Recently I saw a web ad for some sort of photo course about getting great shots of night skies, and it had a photographer pointing his camera "at the night sky" (through the help of Photoshop!). It struck me as an interesting visual for how we approach photography.
The photographer was definitely "taking" a picture of the subject. This is one approach to photography. We direct our attention and our camera outward toward the subject. It is very much a photographer-centric approach where what is important is how the resulting photograph represents the photographer.
What I mean by that is that the photograph is about "capturing a great shot", about working to create "better photos", both in terms of the photographer. The photographer can then be happy (or not) about his/her work, his/her "eye", his/her photographic abilities. It is more about the photography than the subject. That does not mean the subject is unimportant, just that it is less important than the visual aspects of the photo.
This is an important approach to photography, one that all photographers do at one time or another, and an approach that will dominate the work of most photographers. It is how photography gains visual creativity and impact. It is the basis of fine-art photography.
Something to consider – if nature photography is reduced to purely visual creativity, that can be interesting, but it does not connect viewers, the audience, the world, with the nature. It is about creating pretty or impressive photos, but it is not about reaching out to people and saying, "Hey, isn't nature cool!"
So another approach is to look at photography as a way of connecting the viewer with nature and the world and not just the photo. LIFE magazine used this idea as a basis for the magazine. One of its guiding statements was: "To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed..."
Notice there is nothing in there about creating "great photos", though a lot of LIFE photos were indeed great. Check out Great Photographic Essays from Life by Maitland Edey to see how this classic publication did it (the text is as valuable as the photos). You can find that book very inexpensively as a used book from AbeBooks.com or Amazon.com.
That approach has become increasingly important to me, in part because connecting the wonder of nature subjects with others and me (yes, the photographer can be more or less connected) is truly part of who I am. This is more important to me than the photograph as a stand-alone work of fine art.
Important! This does not mean that the visual aspects of the photograph are not important! Creating an interesting, effective photograph that clearly communicates about the subject in a way to connect the viewer to the subject is part of our job as photographers.
That often requires problem solving beyond 10 tips for better photographs. It means we have to really look at the subject AND the photograph we are capturing. Is this photograph really communicating what we want it to do? If not, what do we need to do to make it better do that? What photographic craft and skills do we need to use in order to craft a better image for both nature and the viewer? This is one area that digital photography is so helpful because we can see the photos as we take them!
There are a couple of potential limitations to this approach. First, if the photographer pays too much attention to the subject and not enough attention to the craft of the photography, the resulting photos will often be simply boring snapshots. They might create a record of that nature, but they will not attract the attention of other people. Creating an attractive, effective photo is important in order to gain that attention.
Second, this often means photos that are less flashy, less attention getting resulting in fewer likes on FB and challenges in getting attention from camera club and other photo competitions. If you look at a lot of the work in Great Photographic Essays from Life, you will find that most of it wouldn't gain much attention on FB and would often be too edgy (even though the photos are "old" now) for camera clubs. Realize that FB is not designed to favor these sorts of images. It is designed to be looked at quickly. People don't spend a lot of time on any individual photos, so if a photo is to impress them, it has to be dramatic in some way.
I am not suggesting we give up on photos that are really more about the photo than the subject. They are important for many reasons, including helping us better use the medium. I am suggesting that as a fellow lover of both nature and photography, that you might consider how you can use your photography to clearly communicate something unique about the nature that you really care about.