Recently, my wife has become a shutterbug and fell in love with taking landscapes and botanical images. Of course, I get to carry all her photography equipment when she goes on her photography meanderings. Given that her photos are now very popular online, I’ve watched her carefully to find ways I can improve my own plant images for labels.
A critical factor for success is to turn off your camera’s autofocus. Most digital cameras have sophisticated autofocus and macro’ feature that sets the camera up to take pictures of objects that are close to the lens. Unfortunately, these standard settings are of limited value when photographing flowers and foliage. This is because most digital cameras calculate their focus by determining which visual elements dominate. While this works well for pictures of people, the structure of plants – with their stems, leaves and flowers scattered at a wide range of focal points – confuses the camera’s digital smarts. So you’ll often find that photos of plants may have the leaves in focus, while the flower itself is blurry.
If you plan to photograph plants in your nursery, ensure your camera has an option to manually focus the image. If you cannot turn off the camera’s autofocus, then read your camera’s manual and find out how you can select the “focus position” (or focal point,) of the camera. Usually, this is done by selecting a spot (or zone) on the viewfinder to limit the information the camera will use when calculating the focus; whatever is in the zone will be in focus. While that help, it is still not as good as manual focus.
If you have a digital SLR camera you can get very attractive results by moving the camera further away from the plant, then zoom into the bloom you wish to feature in your photo. This alters the ‘depth of field’ so that the bloom is in sharp focus, while the leaves are artfully blurred.
When photographic plants up close, avoid using your camera’s built in flash. Using a flash results in over-saturated, flat images. The reason for this is that the flash is too close to the plant and also at the wrong angle. If your digital camera has an automatic flash function, turn it off before snapping plants.
Lighting is also very important. Natural light is always preferred, but not all natural light is equal. The best light occurs at dawn and dusk: when the light is diffused and the shadows deep. These traits make your plant photos look deep. Overcast days are also good.
While mid-day sunlight is still better than using a flash, it may make your plant photo look ‘flat’ and one dimensional. So get up early and get that lovely morning light.
Stability is also important with cheaper cameras. Because taking photographs of plants happens up close, even the tiniest movement creates a blurring effect. Stability can be addressed in two ways. The first is to use a tripod (which cost anywhere from $50 to hundreds!) and a remote controller (about $35-50) for your camera. Such a set up is essential if you plan to take photos in low light, because the shutter speed is very slow, which gives more time for blurring should the camera move. The second method is to set the shutter to a fast speed… but this requires the plant to be adequately lit.
While the above tips deal with the technical side of photography, framing deals with the artistic side. When you take a plant photo, don’t just think about how the plant looks in the camera viewfinder. Think about how you may use it on a label or sign. Do you need extra space around the main image where writing will be placed? Should the main subject of the photo (say, a flower or cluster of berries) be in the dead centre of the photo, or off to one side. Will the image be cropped tight? It is a great idea to take several photos of each subject, at different distances and levels of zoom. Be creative.
Given the above tips, the question becomes what sort of camera will I need to take great photos of plants?
My strong preference now would be to invest in a mid-range digital SLR camera and lens kit. These will cost around $650-$900, but give you the best chance of getting awesome photos. Popular brands include Canon, Nikon, and Sony.
There are more expensive ‘full frame’ digital SLR cameras, but these start at $2000 and go up in cost rapidly! Unless you are a professional photographer, it is unlikely you’ll ever use the features of these high-end cameras. In fact, my wife’s go-to camera is her mid-range SLR, a Canon 700D.
Also, do not get sucked into buying lots of lenses (unless your plan to do a lot of different types of photography.) A standard 18-138mm lens will do nicely for most of your plant photography and be a good lens for taking landscapes, portraits, etc.
Compact cameras and smartphone cameras may give you ‘good enough’ photos for cataloging your nursery and sharing on facebook , but they rarely give you the flexibility to take the sort of photos that make people look at your labels or signs and think, “Wow, I need to buy that.”
Finally, no matter what camera you choose, remember that photography is both a science and an art. You more you do it, the more tricks you will discover.