Nature photography classes have taught me a lot as a teacher. They have helped me to evaluate how much emphasis in nature photography should be on technology, and how much on creativity.
Half my time spent teaching is concentrated on the essential mechanics of good photography; aperture, shutter speed, ISO, lenses and so on. The rest of the time is focused on understanding natural light, and the techniques of good composition.
I truly believe that a good photographer, no matter how good their camera may be, must have a good grasp of the basics. If you do not understand the relationship between shutter speeds and movement effects, you will not get the best results from your waterfall photos. If you do not understand depth of field you will not know how to capture real character in a wildlife photo.
However, the simple truth is that most of the time, especially in clear daylight situations, you can leave your camera on automatic and rely on it to do the job for you. I do not encourage this, as the more experience you have with your manual settings, the better prepared you are to use them when the situation calls for it. But auto is a reliable option most of the time.
So, if your camera can take care of the technical aspects of your photography for you, what sets a good photographer apart from the rest? The answer is simple; their creativity, and their willingness to put in the extra effort for a great photo.
If you are prepared to go to the trouble to take your photos in the best possible light, you can improve your photography one hundred percent overnight … without doing one thing to the settings on your camera.
If you ask 100 people what is the best time of day for landscape photography, 95 of them will probably know the answer: early morning and late afternoon. This is when the sun is low in the sky and the light is soft and colorful. The fact is, people do not need to be told when to take their photos; they just need to be prepared to put it into action. It is just too much trouble to wait until sunset, or stay overnight to be on location at sunset.
The great photographers are the ones who are prepared to make that extra effort. They may even stay several days, or return to the same location time after time, just to get their perfect shot.
So what sets a great photographer apart is not what they know. In relation to capturing the best light, they really do not know anything that the rest of us do not. The difference is that they have the level of commitment required to turn knowledge into results.
Good nature photography is about much more than just perfect lighting. There is also attention to detail, and creativity in composition. Once again, this is not rocket science. It often boils down to patience and how much effort you are prepared to make to get a result.
Let's examine the approach of two hypothetical photographers.
The first photographer finds a nice location at the right time of day, snaps a couple of shots and then heads home for dinner. Later they look at the photos and notice some dead grass in the foreground, and a plane in the sky that spoils the natural look of the photo. This photographer is not happy with his photos and does exactly what most people do: he blames the camera.
The second photographer arrives at the same scene, at the same time of day. He looks carefully through the viewfinder and notices the dead grass in the foreground. Knowing this will spoil the shot, he finds a better location just a few meters away, where an old fence leads into the distance adding depth and interest to the image. He notices a plane in the sky and waits a few minutes until it is out of view. In the meantime, he sees some clouds drifting into the frame, and waits just a few minutes more until they are in a perfect place to fit the composition. Later he looks through over the photos and is deservedly happy with the result.
Which photographer do you want to be?