Exposing Nature

by Frank Greenaway
160 pages,
ISBN: 056509193X

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Brief Review of Exposing Nature
by Christopher Ondaatje

The best photographic advice I ever received came from Terence Michael Shortt, the noted Canadian bird artist, whose paintings my company published. He told me: "Decide on the composition of the picture within your rectangle and then forget about it. Concentrate only on capturing the drama of the eyes." This is exactly what I did when, with some trepidation, balancing myself on the bonnet of a Land Rover, I directed my driver to steer straight at a pair of mating lions on the Serengeti Plains. The shot turned out to be my best-ever wildlife shot, as the disturbed male glared at me with real hatred and peeled himself off his snarling mate.
Frank Greenaway, who has worked for 38 years in the Photographic Unit of London's Natural History Museum, is best known for his extraordinarily dramatic photographs of bats. He has produced a lavishly illustrated handbook for the photographer who wants to achieve better wildlife images. Although Exposing Nature focuses more on the natural history of his subject, and the proper approach to it, than on the technical aspects of photography, it nevertheless contains vital information that any photographer must have before setting out to improve his or her skills. Photography itself, as Greenaway points out, "is best viewed as a technical pursuit blended with an artistic approach." Equipment must be chosen in accordance with the type of nature being photographed, rather than solely for its convenience. This is essential for success in nature photography.
The book certainly covers the technical basics of both film and digital cameras, close-up work, and elements of composition. There can't be too many photographers who wouldn't learn from Greenaway's expert advice.
The advent of high-quality digital photography has been a godsend to the photographic industry. Today it isn't a good idea to buy a film-only camera, since it seems inevitable that film will rise in price rapidly as the mass market for it disappears. All of my photography has been done on film, so I'm a little sad to read Greenaway's statement that the best thing about today's 35mm film cameras is that with most of them one can buy a new digital body that will fit one's existing range of lenses.
The maximum size of a sharp print made with a digital camera is governed by the number of data points (pixels) that make up the image. A small camera will have about four megapixels, while a large one has up to 22 megapixels. The difference between the small and large cameras¨four million individual bits of information with the smaller ones and over twenty million with medium-format ones¨is staggering, and it's obvious that a larger camera is desirable if one wants plenty of detail. However, the choice of a specific digital camera is still important: as Greenaway explains, matching a camera to a special interest (such as bats) is not too difficult, but finding a model suitable for the broad area of nature photography is tricky. His table of technical requirements for the major types of nature photography is particularly helpful.
The author gives further excellent advice on how to get the most out of compact digital cameras, which are increasingly popular with nature photographers because, unlike with film, reshooting is an option. The correct specifications of lenses for nature photography¨autofocus systems, aperture, depth of field and focal length¨are all discussed in detail, but in choosing a digital camera the prime consideration remains the chief purpose to which it will be put. "Composition", "Style and collections", "Birds", "Mammals", "Reptiles", "Insects", "Water", "Plants" and "Habitats" each get a chapter, which include brilliant illustrations by the author, and which make for fascinating reading.
The most invaluable advice is contained in the book's Introduction. It is imperative for the fledgling and the professional photographer to understand what motivates him or her in the first place. This preliminary step requires absolute honesty. It's crucial because understanding one's own interests can lead to a more effective approach to the taking of pictures and, more importantly, to choosing correctly how to use them afterwards. Just as a university lecturer has to know which photographs work best for illustrating specific points, so too must the wildlife photographer give thought to the images he or she selects for a book or presentation.
Finally, Greenaway stresses that observation and scientific understanding of the behaviour of target species must underpin serious nature photography. Know your animals and plants. Then it is possible not only to reach a higher level with one's own photographs of nature, but to enjoy, out of a deeper appreciation, the efforts of others. Greenaway's lifetime of observation and study has produced one of the most illuminating wildlife photographic instruction books to be published in this new age of the camera. ˛

Christopher Ondaatje is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, and the author of several books containing his own photographs of African and Asian wildlife.

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