Complimentary Colors in the Wild: With Jessica Nelson

April 9, 2018 0 Comments

This is our first tutorial all about complimentary colors!  I did a Q&A with Jessica Nelson, to find out how she uses color in her drool-worthy wildlife images.  Though her subjects may differ from what you normally shoot, the theories and practices she uses for color can be applied to every subject and genre!


How often do you look for complementary colors when shooting?


I love shooting nature and wildlife/birds are my favorite. Luckily for me, they come in so many different colors. Along with the different colors of the animals, shooting outdoors also allows us to see different colors during each season. So, what this all means is, during the different seasons I try hard to pair colors of wildlife with their scenery. I shoot a blue Indigo Violet against an orange sky at sunset to showcase two complementary colors. Another example is a yellow bumble bee sitting on a purple flower. I find that the subject really stands out when the background is complementary. However, I also like to shoot animals that blend in with their surroundings. Many animals are masters of their disguise and shooting them in their natural habitat can be artistic too.

What is the first thing you look for, your subject or your background?


I definitely look for the subjects first. Finding wildlife can be tricky and when you do find a nice subject to shoot, that isn’t obstructed or moving too fast, I take advantage of that. However, I try to move my position around quite often so that the background is more pleasing. Moving around quickly, before the subject moves, can minimize obstructions and can also put the background in better light or color.

Do you set your shots up in any way, shoot on the fly, or get in a specific place and wait for the perfect moment to press your shutter?


As a wildlife photographer, I shoot in the same basic places. My most favorite place is my woods that surround my house. I also love to go to local lakes, wildlife preserves and the beach. Wildlife is everywhere and you could definitely shoot them in most places but a grocery store parking lot where lot of seagulls flock to isn’t the most pretty scene. So that being said, when I do go to a specific place to shoot I then wait for the perfect moment to press the shutter. I try to find a place where there is a lot of wildlife as well as a nice surrounding. But I am known to walk around and search them out which also works as my exercise for the day.

How do you capture the perspective that you do?  (Standing, kneeling, down to the ground, etc.)


I again do a little bit of all of these. I handheld my equipment most of the time, I find shooting wildlife with a tripod to be too limiting. Most of my shooting is standing and often over my head to reach the birds in the trees above. But I also love to crouch down and shoot them at their eye level as well.

What do you look for in terms of lighting when making an image with complementary colors?


I shoot in all light but slightly overcast light is my favorite for wildlife. This works the best for colors both on the subject and the background. I will also shoot in full sun but I try to keep my subject out of dappled light to avoid them being to contrasty.

If you could go back in time and tell yourself some tricks for mastering this faster, what would you say?


My only regret is that I wish I would have switched to wildlife photography sooner. I was still trying to make human shooting work for me and I felt bad when it didn’t. So my advice is to listen to your voice and passion and follow that. Once I did, I felt like I grew tremendously as an artist.

How important is editing in your process?


I love editing. I use mostly LR for all my global changes and then take the image into PS for fine tuning. In terms of complementary colors, I like to enhance the colors of my images slightly to emphasize them. One example is when I shoot in the winter and snow I like the background to be cool, blue/purple, especially with a warmer bird as my subject such as a goldfinch. Birds really do stand out nicely in the cool winter light.

What gear and equipment do you use for accomplishing this?


I shoot with two Canon cameras, 5DMIII and 7DMII, and lots of lenses. My wildlife lenses are the Sigma 150-600C and the Canon 100-400L.


What are your typical settings?


For wildlife I have to use a very high shutter speed. I set that first and then asses the rest of my settings. I am not afraid to crank up my ISO so I can keep my shutter speed as high as I can go based on my light.



Where do you find inspiration?


I find inspiration everytime I go outside or look out my window. I love wildlife and have quite the passion for it. During the winter months when I can’t go outside as much, I am definitely not a cold weather fan, I tend to shoot less. However, I love to shoot in all seasons and capture the different colors and cycle of the natural world. It’s not hard to be inspired at the beauty that surrounds us.


What do you do when you get bored of shooting the same things?


I rarely get bored with the subjects I shoot. As I mentioned, I have quite the passion for wildlife and I try to learn as much as I can about them. We are also lucky in that new seasons bring new wildlife. During the spring and the fall we get to see amazing birds migrating through the area. The spring also brings new life. While I do see many of the same birds and animals in my yard, all I have to do to avoid getting bored is to go for a walk in a new place or find a nature preserve and it kicks me out of my funk.

What is something you’d like to learn in the future?


I would like to learn how to spot more elusive wildlife better. I am not very good at finding owls or foxes as much as I would like. I plan to spend time with some more experienced birders and learn a few tricks from them.


Jessica Nelson is a hobby photographer based out of central Maryland where she lives with her husband, three children and a spirited rat terrier. Getting her start as a kid in her father’s dark room, she now dabbles in lots of photography including natural light, studio, and macro but her real passion lies in wildlife and nature. She is drawn to all living things big and small and strives to capture much of our natural world.


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Emily Hamson

I'm a mom of 4 wild boys, who photographs mostly nature (partly because they don't run away or pull faces at me like my boys do). Being behind my camera is my therapy! In 2017 I decided to embark upon a personal photography project to find more creative ways to use my camera, and the CIC was born. I love to learn anything that goes along with photography, but I really love helping others learn new techniques even more!