Nature photography requires us to be adaptable. We aren’t in a studio setting where we can tweak the lighting, mood, and subject until we’re happy. We have to go to our subjects’ locations and adapt to the conditions around them. This is both the thrill and challenge of nature photography – it is unpredictable.
How many times have you been excited to shoot a great location, then it felt like nothing looked good in Lightroom? An awe-inspiring vista transformed into a muddy blob against an overexposed foreground. A waterfall that shimmered in the forest looked dull and gray, lost in the woodlands around it.
It’s frustrating when the incredible scene we saw through the viewfinder doesn’t translate! When lighting is our most challenging hurdle, post-processing can give us the tools to be able to sculpt the image we envisioned. NIK’s Color Efex and Viveza plugins to give us powerful tools to translate that inspiration into a polished fine art nature photo. We’ll explore the ways that only minor adjustments to lighting using these presets will help us achieve our artistic visions.
Why use NIK Plugin Presets?
Photography and editing go hand-in-hand; nature photographers have been post-processing images since the first photographs were developed. Honestly, you can’t convince me that Dorothea Lange or Ansel Adams wouldn’t use the best technology they could find if they were around today. They certainly cropped, adjusted exposures, burned, and smudged like the rest of us to create their masterpieces. We, thankfully, can get creative without needing a whole darkroom.
I minimally edited (in Photoshop) some of the photographs included in this article. I kept my adjustments localized, often only using two to four presets from NIK Plugins. This emphasizes how a little goes a long way with this technology. It is your creative project. NIK Plugins just helps us execute it quickly and precisely.
There are many good reasons to use presets in NIK Plugins. For me, buying NIK Plugins is worth every penny I’ve saved time-wise as well as providing satisfying final images. You can even get adventurous and customize your own presets/recipes. For me, photography is a way to relax and get away from technical problems. NIK Plugins allows me to flex my creativity without all the fuss.
Compensating for Harsh Light in Nature Photography
You have to give up a certain amount of control in nature photography. Things like the weather are out of our hands and locations may be difficult to access. I pack a backpack with a few lenses, a small light, and a tripod. But there is no way I’m dragging a lot of equipment to shoot nature photography – I can only make my sons carry so much! I’m there to enjoy the experience and be inspired, not weigh myself down with gadgets.
I had NIK Plugins in my back pocket when I decided to shoot the lotuses in the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C. NIK Software gave me the flexibility to shoot in an unpredictable environment, while still creating impactful flower photography.
The gardens are a three-hour drive away from my house and I am not a morning person. Additionally, the garden isn’t even open during the morning Golden Hours – the famous ‘perfect’ lighting condition right after dawn. So I took my time driving there – rush hour traffic does not get me in a creative mood anyways. I arrived around noon.
Lotuses and water lilies are aquatic plants that need a lot of direct sunlight. This is why botanical gardens grow them in wide, shallow outdoor ponds. Under the midday sun, they tend to be overexposed by harsh, overhead sunlight. This light may also reflect off the water around the lotus flower, so I had to be mindful of glare in the background.
I do not recommend wading into the garden’s ponds to get a close shot! Sometimes, we have to make due with the ‘best’ angle for the circumstances, not the subject. Many other guests were enjoying the gardens that day, so I stayed out of the flow of traffic. As a compromise, I bring a long lens to get close ups. This is an opportunity to disrupt our biases about composition and lighting. Don’t be afraid to experiment – that’s how we grow!
Hugging close to the edge of a lotus pond, I found a unique side angle on this flower which was more shaded than others. This reduced some of the harsh sunlight. I adjusted my position slightly to include the unopened flowers in the background and made sure the main flower was not obscured by any other elements. It may not have been what my eye was first drawn to but it’s an excellent subject. Click!
Using preset from NIK plugins allowed me to isolate the middle flower, darken the background and dig deep into the dark green tones in the leaves. I added glow to the lotus petals and emphasized the purple tones in the petals. Again, one small adjustment, assisted by NIK Software and the lotus flower is speaking to me again!
Using NIK Plugins for Low Light Photography
This sunset was taken at the end of a long shoot on a warm, sunny day. The unedited image is a typical sunset picture – a few artifacts and dull light. It is much more blue-toned on a monitor than in person, creating a gloomy mood. The dock is almost in silhouette and the rocky shoreline in the foreground gets lost. It captured the scene well enough, however, that I knew it could be refined with NIK plugins.
After basic brightening in Lightroom, I used the Darken/Lighten Center preset in NIK Color Efex. The preset does exactly what it says – the center has a soft glow and the edges keep their royal blue tones, creating a satisfying gradient in both color and contrast. The dock and clouds benefit from this boost as well – highlighting the orange, pink, and warm brown tones throughout. Just one small adjustment brings this scene to life – the scale increases as we see more of the dock, the mood lightens, and your eye slides along multiple planes to the now glowing horizon. This feels much closer to the scene I saw and felt that day!
You might choose to take it in another direction. Maybe you enhance the silhouette of the dock to emphasize the sunset. NIK Software gives us the tools to reduce noise, blur, sharpen, and adjust tone as we see fit. That’s the beauty of this medium, we each bring our own visions and tastes to our art.
Creating Low Contrast Fine Art Photos
Most nature photography is all about contrast – highlighting a bright, eye-catching view of the world. Colorful, bright scenes draw our attention and set dramatic moods, like sunsets and showy flowers. What if we want to experiment on the other end of the contrast spectrum? Sometimes, this means a flower does not end up looking much like a flower at all. Photography is about more than capturing an exact likeness of our subject, however. I’m not even sure that’s possible. Each photographer brings her own vision, mood, and story to a shoot and creates wildly different pictures from one another, even while shooting the same subject.
I often work with photo light boxes in my flower photography. Photo light boxes are a great tool to experiment with abstraction, opacity, and backlighting. Thin petals, backlit this way, seem to glow as the light passes through. Flowers on a photo light box also have a limited palette and low contrast, allowing us to experiment with monochromatic composition. This is one of those times that capturing a perfectly clear representation of a rose didn’t seem so important to me – I wanted to make something abstract.
Unedited, this rose looks gray-blue with a buttery yellow center. Yellows tend to muddy whites, so I desaturated the rose with the White Neutralizer preset using NIK Plugin. This helped to achieve the sheer, monochromatic effect I was hoping for with a white flower on a white background. The rose now has an airy, ethereal mood as it slowly fades from mid-tone gray to white on the edge. By choosing to blur and soften the image, rather than lean into contrast, we achieve a completely different mood.
Experimentation and adaptability is key when we’re learning photography. There’s a lot of lessons we can learn from rolling with the punches and letting go of a little control when we’re on location. It’s a lot easier to let go when we know we have smart software to help us bring out our artistic vision in post-processing. I encourage you to try something new, allow your environment to guide your shoot, and spend less time fussing with sliders and lassos. NIK Software Color Efex and Viveza give us all the tools we need to elevate our nature photography and enjoy creating!