Photographic study of Galapagos marine iguanas resting
High-key abstraction of resting Galapagos marine iguanas and one bright red Sally Lightfoot crab. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

To paraphrase Groucho Marx: here are five guiding principles for outdoor photography, but if you don’t like them, we have others!


The world is awash with close-ups of the proverbial gnat’s eyebrow. I’m deeply in love with my own ‘long kit’ (Canon 5D MK IV and 7D MK II x 500mm f/4 IS II x 1.4 III extender). But ‘shorter and wider’ lens/camera options offer more creative scope – more cheaply. So, if you want to shoot other than ‘documentary style’, go for speed and width ahead of length in your lens selection (see Principle 2). It is more challenging, but it takes you to a creative space where big is not king.


If you use cameras with interchangeable lenses, get the fastest glass you can afford. By ‘fast’ I mean at least f/4 or f/2.8. Used correctly, these big aperture lenses will give you unbelievable latitude in difficult light, and you can basically throw away your flash. They also work much better with extenders (converters) when you want more focal length without losing too much light.


When it comes to composition, learn to let go of your preconceptions and the new ideas will follow. Or as my then 25-year-old son David told me when trying to help me with my overthought golf game: “Forget the theory and let your instincts take over.” Easier said than done but if you want to do more than record what you see through the viewfinder, read Principle 4.


My go-to guru on making pictures is the Canadian photographer and writer Freeman Patterson. His book Photography and the Art of Seeing is a master class in showing the reader how to think sideways. He says letting go of self is an essential precondition of really seeing a picture; that by more directly experiencing a subject, new ideas will follow. “Good seeing doesn’t ensure good photography, but good photographic expression is impossible without it.”

Black-crowned pitta in Borneo jungle
The black-crowned pitta is found only in Sabah – but for how much longer? Photo: ©Tony Neilson


My own outdoor skills improved when I began thinking more about telling stories and less about taking pictures. Even a BOB (bird on branch) capture can be framed to reveal enough of the habitat to transform a record shot into something more narrative.

The image (above) of the black-crowned pitta (a Sabah endemic) accompanying this post is a case in point. Definitely a BOB, but with a subtle message: isolating the bird at the extreme right of the branch says something about its precarious future in a country where natural forest destruction in favour of oil palm is a major threat to all wildlife.

Back story: The elusive black-crowned pitta image involved a crawl through steaming Borneo rainforest, the persistent attentions of leeches and giant ants, and a nerve-racking wait for a shaft of light to penetrate the canopy in the right spot. In a thousand other situations the bird would have departed just as the light arrived, but luck was on my side that day. (The shot: Canon 1D Mk IV, 500mm f/4 IS II at f5.6, 1/50 sec, ISO 3200, hand-held, no flash.)

(©Tony Neilson, December 2016)


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.



  • Leonard Lee January 6, 2017 at 3:02 AM Reply

    Brilliant stuff, Mr Neilson, sir. More please.

    • Tony Neilson January 6, 2017 at 6:30 AM Reply

      Thank you old friend, I look forward to seeing a major improvement in your photography!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Time to go beyond being an end-of-story comment person.
To write a blog post or submit some of your best images with the backstory, please contact Tony Neilson.