5 Photo Tips from a Conservation Photographer and Nature Junkie

Photographer and filmmaker Morgan Heim has ventured from Colorado mountaintops to Southeast Asian coastlines, capturing images that build connections between the wild and familiar. That’s why, when we started searching for tips on improving our outdoor photography skills, calling Morgan was a no-brainer. Today, she’s providing us with some tips that range from key basic photo techniques to more cause-oriented approaches to outdoor photography.

A fresh coat of snow, and my Dutch Shepherd Javier, add that little extra something to an already breathtaking scene at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

“My hope is that there’s at least one gem for everyone,” Morgan says, “No matter your skill set, camera preference, or reasons for sharing your visions of the world.”

Without the close-up arch in this shot of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, the distant formations and skyline would’ve looked flat, small and indistinct. But by finding a foreground element, it helps frame the scene as well as create a more three-dimensional look to the photo. This scene was also shot at dusk, rather than the oft-depicted sunrise shot. I used a flashlight to light paint some of the rocks in the foreground. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

1. Get a little bit closer now.

We’ve all done it. We’re so overwhelmed and in awe of the spectacular grandeur of nature that in our magical sunset-filled haze, our brains chant, “Take picture now. Must share awesomeness.”

When we get home though, the photo doesn’t quite measure up to what we experienced. It looks flat. Everything looks little and far away. There is simultaneously too much and not enough going on in the photo. Your eyes don’t really know where to go, except maybe to the next picture. But no, really, this was a once-in-a-lifetime view. So what’s a photographer to do?

Don’t worry, there’s an easy fix that will immediately amp up your photo appeal, and that is to simply get closer. Are there some colorful flowers, a stream, a rock or a person that can help make the scene feel not so big and distant? Crouch, kneel or lie down within a few feet of said subjects. By getting close to an element of that grandeur, you are providing depth, interest, and inviting people into your moment. It’ll hone your eye and you’ll immediately sense an improvement. You might even find that taking a photo of just one thing, or one part of something in the scene is just as beautiful.

It’s so cold out, but oh so pretty. Keep your fingers warm with some new gloves, and concentrate on capturing a memory. That unbreakable mountainside of snow-covered trees and misty light will be what you remember in the long run. Location: Caribou Ranch, Boulder, Colo. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

2. Embrace bad weather.

You know what makes those spectacular sunsets or sunrises? It’s not a warm, sunny day. Those glorious color displays need something to bounce off. Clouds (of various shapes and levels), snow, mist, wind, rain and lightning all make for the kinds of photos others can’t stop talking about. These are the natural elements that bring much-coveted atmosphere to your images.

They also kind of make people think you are a daredevil because you were adventurous enough to brave the elements. Just make sure you dress accordingly and take appropriate precautions. After all, no one wants a photo to end up with a rescue effort.

Whether up close and intimate or a simple silhouette from far away, including a human element can add an extra sense of place to your images. Can’t you imagine yourself here? Location: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

3. Include people.

I know. I know. You want pure nature, right? Go for it. But don’t discount your buddy or loved one who’s taken this trek with you. Your shared experiences in nature are just as compelling as the scenery that brought you out there in the first place. Show how you are connecting actively with nature within your photography. On your next hike, try this exercise. Aim to take four types of photos:

A close-up portrait – Fill the frame with the head and shoulders; make sure the scene behind is distant and looks more like a blurred impression of color. Ask your subject to think about something, or turn their head slightly. Try to move away from the standard, direct-smile photos.

An environmental portrait – Get close to your subject, but zoom your camera all the way out so you get the person filling about a third of the frame and you get some background scenery as well. Tell them to look away, or maybe you want to try a shot that’s almost like you are looking over their shoulder.

A small subject – Make your person small, within the frame of a spectacular scene.

A candid moment – Some of the best and most telling moments are the ones no one knew you took. You’ll likely need to take a lot of these, as people can be self-conscious around the camera at first. As long as you don’t machine gun them with your camera, they’ll probably start to ignore you after a while.

