Tips for Capturing Nature’s Beauty
Award-winning photographers share their tricksBy Margaret Buranen
For the past three years, the North Carolina Wildlife Federation has sponsored a wildlife photography contest to capture the natural beauty of the state, through the eyes (and lenses) of amateur photographers. Two past winners, Christopher Austin and Nancy Cozart shared their photos with Carolina Country, as well as tips for aspiring nature photographers.
Patience pays off
Brunswick County EMC member Christopher Austin of Bolivia served in the U.S. Army for 21 years. He took photos of people and places he served, just for memories. About 15 years ago, he bought a “fairly decent” digital camera and started trying to take better pictures. The camera he uses now is a Canon 5D Mark 4 with either a 100-400mm zoom lens or a 150-600 mm zoom lens. He keeps the 100-400 mm lens on the camera, and the camera stays in a backpack, convenient to grab.
“I always have my camera with me,” Christopher says. “You don’t have to have a super-expensive camera to take great pictures. A woman in our local camera club has a very simple camera she takes along when she walks dogs. She has taken some fantastic pictures.”
Patience is the key to getting great photos, he explains. “We saw some woodpeckers building a nest. I sat there for five or six hours, with my camera focused on the nest, a remote cord to click the shutter [when the birds appeared],” Christopher says. “Do your research so you know animals’ habits, especially with birds.”
For his 2021 winning photo “Fox at Night,” Christopher relied on a stationary trail “camera trap” with an infrared sensor. When an animal walks past, the sensor triggers the camera’s shutter and flash. Animals usually raise their heads at the flash, but don’t run away. The second shots, after the flash recycles in two seconds, turn out to be some of the best.
A lifelong love
In the 2019 NC Wildlife Federation photo contest, Nancy Cozart of Stanley won the “Best of NC Scenery” category for her dreamy landscape of Craggy Gardens Trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Black Mountain. Nancy took the photograph on a stormy, foggy day in August.
“I couldn’t resist the foggy and somewhat slippery hike to capture this image. It’s a beautiful hike no matter what time of year,” she explains. For Nancy, photography “has been a lifelong love. I’ve had a camera in my hands since I was 10 years old.” That was 52 years ago when her parents bought her a basic Kodak Brownie camera to keep her entertained on a long car trip to Mexico. She still has the black and white snapshots she took on the trip.
To take her photos, Nancy relies on a Nikon D610 digital camera with a Sigma contemporary zoom 150-600 mm lens. Her other go-to lens is a Nikkor fixed 35mm. She uses it for close-ups or in low-light situations because it is so fast. She rarely uses a tripod. “By the time I get it set up, the birds have flown away. And I move around a lot while I’m shooting.”
While Nancy is excited about an upcoming trip to photograph the Outer Banks, she says great photos can be shot anywhere. “It’s not what or where you shoot, but how you shoot,” she explains.
That means paying attention to weather conditions, wildlife habits, and habitats. Nancy loves to take pictures on cloudy days, with no shadows to consider, and in the early morning light.
“Don’t be in a hurry to shoot, especially with birds. Wait and they’ll settle down,” she says. “And always watch before you back up,” Nancy cautions, recalling that while stepping backward once for a better shot, she fell into a ditch.
Tips from the pros
Nancy: “Don’t let your camera control you. Learn how to control it.”
Christopher: “The biggest thing is patience.”
Their favorite NC spots for nature photography: Catawba River Park, Daughton Park, Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, areas around Boone and Asheville, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the road from Brevard to Franklin for gorgeous waterfalls, Pisgah National Forest, Pilot Mountain, Roan Mountain State Park, Lake Lure, Chimney Rock Mountain State Park, Grandfather Mountain State Park, Bird Island, Ft. Fisher State Park, Hatteras, Kill Devil Hills, Currituck Wildlife Refuge