Balancing Art and Science in Nature Photography

A lot of people really enjoy taking nature shots, myself included. Subjects are more concerned about your being near them than about getting their picture taken. So with a little respect and the proper equipment you can get some really beautiful captures.

But what’s beautiful isn’t always informative and what’s informative isn’t always beautiful. The way I see it, there are a couple of ways to approach taking nature shots. And it all depends on why you’re taking the picture in the first place. The two approaches can be thought of as a spectrum, with Documentation on one end and Artistry on the other end. Since it’s a spectrum, neither approach is better or worse than the other. They each have there own time and place. But more importantly, you can incorporate both approaches into a single shot.

So, what do I mean by documentation? Documentation is focused on capturing specific features of an animal not about creating a visually appealing shot. This is critical when studying an animal, identifying it or cataloging it.

Conversely, what do I mean by artistry? An artistic shot is concerned about creating an image that is pleasing to look at and that captures the imagination. It may focus on the mood, framing, depth of field or many other aspects. It could include details for documentation but that is just a by-product of the overall composition.

Below are some example shots to demonstrate the difference between the two approaches.

This spectrum demonstrates two different approaches to capturing nature in our images. From a purely documentary approach to a purely artistic approach and anything in between.

This spectrum demonstrates two different approaches to capturing nature in our images. From a purely documentary approach to a purely artistic approach and anything in between.

There are many ways to work along the spectrum. One such way that I’ve seen typically used on insects, is called focus stacking. This method is very useful when your depth of field is extremely narrow, such as with macro. The way it works is by taking several shots that capture slightly different focal points along the insect, essentially creating cross sections. Those sections are then combined to create an image that has significantly more depth and detail. The below image is of a fly that used roughly 20 stacked images to some crazy detail while using an orange background to create a more pleasing contrast on which to view the fly.

Focus Stack of Fly

Using multiple images, the depth of field can be greatly increased while also creating a visually pleasing shot.

I think that sometimes we lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish with our images, so keeping these two approaches in mind will hopefully help to maintain our focus.




About Dov Plawsky

I am an aspiring freelance photographer and writer. I've always enjoyed the story around the picture and now want to expand upon that. I founded Beyond Your Bag to help share knowledge across like minded people and to hopefully connect those people to one another.

2 thoughts on “Balancing Art and Science in Nature Photography

  1. I agree and my efforts have all be on the art side, that said some scientists have asked if have shots they can use. is not happy without a dorsal view of an insect, and even then want a more clinical shot than I can manage in the wild:) The focus stack is a wonderful image!

    • Thanks Victor! I’m not surprised that your shots are in demand. I think when you can get the right balance between the two, even scientists will opt for the prettier image. I didn’t know that about, that just shows which end of the spectrum they are focused on.

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