Living in Boulder, Colorado, I have to admit I’m a bit spoiled. These baby mountain goats, photographed on Mount Evans about an hour and half’s drive from my house, are practically neighbors. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

4. Find your local happy place.

The best photos often come from places that photographers have come to know well. Gaining experience and learning new techniques is easier when frequenting a place you love. You can practice a lot, figure out what works and what doesn’t, or return easily to a scene when the lighting is in that magic zone. You know where all the secret photo spots are, where to find the wildlife, when the flowers bloom. Navigation is second nature, so you can concentrate on enjoying the moment and taking photos. The best part is that by photographing a place that you love, you have a deep emotional connection to your subject, and that is bound to come through in your images.

Nonprofits, such as Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and WildEarth Guardians, have been using my photography to campaign for greater protection of Wyoming’s Red Desert, arguably the largest unfenced area left in the Lower 48. In July 2012, I presented these images at a Congressional reception on Capitol Hill. (Photo/Morgan Heim)

5. Make your photos count.

To ensure that we take care of the places we love to explore, why not think about putting your photos to use for a good cause? Did you know photography played a major role in establishing our first national park? Your images can make a difference. Think about working on a collection of images from someplace you care about that needs a little love and attention, then turn it into a project. It could take the form of a display in a local coffee shop to a collaboration with a local conservation effort. In any case, you’ll be doing good, and it’ll make you feel good, too.

Have any helpful tips that you’d like to add to Morgan’s list? Tell us in the comments below, and be sure to check out more of her work at morganheim.com.

Comments (10)

  1. Steven Scott | February 17, 2014 | 9:40 am

    Nice blog post…good advice. Thanks LL Bean and Morgan.

    • Laurie | L.L.Bean | February 18, 2014 | 2:17 pm

      Thanks Steve – we’re glad you enjoyed it. ^LB

  2. Mundy Hackett | February 18, 2014 | 8:18 pm

    I agree Steve, and we really need more professional photographers who put their amazing images to use conserving natural resources!

  3. Brenda | February 26, 2014 | 8:24 pm

    Love your advice! The photos I took that I love followed your tips.

    I would add not to throw away photos that annoy you due to imperfection. There was a photo of my dad that I almost threw away and 30 years after I took it it became one of my favorite photos of him. Why did I dislike it initially? Reminded me of his poor health & mortality though after not seeing it for awhile I realized it was practically 3D due to him moving a bit (but my 100 ASA film and fast speed kept it still a good photo). I fear that with digital cameras people may erase too much that they can use or love later.

    I love suggestion 5 too and plan to do more of that.

    • Laurie | L.L.Bean | February 27, 2014 | 11:07 am

      Hi Brenda, Thanks for adding another great tip! ^LB

  4. Morgan Heim | February 27, 2014 | 5:43 pm

    Love your tip Brenda. I so agree with you. We mature as editors as well as photographers with time, and there have been many times where I have gone back to fall in love with images I would’ve simply dismissed before.

  5. linda n. | March 29, 2014 | 9:30 am

    Interesting eye….my husband, son, daughter and I all enjoy taking photographs and we have noticed that what the gal’s see on a mountain top are different that what the guys see and photograph.

    Also, when taking photographs of people, my daughter is a master at catching people in thought versus the staged photographs. My husbands father started the love of photography and it has grown. Several of the grandkids are now starting to take photographs too. A photograph is personal…..it speaks to you where you are at and where your “head” is now. It conveys the emotion felt at the moment and to view it later, reminds you of the emotion you felt initially. My daughter is published for sports shots and landscape shots through regional publications in CO and my son is struggling to gain recognition in KS. I’ll pass along your tip as we have many areas of KS that have gone unnoticed for their beauty. Often, the evening shots are missed and it is one of my favorites. I’ve caught some spectacular sun sets. Thanks for sharing Brenda.

    • Laurie | L.L.Bean | April 2, 2014 | 8:36 am

      Hi Linda – Thanks for sharing your comments with us and L.L.Bean fans. We appreciate it and wish the best to you and your family. Thanks ^LB

  6. Margan | April 3, 2014 | 7:20 pm

    Love this, thanks so much, LLBean!!

  7. Nancy Yo | April 9, 2014 | 11:28 am

    I look forward to trying some of these on our trip to Alaska. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    Nancy Yo

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