Plant photography is an exercise in celebrating color. Whether it's the vibrant red of a rose or the deep purple of a violet, colorful flowers and lush landscapes dominate nature photography. Indoor lighting requires piles of equipment to compare to natural light -- it's hard to beat the outdoors on a sunny day.
Capturing the beauty of a flower garden or forest isn't quite as simple as pointing and shooting. No matter how inherently beautiful the subject, all photographs still require an eye for composition and the right equipment. Indoors, lighting is a hassle, but it's actually possible for natural lighting to be too bright! Wind also presents a challenge: Plants aren't exactly known to stand still when even the lightest breeze blows through.
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It's a balmy summer day. The temperature's hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.7 degrees Celsius); the sun is out and a light breeze perfectly balances out the heat. What better day to go outside and photograph nature? Well, problem: That breeze will keep flowers and other plants from sitting still. You can wait for the breeze to die down and hope Mother Nature behaves. Another option: Shoot with a high shutter speed. The camera shutter will be open for a very short period of time, minimizing the chances of motion ruining a photograph. But the windier it is, the less likely that is to work.
Here's a better solution: Fight the wind! Or, more accurately, prepare ways to block it. There are a couple ways to combat the wind when shooting flowers or other plants. First: Consider a wind break to calm the air around your subject. For example, a tripod positioned between a flower and the wind can prop up a piece of cardboard or a light reflector to block air currents. If the breeze is mild, even a strategically positioned backpack may be enough to secure a good shot.
A remote trigger or shutter used in combination with a tripod is great for plant photography, especially when dealing with wind. Touching a camera always introduces a small degree of shake; because nature photographs are often taken at fairly low shutter speeds, minimizing shake as much as possible is a good thing. And when there's a breeze, you never know how long you'll have to wait for that perfect moment to snap a picture. With a remote trigger, you don't have to hover over the camera -- just set up a comfy position and keep the shutter button in hand.
Plant photography tends to make us think of tightly focused close-up shots of blooming flowers. Close-ups with strong depth of field are perfect for creating bold, striking images -- but sometimes it's worth stepping back and admiring the big picture.
Don't focus on a single flower; focus on an entire field, or an interesting array of plants, or a jutting rock covered with moss. Shoot at an interesting angle. Maybe that means getting up close to a flower, but shooting with a deep depth of field to keep everything in the background in focus. Shoot from a low angle to balance plants against the sky. In the right location, the scale of a landscape photograph can be more dramatic than the usual tight shot.
When shooting a landscape photo with a wide-angle lens, everything from the ground to the sky will be in focus. Usually, however, plant photography requires a shallower depth of field; the next tip is about distinguishing a flower from its background.
Picture this: a magnificent red rose, strikingly bright, exquisitely layered, every detail in sharp focus. Now picture a distracting mess of grass, weeds and other flowers directly behind the rose. Your eye can't properly focus on the rose thanks to the background. That's a problem. The solution: knowing how to properly frame the subject with depth of field. Shooting with a shallow depth of field will keep the subject in focus while blurring out the background.
Shooting with a large aperture setting creates a shallow depth of field that isolates the subject. The quality of the lens aperture can also impact the shot. The aesthetic quality of blur, aka "bokeh," is affected by how many blades there are in a lens aperture. Pleasing blur keeps the background from interfering with the intended subject.
That said, don't focus every shot on a single subject with shallow depth of field. Simply shooting from the proper angle can minimize background distractions, and sometimes a photograph will turn out to be more interesting with multiple plants in the picture. For those shots, use a medium deep depth of field to keep more of the frame in focus.
This tip might sound counterintuitive, but it's an important one: Don't shoot in direct sunlight. But why? Bright flowers look amazing in sunlight! What could go wrong? Well, just as LCD and plasma display technologies strive to match the color quality of the natural world, cameras face challenges of their own. Direct sunlight on a clear day can result in too much contrast for a camera to take in. This is the problem with hard lighting: The contrast of light and dark is too harsh, and detail can end up being washed out.
Soft lighting is actually better. A cloudy or overcast day makes for softer lighting conditions, which improves color saturation and offers a more manageable range between lights and darks. Plants will look better. If it's too sunny, a piece of equipment called a light diffuser can help cut down on the harsh lighting.
Carefully composing a shot to take advantage of natural lighting can create some breathtaking images. For example, taking a photograph of a backlit plant can reveal unexpected color in the leaves. Shadows also offer the opportunity to create unique silhouettes and dramatic contrast. Ultimately, though, there's one piece of camera equipment that every plant photographer should use: a macro lens.
Macro lenses are the up close and personal tools of the photography world. Mere close-ups aren't good enough: Macro lenses let us take extremeclose-ups of subjects while keeping a photograph in tight focus. Macro lenses bring the focal point of a camera closer by extending the amount of space between the camera sensor and the lens aperture. This means shooting with a macro lens requires setting up as close to a subject as possible. That can be difficult with insects or other subjects that tend to move around, but plants are usually pretty good about staying put.
Macro lenses provide magnification that you can't get with a telephoto or wide angle lens. Technically, real macro lenses are able to reproduce a subject at a 1:1 ratio or better on the camera's image sensor. The lenses are commonly used to produce those sometimes creepy, sometimes amazing close-ups of insects. Using a macro lens in flower photography allows photographers to fill the entire frame and reveal details we'd never notice with the naked eye.
To get an amazing macro photograph, you'll have to be ready to buy an expensive macro lens. If you're not ready to commit $500 or $1000 to a lens for your flower shots, there are some cheaper alternatives. Macro extension tubes sit between the lens and the camera, and close-up lens filters screw onto the end of a camera lens. Both can help bring the camera's focal distance closer to the lens to allow for macro-style photographs.
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Since I've previously written about macro photography for HowStuffWorks, revisiting the subject to talk about plant photography was fun. I learned more about the advantages of shooting on cloudy days -- light diffusion is important, since a camera can't handle the same dynamic range as our eyes on a sunny day. Best of all, I had an excuse to look at a whole lot of photographs. Macro shots are cool, but my favorites are wide shots bursting with color and flowers in silhouette.
- Bynum, Sarah. "Flower Photography." (March 24, 2012) http://www.life123.com/hobbies/photography/great-photographs/flower-photography.shtml
- Howell, Tony. "Flower Photo Tips." (March 24, 2012) http://www.tonyhowell.co.uk/flowerphototips.htm
- Kennard, Dave. "Flower Photography - How to Take Good Natural Photos (Pt 2)." (March 26, 2012) http://ezinearticles.com/?Flower-Photography---How-To-Take-Good-Natural-Flower-Photos-(Pt-2)&id=5678161
- Moats, Mike. "How to build my wind box for flower photography." March 30, 2011. (March 25, 2012) http://tinylanscapes.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/video-how-to-build-my-wind-box-for-flower-photography/
- Rowse, Darren. "Introduction to Aperture in Digital Photography." (March 25, 2012) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/aperture