Nature Photography: Where Nature and the Photographer Meet

A dive into a personal journey of nature photography.


Joshua Im

Pictured here is my first encounter with the two swans. This picture was taken at Little Bay Park on December 11, 2021.

“Okay, in 3…2…1…smile!” Click. “Hmm… let’s do one more.” 

Listening to my mother who stood behind the camera, I grudgingly reset into an awkward position and forcibly pushed my cheekbones upward to fake a smile once again. I stared at the camera lens with happy eyes, but in reality, I concentrated on the people passing by within my peripheral, detecting anyone who threw a quick glance at my unsightly pose. The countdown started a little bit over three seconds with the brief pauses, yet the moment felt like eternity. Once I heard the clicking sound of the camera, I dropped my whole act in relief, slugging my shoulders and erasing my smile, with only one thought circulating through my mind: I hated getting my picture taken.

Why Nature Photography?

Perhaps it was because I was transitioning into my teenage years, but the repetitive posing and holding it on end felt like a massive chore. Especially on family trips, the long minutes we spent taking pictures of ourselves felt like a waste of time that could have been used more efficiently to explore the area. Eventually, I decided to slip out of frame and stay in the background. Picture by picture, my presence in the gallery started to fade. 

Here is my most treasured possession, the camera that has stayed with me since the beginning and has taken thousands of photos, of both the shaky ones and the well-positioned, focused ones. It is a Samsung Galaxy S9+ phone with decent camera quality. (Joshua Im)

Years later, I found myself scrolling through old pictures and videos, discovering moments from my early years and reminiscing on past experiences. However, as the pictures approached the present time, I noticed there was a gap several-years long in which I no longer showed up in photos. To my past self, it wouldn’t seem as a big deal, but in that moment, it felt as if a part of my past had been stripped away from me. 

Since then, I picked up a camera and began to snap away to compensate for the lost memories. But rather than focusing on myself, I decided to stay behind the camera and focus on nature, a gift of prosperity from the rather life-barren universe. But why nature? How did a missing past turn me into a nature photographer?

Well, when I first picked up the camera, nature wasn’t the first thing in mind that I wanted to capture. Instead, I took pictures of family or anything that caught my attention, like a cool engravement in the middle of the sidewalk. Though this didn’t mean I didn’t photograph nature at all, the nature pictures were very minimal, and would happen once in a while. Then gradually, I started to pay more attention and take more pictures of nature without a direct purpose — the transition simply let itself happen. It was most likely the continuous exposure to nature on my bike rides, runs, and walks that prompted me to start photographing the environment, but regardless, my obsession with nature photography grew and I embraced it wholeheartedly.

From thereon out, I developed other more significant reasons to continue pursuing nature photography. I could contest the flow of time and conserve the present moment within an array of pixels.  I could relive my past at my own will and even show others the defining moments of my life. Most importantly, I could keep with me my source of solace and inspiration. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bression described it best when he said, “To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.”  So, here it is: the photographs I’ve treasured throughout the years and the stories, thoughts, and feelings that hide inside them. 

The Beginning

During the naive, ingenuous phase of my childhood, I spent years focused on whatever was in front of me, leaving the rest that lay outside my field of vision unnoticed. Occasionally, the rest would slip into sight, but my mind had not yet developed the ability to assign meaning to something so vague. 

As a result, the trees lined up in my neighborhood, the squirrels that leaped across the branches, or the flowers that bloomed at the tree’s roots were no more than a concept in my mind. I understood that the sun was what the people around me called ‘a big bright star’ and that it slept during the night, just as I did. I learned that we orbited around it and that it could fit more than a million Earths inside it, but nothing beyond that. Everything else, the inquiry and discovery of meaning had not yet arrived. But, one summer, everything came rushing through. 

In the summer of 2019, I was in Korea visiting family, and for the several weeks I had stayed there, I ventured throughout the streets of Seoul with my brother. We hopped from mall to mall and oohed and aahed at almost everything that we came across. My uncles and aunts, at times, guided us around and showed us new areas, and on one notable occasion, brought us to a restaurant outside the city. 

The restaurant wasn’t particularly extravagant, but it fit well in the open-spaced neighborhood. The less-demanding environment allowed my mind and eyes to roam free as I walked, when normally I detail every aspect of a new place. But in doing so, I caught a glimpse of a ray of orange-gold piercing through the corner of a faraway building. Though it was only for a split second, the sunset triggered an intense emotional response so strong that it felt like I had just been told humanity’s greatest truth. Acting on my first instinct, I quickly took out my camera and framed the photo. Then click

Shown here is my first ever nature photograph. The sun barely shows itself through the corners of buildings, and the spotted clouds look like waves breaking at shore. This was taken in Seoul, Korea on August 22, 2019. (Joshua Im )

I just took my first ever nature photo. At that time, I was completely oblivious to what would come after this single picture, but nevertheless, it was the very beginning of my photography journey. 

