Helen McKerralHow to take better plant photos – close-ups

Taking a terrific photo of a flower lets us capture its essence and share its fleeting beauty with others, forever. Read on for tips to get the best out of your close-up photography.

pic 1bAt its best, flower photography captures and preserves one of the most beautiful aspects of our gardens and our love of plants. And not only flowers: buds, unfurling fronds, leaves and textural bark all provide fodder for the lens. The very best plant photographers are artists, highlighting form, space, colour and texture as do sculptors and painters, but these skills have less to do with technique and more to do with eye.

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Extreme close-up

Often, these images are extreme close-ups, detailing not flowers, but parts of flowers. However, this blog is for gardeners like me who want to capture that fleeting moment in context: something less than an artist’s image, yet more than just a record.

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How can we record the elements that first inspired us to shoot the flower? Those elements are completely subjective, so the following tips are ones that suit me. As always, choose or discard to fit your taste.

 

1. Context – For me, it’s all about context. I like my images to remind me of where the flower or plant was growing, so background foliage, vistas, and/or garden details are essential – you may prefer otherwise. For example, compare the different effects and emphases of these photos and consider which kind of image best captures what’s important to you.

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Tight close-up

More context

More context

Full context

Full context

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rose plus UFO

I generally try to:

2. Avoid UFOs – These are shots where the depth of field is so narrow that the flower appears to be hovering in space, with every surrounding detail rendered completely unrecognisable. To my taste, this photo of the rose (right) is perilously close to a spacecraft!

3. Avoid flash unless you also use a diffuser – Yes, flash allows for short shutter speeds, but the harsh brightness eliminates all the subtlety of normal light and, worse, unless you know exactly what you’re doing, the background is hideously dark and unnatural (UFOs in black space!). If the shutter speed you need is too slow for hand held, use a tripod. You can often substitute a rock, log or bag for a tripod when shooting close to the ground. Mini-tripods are also available.

pic 7context44. Get down low – This means shooting across the flower into the landscape behind it, rather than down at the flower to the ground below it. My travel shots of Dolomites flowers were almost all shot with me crouching or lying down beside small plants, because the background was especially important to me – a reminder of where I shot the flower, not just the flower itself, as you can see in the photo (left). As well as background landscape vistas, nearby timber, rocks, or branches can also provide context.

5. Manipulate depth of field with aperture – With a DSLR, the preview button allows you to see exactly what is in focus, so you can choose not only how much background to reveal, but what parts of the flower are highlighted (see below). But even higher-end happy snappy cameras, such as the Nikon Coolpix 7700 I used in the Dolomites, have excellent macro functions and programmable aperture flexibility, although image noise will always be higher with these point-and-shoots (reduce noise by altering ISO settings).

pic 2a09650-33_16. Manipulate depth of field consciously – Do you really want that foreground petal to be the focus, or do you prefer those intricate stamens? What is the most interesting part of the flower? How can you highlight it? What angle shows it at its best? Again, use the preview button on your DSLR and experiment with the ‘spot’ setting for focusing. In my opinion, both these apple shots are seriously marred because the foreground apples aren’t sharp.

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As well as context, lighting plays a role, just as it does for garden photography. If you have the luxury, try the following.

Harsh sunlight

Harsh sunlight

7. Use a collapsible diffuser to soften light in full sun conditions – Ignoring composition, compare the harsh light in the Caltha shot (above) with the softness of the wall flowers (below) – both were shot in full sun. Diffusers come in a range of sizes and densities and mimic light cloud cover when held between the sun and your subject (see here how to use a diffuser). An assistant is handy for this, though!

Wallflowers photographed using a diffuser

Wallflowers photographed using a diffuser

8. Alternatively, consider a circular polarising lens to remove reflections when shooting shiny subjects, such as fruit or glossy-petalled flowers, in full sun.

Shiny rose hips without (left) and then with (right) a polarising lens

Shiny rose hips without (left) and then with (right) a polarising lens

9. Close-ups of very light and dark flowers can trick the sensors of your camera to underexpose pale flowers and overexpose dark ones. Use the histogram and adjust your exposures accordingly.

10. Even out the light in your shot – eg if the underside of the flower or fruit or leaf is very dark. It’s quite possible to do this yourself – without photoshop – simply by holding the reflector, or even a diffuser, just out of shot, underneath the flower, to increase light levels there (Pics 21a, 21 & 22).

pic 20DSCN3970pic 21DSCN3969Reflectors and diffusers are available quite cheaply and you only need small-sized ones for most flower photography (see here for some diffusers currently for sale on Ebay). They are also excellent as makeshift windbreaks.

Finishing touches play a role when shooting flowers. For that reason:

11. Unless you want to spend time in Photoshop, double check for imperfections – which will, like the barker egg mentioned in my previous blog about garden photo composition, become the unbecoming focal point of your flower shot. Spots, holes and tears are all suspect. When choosing flowers, check stamens and pollen are fresh and bright, not dark and spent like you can see on the Prunus photos below.

Past their best

Past their best

pic 9Check background for spent blooms, dead and diseased foliage, or unwanted foliage like the grass spears in the Rhaetian poppy shot (below).

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This shot of Rhaetian poppies would have been better without the grass foliage

 

12. Use pegs or twist-ties to pin unwanted elements out of the way – If there are many blooms on a bush but the best ones are out of convenient shooting range, consider picking one and balancing it on a fork in a twig at more convenient shooting height.

A photogenic dragonfly

A photogenic dragonfly

13. Insects are almost always a fantastic addition to a flower shot. If you’re lucky enough to have a bee, beetle or caterpillar, snap away!

Water droplets

Water droplets

14. Water droplets can also add a wonderful element, but too much may detract from your shot. Treat them like beauty marks on a model’s face – in my opinion, they should highlight the perfection of the petal’s texture, not be the focus.

15. Crop to improve the composition of your shot. For the purpose of this blog, all but the bearded iris shot are exactly as they were shot in the field (not cropped or photoshopped), but most would be improved by cropping. Sometimes a shot that best illustrates a flower is one where many are present, such as wildflower meadows. In this case, you can crop to create the precise effect you want.

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Pretty wildflower meadow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16. Just as with garden shots, experiment with portrait and landscape composition

Landscape format

Landscape format

Portrait format of the same scene

Portrait format of the same scene

17. And finally, the most important tip of all: have fun!

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

4 thoughts on “How to take better plant photos – close-ups

  1. Thank you Helen. I’ve become more and more interested in photography. Close up of flowers, I love to do. i’m amazed when I see how much better I’m getting – only have to look back at old files. Still have a long way to go. Reds and whites are always problematic. Sometimes my camera and I have “hissy fits” and nothing works. Anyhow your advice is great, thanks.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Believe me, Peta, you’re not alone: my camera(s) still manage to surprise me – and not in a good way!

  2. Libby cameron on said:

    I have learned so much from your articles, thanks Helen. I definitely think including background makes a much more interesting shot! Love those pics from the Dolomites!!

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thank you, Libby, though I have to confess that the Dolomites are so photogenic that you can point your camera just about anywhere and have great results!

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