In nature photography is the preservation of the world

Text by Gordon Illg. Photography by Cathy and Gordon Illg.

.NANPA recently posted a blog, “The 6 Myths That Frustrate Aspiring Photographers” by Tom Horton that offered advice to new nature photographers. The post reiterated advice I’ve heard from established pros many times over the decades, and every point he made was valid. Following his guidelines will almost certainly help neophytes augment their craft and become more noticed. But there are other issues that were not considered, quite possibly because there’s just not enough room in a blog.

Mesa Arch frames Washer Woman Arch, Arches National Park, Utah. You can’t blame people for wanting to photograph icons like Mesa Arch. Canon EOS 40D, 28-135mm @ 30mm, f14, 1/15 sec, ISO 800, -2/3. ©Cathy & Gordon Illg

Those of us who have been doing this for awhile and who have seen lots of photos do get a bit tired of seeing the same shots of the same places and same species, and there is no question that photographing places and species other shooters have overlooked will give you images that are different from everyone else’s. However, it doesn’t seem fair to ask photographers to overlook spectacular vistas and exciting subjects just because many of us have already photographed them. By that logic, photographers should avoid all the scenic overlooks in the national parks; they should avoid Bosque del Apache, the Serengeti in Africa, the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in Iceland, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm…you get the idea.

Sandhill cranes flying through sunset light, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, USA. The light can change an ordinary sandhill crane shot into an extraordinary one. Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, 500mm with 1.4x, f8, 1/400 sec, ISO 800. ©Cathy & Gordon Illg

You can’t blame people for wanting to photograph the icons. It is photos of the icons that probably got them interested in nature photography in the first place. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife, Cathy, and I have been leading photo tours for the last 17 years, and our livelihood depends, to a large extent, on sharing the icons with other photographers. But my opinion would be the same regardless of our careers.

Great egret riding on an alligator, Orange County, Florida. Few species are photographed more than great egrets, but you don’t see them riding alligators very often. Canon EOS 5D, 24-105mm @ 88mm, f7.1, 1/1000 sec, ISO 800, -1. ©Cathy & Gordon Illg

There are very few subjects, including most of the ones Cathy and I photograph, that desperately need to be photographed more. We honestly don’t need many more images of egrets, lions, sandhill cranes, Delicate Arch, or just about anything else. That does not stop us from photographing these subjects if the opportunity presents itself. If we have a displaying egret or a chance to shoot Delicate Arch at sunset, we’ll be pointing a lens at it, no matter how many times we’ve photographed it in the past. And there are some good reasons for doing so.

Delicate Arch at sunset, Arches National Park, Utah. There’s always the possibility of spectacular light. I’ve never seen another shot of Delicate Arch at sunset like this, and it gets a bunch of visitors at sunset. Canon EOS 40D, 28-135mm @ 28mm, f10, 1/5 sec, ISO 800, -2/3. ©Cathy & Gordon Illg

For one thing, there’s always the chance of unusual behavior or fantastic light transforming something common into something extraordinary. Most contests are still won with images of species or locations we’ve seen many times before. It’s usually the conditions that make the subject special. There’s always the possibility of capturing an unknown behavior and helping with scientific advances. You also tend to take your best photos when shooting something you love, regardless of how popular it is. If you love spoonbills, then keep them in your viewfinder as much as you possibly can. Perhaps the most important reason though, is that nature photography of any kind connects us to the natural world. It connects us to our home.

Roseate spoonbills fighting, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. With wildlife, you never know what behavior you’ll see. Here two spoonbills argue over nest sites. Vermilion Parish is on the coast midway between Houston and New Orleans. Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, 500mm, f8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 1600, -1 2/3.
©Cathy & Gordon Illg

To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau who said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world,” I believe that in nature photography is the preservation of the world. The more nature photographers there are, and it doesn’t matter what they like to photograph, the better off the world will be. Carrying a camera into any natural area makes us care for it and its inhabitants, makes us want to preserve it. And it’s a short leap from caring for one natural area to caring for all of them.

Little blue heron grabbing a snowy egret that has encroached on its territory, Evangeline Parish, Louisiana. Little blue herons and snowy egrets are popular subjects, but if we had skipped photographing this pair, we would’ve missed out on the little blue heron grabbing the egret to prevent it taking off. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, 100-400mm @ 400mm, f6.3, 1/4000 sec, ISO 1600, 1/3. ©Cathy & Gordon Illg

There are certainly things you can do to improve your images and make them stand out, and Horton’s blog is a good place to start. There’s no arguing that nature photography can be terribly competitive, and seeking validation in photo contests or through publication often requires going the extra mile with your images. As competitions go however, nature photography is one of the best; from the moment you step outside with a camera, you’re a winner.

Tip from Cathy and Gordon Illg
For fast action, go with the fastest shutter speed your camera’s ISO and the depth of field will allow (with multiple subjects, you need an f-stop that will render both acceptably sharp). The action in the images of both the fighting spoonbills and the little blue heron vs. the snowy egret was happening so fast the human eye couldn’t really tell what was going on. You just keep shooting and hope you get a decent composition and capture something interesting. Sometimes the magic works.


Cathy and Gordon Illg have been full time nature photographers since 2000. Their livelihood is dependent upon their ability to share the magic of wild things and wild places with other photographers. Their work includes numerous covers of magazines like Backpacker, Defenders, National Geographic Young Explorer, Ranger Rick and National Wildlife. Several of their images decorate the tails of Frontier Airlines’ jets, and they’ve done well in photo contests, the highlight of which was being flown to London to accept awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Contest. Their first two books, Dynamic Wildlife Photography and Worshipping With A Camera, have been well received, and they lead nature photography tours under the name Adventure Photography at www.advenphoto.com.