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What is Environmental Photography? A Breakdown on Capturing and Understanding Different Settings

What is Environmental Photography? A Breakdown on Capturing and Understanding Different Settings

The world is a fascinating place, isn’t it? One of the best ways to understand it is with environmental photography, a dynamic niche that’s as grand as it is useful.

If you’ve ever been eager to snap a shot of the sunset on your way back home, you already know the power of environmental photography. The wonder of capturing an entire forest or the rolling waves of the ocean is a magic trick that never gets old. However, different environments all have their own unique challenges that can test your technical ability. Learning how to properly capture each one starts with understanding and respecting their differences.

What is environmental photography and why is it such an important niche in the field of photography? This 101 breakdown is essential for budding photographers who want to develop this technical skill as either a fulfilling hobby or a budding career.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Environmental Photography?
  3. What Makes Environmental Photography Such an Important Niche?
  4. What are Different Types of Environmental Photography?
  5. What Makes a Quality Environment Photo?
  6. Conclusion: Environmental Photography is a Reflection of Our World and, By Extension, Ourselves

an example of environment photography showing an ocean wave crashing on dark brown rocks against a cloudy blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay

What is Environmental Photography?

Environmental photography is the practice of capturing and studying the environment with a camera. Also known as environment photography, this field has several fascinating purposes.

It’s important to note that, while environmental photography usually focuses on nature, the term refers to any kind of environment. A large city, a stretch of the parking lot, or a winding river all technically fall under this umbrella.

Scientific Purposes for Growing Bodies of Research

Environmental photography is incredibly useful for developing scientific research. Biologists, conservationists, and wildlife experts are just a few of the experts who rely on environmental photography for their careers.

For example, a biologist may need to take an ongoing series of photos of a plant to track its life cycle under a changing climate. A conservationist may take photos of a relatively untouched environment and use it as a visual resource in case of human interference.

In fact, environmental photos are particularly good for raising awareness among people who are unable to travel or know little about a given area. They generate appreciation for the world’s natural beauty, encouraging the viewer to remember their relationship with their surroundings. Environmental photographers are one of the biggest contributors to raising awareness on climate change.

Documentation Purposes for Building and Preserving History

The world is as dynamic as we are. Environmental photography has always been useful for documentation purposes, freezing areas in time for memorial or reference purposes.

A great example of environmental photos for building and preserving history is the tourism industry. A major draw for tourists are carefully preserved photos in museums, galleries, and gift shops. These environmental photos encompass decades and sometimes centuries of history at a glance. Viewers can learn so much about a culture, era, or technology just by observing how the environment has (or hasn’t) changed.

Artistic Purposes for Telling a Story

Have you ever snapped a photo of your surroundings to portray a certain aspect of your life or capture a nostalgic feeling? Environmental photography is another way to showcase the many facets of your artistic expression. 

Environments reflect many things about us, from the memories we make to the emotions we felt at the time. Think to impulsive photos you’ve snapped over the years. The overgrown flora of your childhood home’s backyard can represent old nostalgia and happier times. The low hanging sunset over a beach cove can invoke flickers of curiosity or serenity in a viewer. 

Entire niches of photography rely on the environment, even if it’s not the focus. Street fashion photography is so fundamentally tied into the urban and casual environments, it’s hard to separate the street from the fashion!

What’s the Difference Between Environmental Photography and Candid Photography? 

These two fields are similar in their focus on everyday settings without much prior planning, but there are a few differences. Environmental photography focuses on natural or manmade surroundings, such as mountains, cities or the ocean.

Candid photography usually focuses on a subject, such as a person or a pet, but can include the environment, too. The line between photography niches can grow blurry, such as with portrait photography. While portrait photography focuses on capturing the soul of a person, the surroundings often play a very important part of the composition.

What’s the Difference Between Environmental Photography and Nature Photography? 

These two fields are also very similar, both containing nature as well as the flora and fauna within it. Environmental photography usually focuses on natural surroundings, but can sometimes include houses or vehicles.

The easiest way to draw the line between these two categories is the focal point. If you focus on houses or buildings in your photography, you’d inch into urban photography territory. Similarly, if you focused on the car rather than what surrounds the car, you’d be taking vehicle photography. 

To compare, nature photography only focuses on natural environments as well as wildlife and flora. If there’s anything unnatural in the photo, it won’t be the focus.

What is Environmental Art Photography? 

Environmental art photography leans away from the scientific or historical aspect in favor of expression. This expression could take the form of creating a compelling mood or telling an interesting story with a powerful composition

a red and white japanese shrine next to a lake and rich green trees

Source Image: Pixabay

What Makes Environmental Photography Such an Important Niche?

Environmental photography is one of the most influential niches. Without it, we’d have a harder time understanding or recording the world we live in. 

While a lot of early photography focused on portraiture for medical or familial purposes, environmental photography has incredibly old roots. In fact, the oldest surviving camera photograph is a glimpse of buildings in a French neighborhood called ‘View Of The Window At Le Gras’. Taken in 1826, the power of environmental photography is already clear – the ability to freeze moments in time that will never come around again. 

Conservation photos – a subniche that combines nature and science photography – is another example of the power of environmental photography. These showcase the environment with the intent to raise awareness or inspire action in the viewer. This result is often achieved by telling a story that heralds a problem on the horizon, such as a forest vanishing or a species becoming endangered. Subniches that serve a similar purpose are wetland management and marine conservation. 

Environmental photography also frequently makes its way into everyday advertising. You’d be hard-pressed to find the restaurant, tourism and hospitality industry without it!

an example of astrophotography in environment photography showing mountains and snow under a starry sky

Source Image: Pixabay

What are Different Types of Environmental Photography?

