Urban nature photography tips: A squirrel looks up, paws in front of its body, surrounded by a field of white daisies and lush green grass up to its shoulders.


Urban nature photography tips: Capture animals on your doorstep

Nature photography isn't just the luxury of those living in the countryside. Look in your garden, in the streets, under the rocks, around ponds and in city parks, and you'll find the perfect opportunity for nature photography in the city, right on your doorstep.

Young Finnish photographer Ossi Saarinen has built up a six-figure following on Instagram, photographing nature in the city – adorable squirrels, mice and foxes that look straight at the viewer, and funny-looking, round birds full of character. Here, he shares his top tips for photographing nature in the city, including the best places to find foxes, his favourite camera settings and the composition that best captures quirky characters in real life.

1. Understand the animal

In Helsinki, Ossi sometimes chances upon animals, but by understanding how the animals he's trying to photograph behave, he knows where to look, and when. "In the spring time, I try to find foxes' dens in places that aren't quite in the city centre, but are still near people. I try to find holes in the ground where they might have a den, and then I look for traces of fur, and for their strong smell," Ossi says.

"I think one of the most important things in animal photography is to know the animal's habits. If I've found a fox den with small cubs in it, I know that they spend all their time there, so I can just lie down nearby and photograph the fox cubs playing. Adult foxes walk around during the night and sometimes, even in the afternoon. They usually use the same road again and again so I can follow them to see what roads they use – and next time, I can go to the middle of that road and wait for the fox to come."

A female duck stands in the middle of a wooden bridge at dawn, looking straight at us.
Taken with EOS 6D
  • f/1.8
  • 1/250
  • 400

2. Choose your time of day carefully

The bustling city streets, busy roads and the sounds of civilisation are at odds with photographing nature – but it doesn't mean it's not there, waiting to emerge as the humans retire. "I never photograph in the middle of day," says Ossi. "Many animals are more active at night, but it's harder to take photographs in the dark, so I shoot around sunrise and sunset. The light is better at that time, so the photos are stronger."

Although a full-frame camera (such as the Canon EOS 6D) will perform better at high ISO settings, you can still take great nature photos with a cropped APS-C sensor camera (such as the Canon EOS 7D Mark II), says Ossi. "For birds and bees, if you can't get very close, cropped sensors can even help to make the animal appear larger in the frame," owing to the restricted field of view with a cropped-frame sensor.

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3. Get close or use a long lens

"If you want to get really close, you usually have to let the animals see you," Ossi explains. "The key is to spend a lot of time with the animal so that it gets used to your presence. You have to act very calmly – don't make any sudden movements. You can learn how they behave and react to your movements, and how close you can get before they'll run away."

For urban nature photography, Ossi likes to use zoom lenses "because the situation changes all the time – the animal can be very close, but then it might move suddenly. With my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens I can get photos very close up or at a distance with the full 200mm focal length. Particularly when you're beginning to get into nature photography, it's difficult to get close to animals. For that reason it's best to start with a long lens such as a 300mm or 400mm." The Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III lens is a popular compact lens with a lot of reach, while for an even more compact and budget-friendly solution, the Canon PowerShot SX740 HS camera's powerful 40x optical zoom also gives you the ability to zoom in and out easily and quickly.

4. Increase the ISO and shoot wide open

Nature is often at its most spectacular in the early morning or late evening, when daylight fades. Therefore, the ability to photograph in low light is one of the reasons Ossi prefers using a camera such as the full-frame Canon EOS 6D for urban nature photography. It has a large ISO range with an 11-point autofocus system that’s sensitive enough to operate under moonlight, increasing your chances of a sharp shot. The camera's successor, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, takes this even further, with 45 cross-type autofocus points and an ever greater ISO range.

But his method works with cropped-frame cameras, too: he recommends increasing the ISO and shooting wide-open to get the shot. "If I have to, I set the ISO very high – it's better to get a slightly noisy photo than no shot at all." he says. Ossi adds that he likes to stay below an ISO of 10,000 with his camera, but all camera models vary in different conditions, so the key is to experiment with what you and your camera can capture in your local area.

A small yellow bird perches on a hand in front of us, its wings outstretched.

5. Focus fast and freeze animals in motion

Ossi advises photographers wanting to capture nature in the city to choose a camera with a fast autofocus – "the faster, the better" – and image stabilisation. The Canon EOS 7D Mark II has a 65-point all cross-type AF system and features Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which will increase the chances of focusing on moving subjects, even in low light. Utilising your lens's widest aperture will allow maximum light in, and enable you to increase your shutter speeds: "I prefer lenses with a wide aperture, because you need fast shutter speeds to freeze animals in motion," says Ossi.

6. Make your subject stand out

For his trademark wide aperture style, which shows his subjects pin-sharp, isolated from busy backgrounds, Ossi uses Aperture priority mode (Av mode) and a wide aperture. He also uses post-production to enhance his images: "I do basic editing of the brightness, contrast, and a bit of colour adjustment. I often try to make the animal stand out better from the background by making it brighter or the background darker. I try to keep my photos as realistic as possible."

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