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The Art of Nature Photography

Lesson 4 of 12

Favorite Lenses and Composition

Art Wolfe

The Art of Nature Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

4. Favorite Lenses and Composition
What type of gear do you need for landscape photography? In this lesson, Art discusses his favorite lenses and focal lengths as an outdoor photographer. Learn how gear influences nature photography, including wildlife photography and landscapes. Mix focal lengths with composition to create great shots with depth and interest.

Lesson Info

Favorite Lenses and Composition

In that first lecture, you you saw the history, the inspiration and how I work on projects one leading to another very linear processes I said, this next lecture is mohr centric towards the nuts and bolts, and I kind of built this well, I did build this lecture based on what a lot of people ask me at the end of, uh, you know, public inspirational tze, and so I'm going to address my favorite lenses. I'm goingto give some tidbits about how to treat a subject, and then I'm going to also give the ten deadly sins of composition, which is yeah, hard and fast rules that you can break so because really, you know, rules are meant to be broken, as they say so there's rules are good to follow more times than not there's always those exceptions and will cover those exceptions as well. So my favorite lenses now I place this abalone shell out there on this beach second beach we live in a great part of the country, as you all know, within a one hour dr two hour drive from seattle, you could be either...

in a northern steppe desert on top of ah glaciation peak or in an old growth forest or out on the wild washington coast, and here I set this shell out there just to illustrate this siri's of points it's funny to me, when I'm teaching a work top in the field, I'll ask people toe get in close with a wide angle and invariably and always they get maybe three or four feet away through four feet away with a white angle is like him as well be in dib yuk iowa so when I say get in close, I may be saying that close with a wide angle so this illustrates that point. This is a sixteen millimeter shot of second beach and now I'm getting in close that first photo was three feet away. This one is about a foot and a half away, but that far away and lastly, this one is right there right in front of you, so and lucy, is there a third one? No, so you know, I'm getting senile here, that is what I'm talking about getting in really close I was doing that with the wildlife shots think about it getting in close to those came in getting in close to the albatrosses o was shooting that wide angle perspective, but that's what I'm talking about because what we want to do if we're going to include a foreground element, we want that element to be on equivocal we don't want you to be guessing what I'm trying to say this is a shot aboutthe shell in its environment thes previous rot shots were not this is like an element that shell looks like a nuisance in this frame, but now it becomes more dominant and dominant. So that's, in fact, how I use a wide angle I use a wide angle not to bring in the entirety of the grand canyon, I'm bringing it, using it to show the details of a foreground stump, and then the wide angle nature it's just sits back quietly has a sense of place and it's exactly what I was doing with the living wild work here I'm really close to these little tiny rocks on the beach in south africa and then the ocean in the clouds quietly sit beyond these air stiles, this is a style of using a wide angle that over our king reason to do this is that we want to fill all four corners of the composition think about that four corners we want eye movement if you're taking a picture, you're shooting for your audience and we want the audiences I to move up and down and threw out because it is they're looking through your frame they're staying with the subject. So by having that interesting foreground you're creating depth and interest the lava freshly laid out on the big island of hawaii, and then you see the plume and the skyline in the distance here in patagonia, these beautiful granite rocks are a great foreground element that balances those great spires that are really indicative of patagonia and further north in the andean chain you see these rocks frosting drowned and a volcano that rises seventeen thousand feet in the distance in this image it's a iceberg but it's a tiny iceberg but by giving and clothes and makes it look really substantial low angle, light wide angle you see the light being refracted through that clear ice which happens to be the oldest ice on an iceberg are in a glacier, so to recap wide angles, I use them quite often not to shoot the entirety of the grand canyon, but to find an element to bring into the foreground and fill the frame and here's a great example I'm laying on my stomach here I'm using sixteen millimeter wide angle I'm low and now these penguins are going to slowly come up because they're relaxed to my proximity and then they're going to present themselves so sixteen millimeter wide angle they come right in fill the frame as a foreground element same with these uh snow monkeys yeah there's over my career that