Environmental photography is usually divided by the type of setting, but can occasionally include subjects, too (such as nature and wildlife photography). Below are the main types you’ll encounter, as well as common challenges capturing them. 

an example of seascape environment photography showing a scottish coast overseeing the ocean

Source Image: Pixabay


Seascape photography hovers in an interesting limbo. While the focus is on the ocean, you can still trickle in a little landscape photography with beaches, coves, islets, and islands. 

The ocean is one of the more difficult subjects to snap photos of due to the evershifting reflections on the water. Too much glare can create irritating white spots or overexposure that washes out the final photo. 

On the other hand, not enough bright light can make the water appear flat and indistinct. You can accidentally miss out on all the interesting ripples and hue shifts. 

a green grove of fluffy trees over a trail with a yellow sunspot

Source Image: Pixabay

Forests and Groves

Leveling up your environmental photography skills will include forests and groves at some point. Since these settings have complex features such as dappled lighting and interlocking branches, snapping a cohesive shot takes a little work. 

Just like seascape photography, forests and groves can occupy a blurry middle ground with other categories. For example, you can still incorporate a little cloud photography or wildlife photography while keeping the trees the focus. 

an example of environmental photography showcasing a mountain landscape surrounded by mist

Source Image: Pixabay


Graceful and imposing, mountain photography is in a class all its own. It’s the kind of environmental photography you focus on when you want the viewer to feel awed or humbled.

Mountain photography is more beginner-friendly due to having such simple, striking shapes. A high-definition camera with a Zoom lens will be more than enough to capture good mountain photos. 

If anything, the challenges tend to appear with more subtle details such as mist. A slower shutter speed with a very long exposure is good for capturing its soft, silky texture. If you want to reduce the mist and make the mountains stand out, a post editing session in Photoshop will do the trick. Simply increasing the contrast will make mist fade and bring you closer to your ideal result.

an example of cloudscape photography showing rich and fluffy yellow cumulus clouds against a blue sky

Source Image: Pixabay


Any outdoor environment is automatically juxtaposed against the sky. Cloudscape photography focuses on the brilliant clouds and sunlight that shine above us.

This subniche is often a whimsical and impulsive art due to the dynamic nature of clouds. The challenges here usually revolve around snapping ideal shots before clouds fade away or bring a sudden scatter of rain. 

an example of astrophotography showing a house and trees against a starry sky

Source Image: Pixabay


Step beyond the clouds and you’ll enter the starry landscape of astrophotography. This subniche emphasizes celestial bodies such as stars, meteors, planets, and moons.

This isn’t the most beginner friendly niche due to the subtlety of celestial bodies and how easily they’re swallowed up by the black of night. However, everyone has to start somewhere! You can start by understanding and improving your 50mm astrophotography.

an example of environmental photography showing the curving arch of stone in a desert

Source Image: Pixabay

Deserts and Plains

A particularly beginner-friendly environmental photography category are deserts and plains. With less texture and a reduced risk for glare, these settings are great for creating simple, eye-catching snapshots. 

Astrophotography and cloud photography overlap well here. Due to less light pollution, uninhabited deserts and plains also offer an unparalleled view of the sky.

an environmental photo showing a field of lavender flower clusters

Source Image: Pixabay

What Makes a Quality Environment Photo?

Whether they tell a story or succinctly capture the beauty of a given area, you should always strive for something specific. Quality environment photos have intention and, thus, immediately pop out to the viewer. 

A quality environment photo that invokes an intense response from the viewer requires three key features.

Going In With Strong Intent (Historical, Scientific, or Artistic)

The intent behind your environment photo will resonate more strongly than a scatterbrained or detached shot. Before you pull out your camera, approach the environment with a historical, scientific, or artistic intent.

Do you want to document the world around you for, say, a photo album? This approach would fall under capturing a slice of history. This intent could inform your photography to feel more nostalgic.

Have you considered going into environment photography for biology or zoology purposes? This would be more scientific, resulting in photos that have an extremely accurate level of detail. After all, this type of environment photography can literally influence conservation efforts.

If you want to simply express the most sincere parts of yourself through your environment, you’re aiming for artistry. These environment photos may come with filters or heavy photo editing sessions to transform the world into something completely different.

Building Technical Photography Fundamentals

Just like any other photography niche, you need to build a foundation of photography fundamentals to capture your subject well. These technical fundamentals will carry you through the most difficult photoshoots and have you coming out the other end successfully.

Artistic fundamentals include areas such as:

  • Composition
  • Color symbolism
  • Niche specialization

Technical fundamentals include areas such as:

Respecting the Environment’s Standout Features

Each environment has an array of features that makes it unique. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, letting each environment be itself will actually create more authentic and interesting photos.

The ocean isn’t exactly known for being dry and rocky, is it? Instead of expecting the same visual results you’d get from a desert landscape, embracing the ocean’s churlish and twinkling appearance will create stronger photos.

an environmental photo showing grassy green mountains overseeing a small white waterfall

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Environmental Photography is a Reflection of Our World and, By Extension, Ourselves

Environmental photography is as dynamic as the environments themselves. This niche is as old as photography itself and has been extensively used for scientific, artistic, and historical purposes.

Environmental photography categories include forests, oceans, mountains, and deserts. It also includes slightly more abstract environments such as cloudscape photography and astrophotography. Since subjects have to be in some sort of environment to exist at all, this niche can overlap with portrait and wildlife photography.

Creating compelling and distinctive environmental photography involves three key factors: intent, photography fundamentals, and respecting what makes the environment unique. Keeping all these details in mind can be difficult at first, but it will soon become second nature with practice.

Photographers are constantly seeing their emotions and memories in the environments around them. Whenever you snap a photo of billowing clouds or distant mountains, you’re reflecting your own inner world in turn.


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