How to find your natural subject

So, you’re ready to go. What, and where, should you focus your attention? Well, anything you like; a knowledge of nature will help you find all kinds of interesting subjects, or anticipate where they might be found, however, you can build this up in the process of taking pictures. 

OPPORTUNITY  - Because the phone is always with us, opportunities are always presenting themselves, even in towns as we take our rationed exercise during these difficult times.  A garden gives you great scope if you have one, but around the urban environment you’ll find parks and play areas, churchyards, verges, hedges, old walls,  and streams – in fact much more diversity than on average modern farmland. 


A preoccupied orange-tip butterfly, Steve Smailes

Just consider privacy, and cause no harm or damage in the process of taking pictures.

TARGET DIFFICULTY  -  Subjects can vary enormously in how they tolerate and respond to an intrusive photographer.  Some are slow or docile, others are a bit cautious, and some can be in the next county by the time the shutter releases. It’s quite common for a subject to tolerate your careful approach until you are in the perfect position, then scarper as you take a last look at your phone!  Insects may fly off but return to the same place or close by – they have a reason to be there. Keep a healthy respect for wasps and hornets near their nests! Below are some rough categories for how easy they are to approach:

Easy – Plants and Flowers, molluscs and other slow moving invertebrates.Just avoid squashing them!

Moderate - Bumblebees, honey bees, social wasps, spiders, some butterflies, and amphibians are usually approachable stealthily, when they are settled. Insects’ preoccupation with feeding or cleaning often makes them an easier subject to sneak up on. Drowsiness due to cool conditions can also work in your favour.

Difficult  -  Dragonflies, reptiles, solitary bees and solitary wasps. These can take patience and persistence in order to get a picture. It’s a great advantage if you see them before they see you.  Some butterfly species never seem to settle, or do so briefly but always dance off when you get anywhere near them: holly blue, orange tip, purple hairstreak  and wall butterfly will wear you out.


A queen wasp thinks about getting feisty, Steve Smailes.

APPROACH - Always scan ahead of you in likely areas, for instance sunny grassy banks, or bramble patches in sheltered sunny corners. Let’s say you’ve spotted a target insect sitting on a leaf 6 feet away. Stop, then quietly get your phone out. If there is cover, make use of it. Move stealthily towards the subject, watching it for signs of alarm. Try to avoid side to side movement, and lower your body as you close in so you don’t loom over it. In particular don’t block the sun, putting the subject suddenly in shadow – it will probably take off.

As you approach, push the phone ahead of you very slowly towards the subject, which will hide most of you behind it.  Take a shot before you close right in, just in case it’s the only chance you get. Keep on taking photos as you get close - if you take ten, one might turn out to be far better than all the others.

Try slightly different angles and distances.  Expect sore knees, and learn to ignore nettle stings.  Be alert for ticks, more especially if you are out of town, and check again for their presence when you get home.

PERSISTENCE  - Persistence pays off. You’ll learn that some small creatures like a particular spot or perch, and given a chance will return to it.  Others can be followed by sight, if you’re lucky enough to be able to focus on anything smaller than half a brick moving through the air, and may well settle again nearby. One day something really special, that you’ve taken great pains to get close to, will suddenly decide to perch on your phone. Or better, your hand, where you have at least a chance of taking a photograph with the other one.


A holly blue on Steve's hand! Photo taken one-handed.

WASTAGE  - Expect most pictures to turn out average-to-poor: blurred shots, pictures of deserted leaves, etc. Occasionally, unpredictably, you will take a super-picture. Delete at leisure, keep the best, accumulate; we couldn’t afford this luxury in the days of celluloid film.

Digital cameraphone technology puts wildlife photography within the grasp of us all, especially if we learn sufficient how to act in the field. Whether for identification and recording, or for the challenge and pleasure of looking through your results, it has never been easier to record the natural world around us  - so get started right away.