Yes, plants. They don’t hide in the far corner of the enclosure, they don’t eat cake and they don’t stick their tongues out when they see a camera. They are the exact opposite of animals and children. But photographing them isn’t as easy as just pointing your camera in that general direction. Plant photography requires some special knowledge, skill and the right equipment.
Lenses and Tripods
You can use almost any lens to take plant photographs; a wide angle lens will capture a whole field of flowers, while a telephoto lens will help you isolate your subject from a distracting background. But the lens that most plant photographers recommend is a good macro lens, which will allow you to focus very close to your subject. You can use a shorter macro with good effect, but a longer macro (100 mm to 200 mm) doesn’t require you to get face-to-petal with your subject.
If you shoot other subjects with a macro lens, you already know that depth of field (the amount of the image in focus) will reduce dramatically if you don’t use a smaller aperture. From stem to leaf-tip, f/22 will give you good detail across the entire plant, but if you use any lower F numbers (a wider aperture) than that you may find that the edges of leaves and petals will begin to soften. To keep the entire plant in focus you will need to stick with that larger F number aperture. And since you’ll probably be using a lower ISO to prevent unwanted noise from compromising the detail in your images, a longer exposure is almost a given. Longer exposure, of course, requires a tripod. Without one, camera shake is sure to ruin your image.
If you are using a Point and Shoot camera, choose the Macro Scene mode to tell your camera to set the Macro lens and use a wide aperture.
Not all tripods will work for plant photography. You will need one that can get fairly low to the ground, since that’s where most plants grow. Look for a tripod that has legs that can be unlocked and spread out, or one that has a reversible center column (which allows the camera to be positioned under the tripod instead of on top of it). You can also use a tabletop tripod, though such smaller tripods will be more difficult to position on uneven ground.
On that same note, a shutter release is almost as important as a tripod, especially when shooting any kind of macro photography. When you’re up close, movement is actually exaggerated, which makes it even more difficult to get a shot without the aid of equipment that will allow you to snap that photo without ever touching your camera.
Think like a Plant
Well, you can’t really think like a plant, but you can learn to look at plants differently than you would look at moving subjects. Spend some time choosing the flower or plant that best represents its species. Look for and avoid imperfections such as holes made by marauding insects, flaws in the petals and dead leaves or other debris that may clutter the image. When you’ve chosen your subject, spend some time moving around it and looking at it from all angles until you find the one that best suits it. Pay close attention to the background–you don’t want to accidentally capture a hand-scrawled plant tag or a scrap of litter that blew into the garden. Now look at how the shadows fall on the plant, and angle yourself so that they either add to the composition or are removed from the image.
Now that you’ve chosen your subject and angle, think about how you want your image to look. A few pictures shot at f/22 will give you a detailed representation of your subject, but remember that you don’t always have to have perfect focus across the entire plant. Playing around with depth of field can give you some interesting results. For example, try opening up your aperture (lower F-numbers) so that only the center of the flower is in focus. If there’s no way to get rid of that distracting background, you can also use a wider aperture to soften the background and make it less noticeable. No matter what aperture you choose, the sharpest part of your image should, of course, also be the focal point. Remember that when shooting in macro, the objects and surfaces that are in focus will change with as little as one millimeter of movement, so make sure to keep your camera stable and take care that your focal point remains sharp.
Pay attention to the light
You have heard me say many times that the best light occurs early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Plants benefit from “magic hour” lighting as much as any other subject, especially warmer-toned flowers. Orange poppies, red roses and yellow sunflowers will all photograph beautifully just after dawn or just before dusk. For cooler-toned flowers like lavender and blue orchids, try shooting on overcast days.
Flowers in particular tend to look best in soft light, so unless you’re taking photos in a greenhouse with diffused lighting, you’ll need to avoid direct sunlight. Reflectors can help soften the light, so stash a small, compactable one in your camera bag. Even magic hour plant photography can benefit from a little fill light to help highlight areas that may be in the shadow of a fellow flower.
Watch out for the weather
Everyone loves a photo of a flower with dewdrops on its petals. To capture these shots, go out in the early morning just after sunrise, before the wind picks up. This time of day has the double benefit of keeping your usually immobile and cooperative subjects from suddenly becoming uncooperative dancing fools. Even a slight breeze can make it difficult to take macro photos of a flower or plant. If you do find yourself out on a breezy day, try placing a large piece of cardboard or some other object between the wind and your subject. You may also be able to tie a piece of yarn around the plant’s stem to stop it moving so much. If all else fails, you may just have to turn up your ISO or your shutter speed.
As always, experiment
Even flowers can benefit from an unusual perspective. For example, try shooting a long-stemmed flower from the ground looking up, or point your camera straight down at a field of wildflowers. When you find the perfect plant or flower, try taking the same shot using a range of apertures, and see which one you like best. As long as the wind and the light cooperate, you have some time to play. And if you want to shoot that bee as it buzzes around your flower, or the ladybug that’s crawling from the base of the leaf to the tip, go for it. A bug may not be as immobile or cooperative as the plant it’s crawling on, but it’s probably not going to stick its tongue out at you, either. Unless it’s a butterfly.