spans forty four decades there's a lot of subjects that kind of pat pioneered and made famous for the american audience and one of them was these snow monkeys I've went there thirty years ago and thirty years ago the monkeys were a little more tentative around people there would be just a handful of japanese photographers come I'd spend you threw for hours down there I would be lucky if I could get this far away there's still really tame but this close and today over the time in the exposure thes monkeys their fathers their mothers they would be have become really habituated that little monkey sees its self in it's in the front element of this wide angle lens so it's reacting it's actually reaching out to its reflection in the front of the glass so that was kind of funny but this was even funnier look at that monkey thing this is gabrielle to con my long term assistant photographer co leader of a lot of the workshops and look at that little monkey now thirty years ago they would never get this close but now is not only looking at itself it's deciding to find where that little monkey is it's in there somewhere it's in there now this last shot in the sequence and I've got a laugh I mean I love doing what I do and humor and ah and inspiration that never gets old I'm never blase too the moment I'm laughing my head off and I'm in the field this is a straight shot now we opened up we open digitally we ope frightened up the sensor a little bit but it is virtually looking at itself in the sensor and look at the problem other beyond now it is so fun to travel and take pictures. This was photographed years ago up in glacier national park, and I know the animal behavior because as you know, I started studying him at seven years old so over time and experience around animals, you get to know the behavior of l can bear and elephants and goats and sheep are truly attracted to salt. They smell salt that's why mineral licks exist so this mountain goat I urinated I even people as perfect as me I have to urinate occasionally and I urinated on a rock up in the wilds of rocky mountain ash are glacier national park and then I saw these goats and they were smelling my urine and yeah, I smell particularly nice, so they came over where I urinated and I got the great shot. Now, it's, the reality is the reality so wide angle you saw that. So these air all with that wide angle so people again use white ingles I think inappropriately you don't use a wide angle to shoot a mountain range in its entirety. You'd use them as far as I'm concerned for two reasons to make a subject like this sutton reindeer herder on the border of siberia in mongolia big in the frame and then you bring in that backdrop teo give the subject a sense of place the other way I use a wide angle is tto find leading lines in environment when you think about the way we read, we read left to right in western culture but from bottom to top so if I can intersect really dominant lines in environment on the bottom of the frame then your eye naturally follows into the heart of the subject and I do that all the time those lines direct the eye I bring lines out of the corner of the compositions directing your eye right to the person with that parasol your eyes not going and lingering up here no, I'm directing all these lines direct you to the subject so I'ma communicating to you what's important in the frame this was just shot a month and a half ago in the mountains of new guinea and these are our tribal a group of people that adorn themselves to look like skeletons. So all these bamboo lines are kind of directing your eye to the people in the heights of that bamboo and I learned that trick in nineteen eighty four when I was working with this frozen mud puddle on the base of mount everest and all these lines can a direct you up to the mountain so directing I helps communicate the point you're trying to make the directing of the eyes with those tracks those tracks virtually lead you to the source of the tracks and you know, and I know that most people in an environment with a bear are gonna put the bear right in the middle, but this tolls more of a complete story later, I'll take a portrait of the bear, but now with those tracks is important to get that lead in line, you know, here in the loo know, in the, uh, vatican museum, that spiraling staircase takes your eye right down and around to the bottom and the death of the french. Every line in this shot directs you to the woman carrying the machine and lemons, so those air the way I use the wide angle, the other lands and these aren't once you run out and buy their they're just a guide, so I use a wide angle. It could be a sixteen to seventeen wide angle sixteen to our thirty five teo seventeen anything in a wide angle lens I'm gonna have on in my pack. The other one I have is a seventy two, two hundred and that seventy two, two hundred is a great lens for dialing in a more intimate landscape and here's a shot in the police in eastern washington, that landscape that looks analogous to the tuscan landscape beautiful uh, landscape toe work, I'm going to actually teach a workshop later on in august. Here this is near steptoe butte and this frame does a lot of things that are against my nature, and I'll talk about the rules of composition