographer, but especially one who chooses to tell a story about the natural world.
Check out our article on the best times to take pictures outdoors to help you take advantage of the natural light around you.