Use These Tips for Jaw-Dropping Nature Photos

Make it your mission to get outdoors in the coming months and sharpen your photography skills

|  Story by Cindy Cain |

Winter is one of the best times to get outside and immerse yourself in the art of nature photography. 

If you are a beginner or even someone with experience, you can always learn a few new tips to help make your snapshots reflect the beauty in the world around us.

We asked Forest Preserve program coordinator Suzy Lyttle, who has years of experience photographing flora and fauna in the preserves, some questions to get you started and to motivate you to get outside and up your photo game this season.

Here is a Q&A with Lyttle:

What are the nature photography basics?

When it comes to nature photography, the main thing is to get outside. I know it sounds basic but sometimes we need to force ourselves to take a trip outdoors. I hear that comment a lot when I lead photography programs. People say, “This gave me motivation or the excuse to get outside and take pictures.” I also think it helps to start learning an area. Seeing how it changes over the seasons. Observing what birds visit, what animal signs get left behind. When you start really getting close and personal with a spot, you can start catching what is special.

Does it matter what kind of camera a person has?

Yes and no. It all depends what you want out of it. I find nature photography gives me a creative outlet. I just want to capture moments, views, details that I find special and worth sharing. A majority of my photos are taken with my phone. It seems to always work out when you are least expecting to find something amazing you find it, and my phone is always with me. I do have nice cameras with better lenses and control. I take those out when I know I want to take wildlife photos. Animals rarely let you get right in their business. So, if you have bigger goals of capturing certain birds, turtles, deer, etc., you have to get something with a good zoom. It is always important to give wildlife their space. 

What are some tricks for getting shots of wildlife? 

Take a lot of pictures, and then when you feel like you have enough, take a few more! Besides knowing your location and knowing your camera, composition wise you want to give yourself lots of options. Take a picture straight on, from the side, down low, try different camera settings, try everything. You also need to be patient. Wildlife does not run on a tight schedule and they are constantly making sure they aren’t going to get eaten. That means you may hear the bird, but can’t find it! Stay still, give it time. 

Find personality! I think what takes photos from great to WHOA is when you can capture a moment versus an identification. Sure, we know it is a great blue heron, but when you can get that picture of it in action it makes it more alive. Again, this takes patience!  

Another tip would be to join the Forest Preserve District’s Will County Wildlife group on Facebook or follow the District on Instagram. It’s great to see what others are photographing and how they are doing it. I sit and study other people’s work to get ideas of how to frame things, find things, and get new perspectives. We all have our voice; it comes out in writing but also in art. Once I start following people, I can start picking out their photos without looking at their name. It’s really cool how we all have our certain styles. 

What is the best way to photograph landscapes and close-ups of flowers and plants?

The key with landscapes and plants is knowing the season. Seasons have their peaks and depending what you are trying to get, there are better times than others. Spring is a big time for me for the wildflowers. I have been tracking emerging, budding and bloom dates for years. Now I know when I need to get outside. Something like a bloodroot only blooms for a day or two, so timing is everything. During the fall season, to get those colors you need to track when the leaves will be at their finest. Snow is getting harder and harder to come by in winter. My best winter views are usually timed as it is still snowing or immediately after. 

What are some rules about what not to do?

This is so important. Personally, my whole reason to share my nature photography is to inspire and grow appreciation for the great outdoors. If we destroy it in the process for the best shot ever, that defeats the purpose. In our forest preserves, everything is protected, from the sticks on the ground to the animals themselves. It is important to leave things where they lay. For example, while photographing mushrooms I try to move grasses down or brush the leaves out of the way but I would not want to pluck it out of the ground and move it to a “better” area. Same goes for wildlife. Like I mentioned earlier, you never want to get too close. When it comes to birds, be super careful during the nesting season. Birds can’t leave their nests and they shouldn’t have to defend their turf because a photographer is being too intrusive. It is not worth stressing the animals out. 

What are some of the favorite shots you have taken?

This year I got a pretty view of Messenger Woods. My friend shared an iPhone tip with me that if you take a picture in Live Mode you can engage a long exposure setting. This is what makes the water look soft and flowy! I was so excited to catch a yellow garden spider in the middle of making her web! And love how the light was hitting the milkweed leaf making a cool glow. One of the first flowers of the season is hepatica. I love the feeling you get when you see this flower after a long cold winter.

(Photos by Suzy Lyttle)

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