Getting Youth to Focus on Nature

Seven tips from a pro for turning tech-fixated kids into wildlife-savvy shutterbugs

05-30-2017 // Text and Photos by Clay Bolt
teenage boy photographing subject with smart phone
By first exhaling, Adam Bolt can hold steady to focus on a sunflower in a garden in Bozeman, Montana. To get an image of a flying insect, find one at rest (such as the bee below) and press the shutter continuously as it flies away.

MY CAREER AS A CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHER and teacher has taken me around the world. But when I am photographing wildlife, my mind always turns back to the beautiful critters I first encountered as a child in my own backyard and the hours I spent drawing them. Through photography, I continue to depict the small, stunning creatures—from snakes and frogs to spiders and ants—that most people overlook. 

Today, competition for a child’s attention is fierce, and kids are spending less time outdoors than ever before. Many people blame this disconnect from nature on an addiction to screens and gadgets. But digital photography actually can capitalize on kids’ fascination with devices to teach them about nature—and maybe even inspire them to protect it. 

Bee on sunflower

By helping kids engage with nature photography, adults can learn a few things as well. Children tend to be open-minded, so they often find treasures we overlook. They’re also more willing to lie in a field of flowers or crawl through mud to search for great subjects. So while we might help them take better photos, kids can teach us to see the world in new ways.

If the young people in your life seem glued to mobile devices, let photography give them a window into nature. Whether they are using a smartphone, tablet or digital camera, here are a few tips to take their photos to the next level:

1. Understand the subject. By learning about how animals behave, budding photographers will be better prepared to capture the moment critters spring into action. Websites such as bumblebeewatch.org, iNaturalist.org and bugguide.net as well as apps such as eBird Mobile and WildObs can help identify species and explain wildlife behaviors. Some of these tools also enable photographers to become citizen scientists, able to report what they discover on the trail to sharable databases.

2. Learn to see. Seasoned nature photographers will wait for hours to get that one great shot, but kids often have to learn to slow down. Pick a spot in your yard or a nearby park. (Some apps like Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder can help you locate a park by zip code.) Then, tell your young photographer to sit still and really observe what is before him or her for a full 10 minutes before taking a photo. One of my students who tried this exercise said she was bored at first, but then she became fascinated with a log. Grubs were eating the wood, and raccoons would eat the grubs. “It’s like a supermarket!” she exclaimed. 

3. Write with the right light. The word photography means “writing with light.” The best lighting is often during the morning or afternoon when the angle of the sun will make colors richer and warmer. Before shooting, confirm that the sun is either behind your kids (by checking that their shadows are pointing toward the subject) or lighting the subject from the side. Cold-blooded animals such as insects, reptiles and amphibians, which kids often love to photograph, are more active midday, when the sunlight is most intense. A flash will reduce shadows and help capture these animals’ vivid details.

4. Get down to their level. Author Piotr Naskrecki writes in his book The Smaller Majority that leaf cutter ant, Costa Rica about 99 percent of all life on Earth is smaller than an index finger— which makes us giants! As giants, we can easily make the mistake of photographing small critters or plants while towering above them. However, just as you wouldn’t typically photograph a grizzly bear from an airplane, photographing a bug or a frog from a standing position isn’t ideal. By getting down to a subject’s level, your kids can see the world from its point of view and capture a better image.

 5. Freeze motion. One of photography’s superpowers is to freeze time and motion. Rather than just photographing a butterfly resting on a flower, encourage your kids to try to capture an image of the insect in flight, suspended in midair. To increase chances of success, have them start shooting photos while an animal is resting and then continue pressing the shutter until it moves. Also, a common strategy to try to steady a camera is to hold your breath, but this actually will increase shake. Instead, tell your kids to slowly blow out their breath just before snapping a shot to reduce blur.

6. Take in the whole picture. Kids can easily get so caught up in an animal’s antics that they don’t notice what else will be captured in a photo. Branches jutting into the frame’s edge or a very uneven horizon line can be distracting and can’t always be cropped out. So tell your eager protégé to pause and frame both the subject and the background in the shot whenever possible.

7. Reveal hidden wonders. In 2009, I co-founded an international nature photography project called Meet Your Neighbours (meetyourneighbours.net) that uses studio techniques in the field to create portraits of wildlife that reveal their spectacular details without any other distractions. To try this, position a piece of white plastic such as a thin cutting board so that it can be lit from behind with a portable light and in front with a flash or direct sunlight. You can also use a reflector or foil to bounce light onto the sheet, as this removes shadows and balances natural colors. Gently place an insect, salamander or other small animal on the white board and take the photograph quickly before allowing the creature to safely fly or crawl away. With luck, you’ll have a portrait of a critter with vibrancy that pops. 

As your child’s understanding of photography grows, so may his or her love for wildlife. With a little encouragement, photography may be just the thing to get your kid’s mind out of the virtual “cloud” and into a real forest.

Marine Toad, Costa Rica
Shooting at ground level in Costa Rica yields intimate portraits of a marine toad and leaf-cutter ant (above toad). Shining a portable light from behind outlines the insect with a warm glow, adding extra drama.


Conservation photographer Clay Bolt is based in Montana.

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