People walking, head down, brow furrowed in concentration as they message, scroll, swipe and ‘like’ – oblivious to the world around them. We’ve all seen them – perhaps even been them. No wonder we are so frequently advised to ‘disconnect in order to reconnect’ – to remove the rabbit hole distraction of our smartphones and spend time taking in and engaging with our actual surroundings. When it comes to walking down the street, there are many reasons why this is sound advice: courtesy, safety and avoiding the unfortunate mess left by that dog owner being just a few of them!
Taking time to look around you when in nature, however, has a whole host of even more compelling benefits: namely, that properly immersing ourselves in nature has been shown to boost our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as our care and compassion for others and the environment. In his book Love Letter to the Earth, human rights activist Thích Nhât Hanh writes that, since the Earth provides us with everything we need to survive, we cannot possibly care for ourselves if we are not caring for the Earth. As he puts it, “The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us.”
It follows, then, that by spending time focusing on the Earth’s riches, we are not only connecting with an essential part of ourselves, but also fostering gratitude and appreciation – and by seeing ourselves as a part of the world we inhabit, rather than simply autonomous residents, it encourages us to be more judicious in our choices and more sustainable in our practices, too.
Despite all that is said about putting our phones away, this is, paradoxically, an area in which our devices can be useful for bolstering this sense of connection, simply by encouraging us to be more attentive and present. Nature apps can be useful for identification purposes and social media can be a fertile ground for the sharing of information and inspiration. Perhaps most critically, however, the fact that phones have increasingly sharp, functional cameras puts something in our hands that we can actively use to deepen our relationship with nature. “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.” This quaint old expression taps into the idea that we must visually engage with something in order to emotionally connect with it – and emotional connection is surely a prerequisite for care, conservation and preservation.
Given that few things encourage us to exercise ourselves visually as much as photography, it seems only obvious that this form of engagement will strengthen our love and understanding of the natural world. But where to start?
Have you ever wished someone a good morning and fallen into conversation with them? Stopped to pet a dog and been treated to a wet lick and wagging tail? When you give something or someone your attention, you’re opening an interaction and inviting a relationship, however fleeting. The same may be said about nature. Simply by giving it our attention, we invite it to show itself to us. Walking outside and focusing on our surroundings results in details suddenly coming into focus: light beams through tree boughs, the curl of a new leaf, the watchful eye of a squirrel, the delicate individual quills of a dandelion puffball. With the help of a camera, not only can these ephemeral details be captured, but also enjoyed or even shared beyond the moment of their occurrence.
Photographer Sophie Lindsay agrees. “It’s virtually impossible for me to go on a walk without reaching for my iPhone to take a photo. Far from disconnecting me from nature, it brings me closer by allowing me to acutely observe the world around me and look for pleasing patterns, shapes and textures that catch my eye. I find that this state of observation and focus quietens my mind and allows me to be really present in the moment.
“Once I’ve captured an image, it’s then mine forever. I can enjoy and revisit that experience whenever I like.”
As well as the repeated enjoyment that’s made possible by the taking and keeping of nature images, there’s also the fact that a greater curiosity about, and understanding of, the world around us may be fostered in this way. While we may take a photo of a flower simply because it presents a pleasing image, it’s possible that we’ll go home and, with the aid of that visual reference, look up the type of flower that it is. With this naming and connection now established, we are likely to look out for it in the future, feeling the warm sense of familiarity and recognition that we might get with a person or place. As writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry puts it, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love – and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.”
The fact that photography, by way of the ubiquity of phones, is so available to us raises another aspect of its use in deepening our relationship with nature and that is, quite simply, accessibility. Where we might once have imagined that remote destinations, wild landscapes and top-end kit were prerequisites to engaging with nature through a lens, we now have the ability to be nature photographers in our own back gardens and neighbourhoods, where noticing patterns, textures, cycles and seasons can bring us not only deep enjoyment, but also vital understanding of our world and our place within it.
How to get into nature photography: 7 tips for beginners
Experienced photographer Sophie Lindsay shares her top tips and explains how you can get into nature photography…
Take care of your equipment
Start with the basics: a clean lens and a fully charged battery. If you’re using your phone, switch it to airplane mode to minimise distractions.
Keep the camera straight
If you’re not confident about doing this by eye, many cameras have grid lines, which you can switch on in your settings to check that you’re level.
Look for potential distractions
Get into the habit of quickly scanning the entire viewfinder, checking for any potential distractions. If you notice something that you don’t want in the image, such a sign, car, dead leaf or plastic bag, either move a step to the side or remove it, and then check your viewfinder again.
Think about your composition
Composition is key to what makes a photo ‘work’: it’s the way that the various elements in the image are arranged, and there are lots of techniques you can use to dramatically improve this to give your pictures more impact. Great composition can help lead our eye into the frame, draw our attention to a certain area, and balance the image.
Use the rule of thirds
One of the easiest ways to add impact to your composition is the Rule of Thirds. Imagine your image is divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically (you can use the grid function to help you with this) and then place the focal point of your image on one of the intersecting points. Your subject matter doesn’t always have to be right in the centre!
Top tips for great composition
Other compositional techniques for achieving stronger and more dynamic photographs that you can experiment with include:
- Leading lines: a visual ‘path’ that naturally leads the eye to the subject of the photo – for example, a person at the distant end of a bridge.
- Negative space: playing with the area between and around the subject of your photo.
- Changing your viewpoint: for example, crouching down or standing on a bench.
Use light to transform your photos
Light has the ability to transform our photographs; it can turn something ordinary into something magical. Being aware of the light and knowing how to use it to its full potential can have a huge impact on your photography. The quality of light changes depending on the time of day. Typically, light is soft during the hours around sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky and will produce a combination of low contrast and warm tones in your photographs. During the middle of the day, the light may be much stronger, creating harder contrast and dark shadows.
Looking for more features about photography? Learn how to create lasting memories using your camera, check out our food photography tips for beginners or discover how mindful photowalking can change the way you see the world.
About Sophie Lindsay
Though she works as a lifestyle and personal branding photographer (sophielindsay.com), Sophie takes more pictures of nature than anything else. She lives in Dorset, UK, in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and can’t go on a walk without reaching for her iPhone to take a photo.
This article first appeared in In The Moment Magazine issue 35. Featured image by Unsplash/Leon Seibert.