later, but one of them is having the horizon down the middle. The meat of this shot really lies within here because there's this beautiful single tree there's grass growing the middle of this dirt road that reminds me of when I was a boy and we had a alley behind her house and was always grass growing down the middle where the wheels didn't touch, and so that I romanticize that as a subject, but shooting it this way. You have to kind of guess what my subject iss so with a fifty millimeter, it doesn't make sense, but with a seventy two, two hundred I can zoom right in and make it unequivocal on that word unequivocal is what I'm after. I don't want you tto be confused as to what my subject is. Even when I was using the idea of hiding the animal in front of you with vanishing act, it was a pretty simple shot. I wasn't distracting with a hundred different things. It was fairly to the point, as is this image, so I used the seventy two, two hundred as a really good way of zooming in and making the shot unequivocal here I'm up in the mountains of bhutan. One of the elements of their culture are these prayer flags it's a beautiful tradition in buddhist cultures. They inscribed buddhist prayers on very delicate fabric, and then they set these prayer flags out on a windy rid tour on the crest of a pass, and so the winds that frequently come down the slope of the himalaya, they buffet the fabric and the fabric disintegrates fuss, releasing the prayers to heaven. So that's a great tradition, but in that wide angle shot there's a lot of elements that are competing with flakes, so I'm going to put on a seventy two, two hundred take a long exposure, so the contrast of the sharp poles and the buffeting fabric gives depth to the image but makes it really stylized and simple and graphic and that's what I'm after. So first I shoot the wide angle, then I shoot the details with seventy two, two hundred, but it's also a great wildlife lands, you know, today they have seventy two three hundreds, which are also great, but somewhere in that range is a very versatile lens that I would never leave without. I may leave big glass behind if I know I'm not going to be photographing. You know predator animals are animals I can't get close to but I never have gone on a trip in the last thirty years without this seventy two, two hundred or something analogous to that so from a elfin platform I can fill the frame with a tiger I frequently teach and take people as next year up to alaska where I make people feel comfortable around brown bears and grizzly bears I'm laying on my stomach about twelve feet away from these cubs plain fighting each other seventy millimeter lands and look at that you got great depth of field sharp focus it's almost like it's a uh you know it's a museum exhibit where you have these stuffed bears in the background because we're not used to shooting with great depth of field but in today's world on doing that quite often so all these air shot that's that beautiful lens so wide angle and then the seven to two hundred portrayed lenses and with that all those uh tribe's poor traits I was using that lens as a vertical and getting in close to humans so it's one of my favorite lenses you'd be surprised to know that people like myself frans lanting, tom mandelson, jim brandenburg these people that are shooting nature are they have you know that we have like three four lenses in our pack we don't have every lens made you know you can walk forward or move back we have to travel on a world scale with the economy of weight and you make the lenses that you use work for you. Now there are times where I'm going to be photographing predatory animals or birds of prey where I don't want to get so close that my behaviour is going to alter their behavior so that's when I go on trips and I know I'm going to bring a five hundred or something and now lucas to that in this case, it was the six hundred millimeter shot off the polar bear on the day that she brought her cubs out of the den, so I shoot it that way and then I'll put a two x on and I'll shoot the vigna, you know, making more abstract, you know, I don't I need to show you the entirety of the mother, I want you to assume you know what that looks like? So it's a way of framing the baby, the orange color of the mother is a beautiful contrast to the blue, orange and blue are complementary colors, so again, as I photograph that knowledge of color theory plays into a lot of the way I framed my subjects so big lenses go on trips where I know I'm going to be shooting animals that I can't be right on top of animals that might be a little wary of my presence oh my god I love this siri's because yeah upon the alaska peninsula I go to a couple of places where bears actually use humans use humans mother bears with their cubs will come close to you because the boar bears or the male bears that might injure her cubs will not follow so if she sees humans out in the grass she's going to bring him up to you and she may have just lay down go to sleep while the cubs are playing nearby we're baby sitters for a brown there ah now I say that within without any hesitation I seen it I've seen it so many times but in this particular case the babies were playing like twenty feet feet behind her she's eating grass