Small Details in Nature Photographs

Being out in nature with a camera is something that many people love. Sometimes we go out with a specific image objective in mind, only to be potentially disappointed when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate during that particular outing. By noticing small details in nature photographs we can keep our passion alive, and appreciate nature even more.

Earlier this month I was out at Hendrie Valley with the specific objective of photographing ospreys fishing. Based on this goal my visit would have been considered a failure as I didn’t get even one opportunity to photograph an osprey fishing on that particular day.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-250

I did get one chance to capture some images of a tern fishing as you can see with the image above. It is often difficult to get the correct lighting angle on the head of a tern to get good eye detail. It wasn’t until I got home and processed a couple of images that I noticed how well defined the eye of the tern was in some of the photographs. That small detail helped make my visit worthwhile.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-400

Since it was a rather ‘slow’ day in terms of birds-in-flight I began to study my surroundings, looking for other interesting subjects. I soon discovered some small turtles basking in the sun on an old log. I noticed that the amount of algae on the turtles’ shells varied significantly by individual. I composed the image above with the intent of illustrating the differences in the shells of the three turtles.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-500

A short time later I returned to the same vantage point and observed that a much larger turtle was also basking on the same log. I studied the coloured patterns on the necks of the turtles. I came to the conclusion that they were all likely of the same species, but of very different ages.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-280

A third visit to the same log revealed that the smaller turtles had all departed, leaving only the large one. I couldn’t help but study its shell and notice how it had been drying out in the sun. The expression of the turtle appeared to be one of total contentment.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254mm, efov 686mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-800

Over the years I’ve taken thousands of images of cormorants with the majority of them either in flight, or taking off from the water. I really hadn’t paid that much attention to their plumage. I noticed a solitary cormorant perched on a log in some shade. The lighting helped to bring out the various colour shades and details in its feathers.

When working on the image above in post I used the Spot Weighted tool in DxO Smart Lighting to help accentuate the feather details of the cormorant. Even though cormorants are often thought of as an ugly ‘nuisance’ bird, I found the specimen above quite beautiful. I love the small details in the bird’s throat feathers, the bright yellow/orange colouring on its cheek, and its aqua coloured eye.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 264mm, efov 713mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-450

During that same visit there was an egret at Hendrie Valley that I was able to capture in flight. The image above has some focusing issues (the head and beak are not in sharp focus) due to the aperture I used and the angle of the bird’s flight path. Nevertheless, I really like the image as it is the only one I’ve ever captured of an egret in flight with a fish in its beak. It is one of those small details that makes a difference to me.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-720

There are a number of small details in the duck image above that appeal to me visually. The first thing is the geometric balance of the angle of the bird’s body leaning to its right, and its uplifted left wing. The splash of the water along with the spray of droplets helps create a nice feeling of motion. Some image flow is created by the duck’s beak and upper edge of its left wing being parallel with each other. This helps direct a viewer’s eye to the bottom left hand corner of the frame.

The final small detail that I really like is the tiny dot of turquoise part way down the duck’s left wing, accentuated in the sunlight. This image was one from a short AF-C run I captured, and was the only photograph that had feelings of drama and balance to me.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-320

There are a few small details in the image above of a night heron landing that help to create a feeling of intensity to me. The first is the forward thrusting position of the heron’s wings. The second is its outstretched neck and intent gaze. The final detail that propels the heron forward with intensity are the backward curl of its toes and claws.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 168mm, efov 454mm, f/5.3, 1/2000, ISO-1400

I’ve captured quite a few images of Great Blue Heron in the past, but this one was a bit unique with its feathers puffed out. The lighting helped to show small details with the feathers on the back and neck of the bird.

The next time you capture a nature image that really resonates with you, study some of the small details that are in it. You may be surprised with how they can make valuable visual contributions to your compositions.

All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using a Nikon 1 V3 and a 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “Small Details in Nature Photographs”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Splendid images, especially of the tern and turtles (they rhyme!) as well as the commentary. One thing I’ve learned all this time in nature photography is that the only thing predictable with nature is unpredictability. One can set out with an image in mind but end up with another, which also makes the whole exercise always fresh and never boring. In any case, it also makes the hike in nature deeply satisfying. Oh, to be that turtle, looking contented sunning himself unmindful of anything else but the moment of solace having the drying place to himself 😀


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