From Adults to Parents

I continued to take pictures as a recreational hobby, albeit with a lack of consistency. I took pictures of the sky from time to time and photos of blossoming trees from season to season. Then the Coronavirus pandemic hit, and any new photos began to cease. 

After the lockdown was lifted, however, I gradually shifted back into my roots in 2022 after a few years break. During the time of idleness, I increasingly yearned to go outside as being stuck in a two bedroom house with three other family members had its own issues. This desire to go outdoors pushed me to explore further outwards, beyond the area I was familiar with. In the process, I discovered a new place, Little Bay Park, located in Whitestone, Queens. The park has a main trail that stretches alongside the East River for hundreds of meters and provides a wide view of the Throgs Neck Bridge and Manhattan’s skyline.  

Pictured here is the view from Little Bay Park, which is located in the upper right side of Whitestone, Queens. From here, one can see the Throgs Neck Bridge and even Manhattan’s skyline view. (Joshua Im )

For several months, I visited Little Bay Park whenever I went on long runs or bike rides, enjoying the view of the Throgs Neck Bridge and the sky decorated with clouds above it. Then, during one late evening run, I spotted two blurs of white in the contrasting dark waters. 

Taking a closer look, the blurs turned into circles with a line poking out vertically, and then I realized that it was a pair of swans, or more specifically mute swans. The discovery was quite shocking, as I never knew swans lived here in New York City — in fact, this was my first time seeing swans in person. But I couldn’t ponder for too long since it was getting dark, so I took a quick picture and continued on my run, thinking I would never see them again. 

But a few months later, I came across the swans a second time, once again seeming satisfied with each other’s company. They stood at the edge of the shore and stayed in close proximity with each other; when one moved, the other would follow,  no further than a few feet apart. From all the time they were spending together, I figured they were mating, and I was later proven correct.

I came back to Little Bay Park after another long break and noticed a huddle of birds floating above mossy waters and behind a curtain of leaves. I quickly identified the two white birds as the swans I’ve seen before, but the smaller gray birds forced me to catch another glimpse. After a series of squints, I registered that they were cygnets, or swan babies. The same swans I first saw months ago finally became parents! I was so astonished seeing how far the swans have developed in a matter of months, and the photos outlining their journey were certainly one of the best in my collection. Although they weren’t the best pictures technical-wise, they told a story of depth and growth through two random, wild birds. 

Wild Inhabitants of New York City

Following my encounter with these two swans, I gradually began to locate more swans in different parks, further dissuading my assumption that swans were rare here in New York. Some swans were older than others, others bigger, and some were parents while others were not, but nonetheless, each swan had a life of its own. 

Consequently, I expanded my photography to other animals that roamed through the parks of New York City, capturing short clips of their who-knows-how-packed lives. Below are snapshots of these wild inhabitants, ranging from geese to ducks to even rabbits as well. 

The Sunsets and the Sunrises

Without a doubt, shooting pictures of animals has become one of my favorite parts of nature photography. It has pushed me to explore deeper into nature and has taught me that even the countless birds you see everyday is a life as complex as ours with its own wild, defining moments. 

Although without biological life, the daily sunrises and sunsets have also contributed to this revelation of truth and meaning. The sky possesses an unimaginable vastness which holds the always uniquely-patterned clouds and radiates kaleidoscopic blends, and that in itself gives itself life which I strive to capture. It is like the ocean, which on surface level seems lifeless, but is actually flourishing with life, home to thousands of different marine creatures across tens of thousands of miles. 

But unlike my experience with photographing animals, I feel a wash of surreal fascination when capturing the sky, one that is so magnificent that nothing else can compare to it. As a result, I’ve built an obsession with sunrises and sunsets throughout the years, traveling miles just to witness both the rise and fall of the sun, during which the sky is painted infinitely colorful by an artist with limitless brushes and pigments and an endless imagination. 

Below are the few photographs of the most extraordinary sunrises and sunsets that I have seen. Upon viewing, perhaps you’ll come to understand the basis of my intense infatuation with the sky by being able to rewind the clock and see what I have seen in the past. 

Above all, nature photography has been a life-changer for me. A random act several years ago unexpectedly developed into a hobby of mine that has since introduced me to countless bizarre moments. Had I ignored the ray of light in Korea, I would have never witnessed swans transition into parenthood nor would I have noticed all the wild animals right in front of me. I would not have appreciated the sky view as I do now, nor would I have spent hours exploring every corner of my neighborhood just to get the best shot of the sunset. 

Each and every photo is a testimony to the beauty of nature and a constant reminder of the responsibility I hold as a nature photographer to uncover and present to the world which nature has to offer. After all, from the cosmological dust from billions of years ago to wraps of flesh with minds of unknown depths, we have evolved beyond expectations to experience the beauty of this reality — ultimately, we are the waking universe looking back at itself, and with wonder. 

Each and every photo is a testimony to the beauty of nature and a constant reminder of the responsibility I hold as a nature photographer to uncover and present to the world which nature has to offer.