she's looking at me she's relaxed and suddenly behind me there was movement in the grass and she just let out kind of a huff and suddenly the baby's just stop playing and ran to her side stood up in attention and they're waiting for her to tell him what to do and I had never seen that behavior before as it turned out there was a mother otter with her pop and the minute she figured out what that noise was she relaxed the babies went back to playing so that was a life lesson there I've never seen that before recently a couple weeks ago I was up uh working on ah boat off uh glacier bay and now, with the technology of fast eso cameras, we can talk about that later after the workshop, I can get shots I've never been able to get before, you know, tax, sharp motion, you know, we live at great times as photographers, the technology that billy's toe travel with digital cameras and shoe shots said we could only dream of we live at a great time, so these are all shot with those bigger lenses pulling him in and with the bill, these two track and I'm not in the process of selling you cameras, I'm just telling you my my work ethic and what I use, all right? So the other way I used telephoto lenses is not just to frame around an animal, not just to get shots of the animals that I can't get close to. The other thing I love to do is compress a scene with a telephoto lens to distort. In other words, reality people will say, why are you talking about? Well, I'm talking about compressing two subjects with a telephoto you can create the illusion that you know, this waterfall rises directly above the person in the foreground, that person maybe fifty feet between me and that waterfall, but by compressing the image, I create more drama and I'm all about creating more memorable moments I'm not illustrating a guide to waterfalls in iceland I could care less but what I want to do is create drama I want to photograph impactful photos this is gabrielle in front of the southern patagonia peaks and with a two hundred millimeter with a polarizer aiken bring in those mountains as if they are right in front of him and if I had shot this with fifty millimeter lands it would look very inconsequential so by using that telephoto effect I create illusion that those people are right on top of that bear and in fact there's about forty feet between the bear and those people so you create drama you may distort reality but that's ok as an artist I don't really care I want people to be emotionally affected by the shots so I used these longer lenses to create more drama and mohr interest and I love doing that with big lenses and sunsets in africa where in the fall there's a lot of grass being burned and so consequently you can look at the sun going down and photograph it with the same exposure you can photograph the foreground elements in this case elephants so distorting reality compressing shot telescopic effect those are all the same thing the polarizer you know people want to know okay what are the filters you use well historically I would use a love filters back in the film day but in today's world I'm using light room after I capture the image I can change you know all sorts of filters I can warm up a scene I could make it blue or I can make it more contrast whatever I need to do but I can't really replicate a polarizer so polarizer I use quite often so this is without a polarizer and a polarizer has maximum effect at a subject that's ninety degree to the sun and in this particular case you can tell that the sun is coming in from left you got shadows on the right side of these massive sin the distance perfect timing for using a polarizer and it takes the shine off the water and saturates the color which is creating more depth and more interest. So the polarizer is a great filter that I work with not just on sunny days in mountains, not just on sunny days in the desert but even in the rainforest on the overcast day, you'll have a beautiful effect post sunset shot at homestead point yosemite polarizer it almost looks like a different day, so it has great effects on that subject. This is mount fitzroy without a polarizer so it darkens the sky and by darkening the sky, the light parts of the frame come forward creating depth and death is a good thing we want to create them even with a herd of animals we're looking down a slope ed uh ibex in switzerland contrast e day. Look, it there's a lot of white light reflecting on the grass and with the polarizer it doesn't make a perfect shot, but it certainly makes it's a richer shot to work with, so just that little filter is a great thing that I carry. So what I'm really talking about are my favorite lenses and how I work in the field. I'm not trying to sell you product. I'm showing you what I do so here's a perfect example of lily pads in africa and polarizer you, khun c and I like both those versions, but at least now I have a choice. So polarizer, I'm using in an article what's, you know, icebergs under the water, you know, off the bow of a boat in the sea of cortez polarizer was the perfect thing to do. Cuts through the glare allows you to see the dolphins, an aerial shot over beluga whales up off somerset island in the high canadian arctic almost looks a lot like those whales are floating on the surface.

