Chris Johnston Photography

5 Christmas Gifts For The Nature Photographer On Your List

1. Brian Peterson’s Understanding Exposure

While new gear is good, as David DuChemin would say, "vision is better." I think far too many photographers look at new gear as a way to improve their photography and often they’re not making the best use of the gear currently at their disposal. One of the best ways to make better use of the gear you have is to make certain that you have an understanding of the fundamentals of exposure. Just as a house built on a poor foundation will develop problems as time goes on, a photographic career or hobby will develop problems as you progress if you don’t have a firm foundation of skills built upon good photographic principles; the number of one of those being exposure.  

A firm grasp of exposure will help you avoid blown out highlights, shadows going to black, and noise from said shadows by trying to bring them back in Lightroom or Photoshop. A poor understanding of the exposure triangle leads to blurry photos, an over-reliance on high ISO‘s, and missed opportunities to use exposure as a creative tool. 

Photography is simple. It is about capturing light. Exposure is the way we tell if we have the “correct” light. Bryan Peterson makes it really simple in this book and gives you exercises to help you reinforce the concepts. I believe if you take this book and master the principles in it, you will see a marked improvement in your photography. 


2. A good pair of hiking boots

As nature photographers, we spend a lot of time on our feet out in the field. From scouting locations to early morning hikes in questionable light, and down unmarked trails to get that spectacular sunrise photo. We walk a lot and in places where a misstep could be dangerous to deadly (depending on how remote it is). One way to make the journey more pleasant, and potentially safer, is with a good pair of high-quality hiking boots. 

Consider the terrain in your local area when choosing the boots for your photographer. Wet areas, like the one I live in South Louisiana, require a much different boot than someone working regularly in the Rocky Mountains at or above the tree line. While online is an excellent option, I find it better to go to a specialty store like a Patagonia, North Face, or REI to get fitted by a pro. 


3. A SPOT GPS Messenger

Landscape photographers tend to work in remote areas like national parks, state parks, or wilderness areas. Many of these areas have little to no cell phone coverage, and if you were to get injured, it could be hours or days before another person passes by. Most photographers don’t carry survival gear when traveling (this is not a good idea) and if they break a leg or twist an ankle miles down a mountain trail as they wait for sunset, walking out in the dark is going to be risky.

With a SPOT messenger, you can have peace of mind because with the push of a button search and rescue teams are notified via satellite of your location and will be on the way shortly. In addition to emergency operation, you can also check in with family at home by sending pre-formatted messages to let them know your location and that you are safe. They can even log in to a web interface and track your location. The device can be set to update your location at 60, 30, 10, or 5-minute intervals. For an additional annual fee, it will update at 2.5-minute intervals (not necessary for most users). 


4. A 5C’s Survival Kit

In the survival skills world, the 5 C’s are: cover, cutting tool, combustion, cup, and cordage

Let’s look at these a little further. Cover is some kind of tarp or tent. Cutting tool is a knife. Combustion is a way to start a fire. Cup is some way to carry water AND heat it if you need to boil water to purify it. Cordage is some kind of rope to tie your tarp down, lash pieces of wood together, etc.

I’m not going to go into detail here, but spend an afternoon on YouTube and learn the basics, and you will understand why every photographer should have a survival kit before heading into the outdoors. 


5. The final one is TIME

Give the photographer you love the time to practice their craft. As a father of 3 with Cub Scout meetings, Girls Scout meetings, play rehearsals, dance class, and church activities taking up most of my non-working time, just finding time to shoot can be a challenge. If you love a photographer and you want to give them the best gift of all, give them free time to get out and shoot regularly. 

For the landscape and nature photographer, this is even more critical than it is for a portrait shooter. Sunrise and sunsets only happen at specific times. Weather can make or break a beautiful sunrise, and they have no way of knowing if it will be good or bad until they get there. Also, there is travel time to consider. Unless they happen to live next to National Park, they probably have to travel to a good location, and it could take several hours each way. Give them the freedom to do this. Weekly would be ideal, monthly is probably more realistic, and a least a few times a year is a bare minimum. 

This gift will probably cost more in terms of sacrifice than any other on the list, but it will be more appreciated by the photographer you love than any other.