Natural History of Photography with Damon Tighe

By Constance Taylor

In addition to being the experienced amateur mycologist who lead Wild Oakland’s Mushroom walk last December, Damon is also well familiar with the natural history (and use) of the camera.  We began the afternoon in the Rotary Nature Center while Damon gave us a brief history of the evolution of cameras, how they operate, and some basic principles of nature photography.

Here’s a tragically truncated version of all the great stuff we learned on February 9, 2013!

Damon explaining photography basics. Photo by Eddie Dunbar

In the figurative primordial ooze of its development, dating back to the ancient Greek and Chinese, the “camera” was a room-sized box with a pinhole in one side.  Light would shine through the hole, projecting the outside image upside-down onto the back of the box.  Later, a mirror was added to turn the projected image right-side up onto a wall, which Renaissance-age artists would trace and paint in, making that one of the first kinds of “image capture”.

Fast forward to modern day technology, and camera lenses essentially compact the entire pinhole box, turning a large image reflector into something we can stick in our pocket.

So what are some things one should keep in mind when using newfangled image-capture machines to record nature?

Good pictures make your eye wander around the frame to pick up details that may not be the primary subject.  Remembering these three basic principles will help you take a shot that does just that:

Rule of Thirds. Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland. Photo: Damon Tighe

1) Rule of Thirds: Mostly used for landscape photos.  Never divide the land and sky 50/50- instead have one or the other take up a third of the space.  Having the divide in the center of the picture makes it less interesting- your eye goes straight to the middle of the photo anyway, and if the horizon is right in the center then you’re done looking at it almost as soon as you’ve started.  The Rule of Thirds forces the eye down or up from the center, thus making the eye wander.  Which is a good thing.



Off-center the subject. Rock maze at Sibley, Oakland. Photo: Damon Tighe

2) Off-Center the photo subject: Like before, the eye initially goes to the center of the photo.  If the viewer has to look somewhere else for the subject, they will interface longer with the image.





S-curve. Climbing tree at Lake Merritt. Photo: Damon Tighe

3) S-Curve: This is probably the most powerful of the three principles.  If you can, integrate an s- shaped curve into your photo to take the viewer’s eye from one side of the picture to the other.  As the viewer’s eye wanders along the curve throughout the whole photo, they’ll pick up more of the story the picture is trying to convey.




As a nature photographer, your photo should tell a story.  To do this, composition is the most important thing you can focus on.  Look for one or two subjects to have in your picture, and try to focus in on them as closely as possible so the viewer isn’t distracted by other “stories”.

Damon advises to approach this part as “scene setting”.  What’s the macro vs. micro story, and what’s a novel way to tell it?

As he’s asking us these questions, we walk up to a large redwood.

Under the redwoods at Lake Merritt. Photo: Constance Taylor

“It helps to have an idea of what you’re shooting so you can tell it’s story- to highlight a piece and bring it out to your audience,” he explains.  “So what do we know about redwoods?  What makes them interesting, or different from other trees?”

Our group comes up with “tallest trees on earth” and “fire resistant because of their bark”, amongst other things.  The next step is to integrate what we know about their height and bark into a photo:

Photo of redwood, with a focus on it's bark and height. Photo: Constance Taylor

Next lesson: Wildlife photography!

The key to this is to sit still, be patient, and let things come to you.  Also, the closer you are to the ground the less intimidating you’ll be.  “Always have your camera in hand and ready to go when you’re shooting wildlife,” says Damon.

Waiting for a rare and elusive Canadian goose to wander in our direction. Photo: Eddie Dunbar

Tips include anticipating where the animal is moving in order to allow it space to walk into the frame, as well as where the light will be.  Will it walk under a tree, shading areas that you wanted to be bright?  Will you be waiting for hours, watching and photographing your animal as the shadows change?

Trying to shoot a squirrel running along a fence. Photo: Constance Taylor


It helps to get as close as possible to your subject, but with wildlife this can be hard (and possibly illegal, depending on the species).  Flowers, however, are much less skittish, and our friend the passion vine helped us out with the last exercise.




The passion vine was heavy with fruit and flowers, the perfect subject for our final shoot.

Get close! Photo: Eddie Dunbar

“In general, nature photography has very little to do with what kind of camera you have,” says Damon.  “You do need to learn how to best use it in different situations, but capturing a good image is more about slowing down and noticing things you’ve never seen before.  Move around and try to find the best angle, know your subject, and have an idea of the story you’re trying to tell.”

The most obviously photogenic aspects of the passion vine were the flowering bodies and subsequent fruit, which Damon gently manipulated so both were posed for a shot.  “I used to be a purist and have a very hands-off approach to my subject, but that didn’t get me very good pictures.  Now, if it doesn’t disturb or otherwise stress what I’m photographing, I’ll definitely move things around in order to best tell the story.”

Passion vine flower and fruit. Photo: Constance Taylor

Thanks to the multi-talented Damon Tighe for leading the walk, to Stephanie Benavidez and Alexa Fulper for letting us use the Rotary Nature Center as a classroom and staging spot, and to everyone who showed up and took lots of pictures!  See you next time!

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