Class Description


  • Improve your composition in landscape photography
  • Develop an eye for better nature photography
  • Find --and grow -- your inspiration
  • Go from nature lover to nature photographer
  • Spot creative shots even in popular places
  • Fine-tune composition with the unpredictability of wildlife photography
  • Tell a story through fine art nature photography


Spend a day gleaning insight from a nature photographer with five decades of experience shooting on every continent, Art Wolfe. This special one-day class includes two 90-minute discussions, 90 minutes of student critiques, and three episodes of Art's documentary series Travels to the Edge.

Go beyond basic nature photography tips and dig into the psychology of nature photography and what takes an image from a snapshot to fine art. Learn to find your inspiration, break the rules and see the story inside grand landscapes. This is not a class for taking textbook plain nature photography from a boring list of landscape photography tips -- it's a class designed to help you find your own unique voice to capture your own fine art prints of landscapes, wildlife, and culture.

After this class, you'll have the confidence to experiment, to work for the shot, and to capture the story in nature photography.


  • Beginning photographers shooting landscape, wildlife and nature
  • Intermediate photographers ready to refine their eye
  • Advanced photographers looking for insight from a top nature photographer


Art Wolfe is a nature and conservation photographer with a background in fine art and painting, a start which continues to influence his work to this day. Often described as a "prolific" nature and wildlife photographer, Art has published more than 80 books of photographs, along with images appearing in major publications such as National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, and more. Art has received numerous awards, including Nature's Best Photographer of the Year. He also leads a documentary television series Travel to the Edge. When he's not traveling nine months out of the year (including leading photography tours), he's teaching and working with his stock agency and production company in Seattle.

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What a fantastic use of time! My photos improved dramatically since this course. I found it so useful, I recommended it to 3 people, and am coming back to purchase. My favorite segment was about composition, which is where I really needed the most help. I'd previously subscribed to the take a hundred shots and hope one turns out well. Now I think much more carefully prior to the shot, and the quality of the photos is on a completely different level from what I'd taken before. Then entire course was excellent, and I really appreciated the segment on audience submission critiques. It helped me to internalize the concepts he'd taught, and to develop a keener eye. Art Wolfe truly is a master. His photographs have the ability to stir the emotion deeply and soothe the ailing heart. Mr. Wolfe is a great instructor too. Concepts were presented clearly, and illustrated well. I am so thankful to have participated in this course. Thank you, to Art Wolfe, for sharing insights into your talent, and also thank you to everyone involved in making this course widely available. I cannot recommend this course highly enough!


I have always loved you CreativeLive, for being there in so many ways to teach me how to do better what I love to do. And, so I doubly thank you for re-featuring this and, thus. allowing me to buy this at a no-brainer price. I live in New Mexico. I have struggled to discern how to photograph New Mexico in a way that it hasn't already been photographed. It's like the Eiffel Tower. This class has SO helped me think about how to do that. I LOVED how Art Wolfe talked about how he started as a painter and how that has influenced how he captures his photography. I'm going to really start thinking about that and experimenting with this. New Mexico has had MANY painters, besides Georgia O'Keefe, whose work I love. I'm committed to studying them more and being influenced by their work. I haven't been photographing landscapes here very much, because of how much New Mexico has already been photographed. But this class has helped me think about how to do that more powerfully.and uniquely. And also, total kudos to the videographers of the last three segments of this class. Just watching these videos and Art Wolfe narrating this is worth the price of admission. So, in short, being a New Mexican who aspires to photograph her beloved New Mexico in a way that is different and more powerful, I think this class will inspire and focus me going forward. Thank you!

a Creativelive Student

I enjoyed your presentation and critiques so very much. I was able to watch it all but decided I would love to watch it again. I bought the class. Art's sense of humor was enjoyable. I loved his time working with his models and oh my what he was able to do with them artistically was so incredible. I learned so much through his critique. I went to our local Barnes &Noble; and was shocked they didn't have any of his books. I will continue looking for them as I would enjoy having some of them for inspiration. I also want to thank creative live as I have enjoyed your programs so much and I continue to spread the word about your classes. Thank you. Frances