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Saturday Art: Photographing Plants


To get the series underway here are a few pointers that may help when photographing plants and flowers. Hopefully most of the information will easily transfer to other subject matter so, even if the thought of photographing green things fills you with indifference there will be something here that can be applied with different subjects. If you are filled with indifference now and rush outside to take photos of your tulips after reading this I’ll score that as a win.

This next bit is important. Most of what I’ll be writing in these posts is opinion. I have very few hard and fast answers and I would personally give a very wide berth to any photographer who thinks that they do. Saying that, if you have any questions about anything to do with photography I’ll be more than happy to give an opinion. I started out painting and developed an interest in photography further down the line. When I started taking photographs I thought like a photographer, i.e. a lot of focus on the technical. It is only more recently that I have reverted back to my original training and started to think of photography as an artistic medium rather than as a method for recording. With this in mind I try to cover both technical and aesthetic stuff at the same time. I find it hard to write in a way that draws a sharp line between the two aspects and to be honest, I’ve given up trying.

I’ll start here with a few general thoughts about photographing green things then I’ll post some pics and write a comment about each. That should work.

Photographing Flowers and Gardens

Its a beautiful sunny day, the garden is in full bloom you think this will make a great photograph. Problem, the result looks like crap. It is a mess of random colors sprinkled in areas of white and black with bits of green. It is about as organized as an average RWNJ’s thinking. The problem here is that the camera sensor or film surface works in a very different way to that which the human eye/brain combination works.

light hits the back of our eyes causing signals to travel along the optic nerves for processing by the brain. The brain organizes the information, it prioritizes and emphasizes important stuff like potential food, potential sex, potential threats etc. It does a whole lot more than this but suffice to say it usually presents us with a very subjective visual universe. The camera doesn’t do this, it doesn’t discriminate. What our brain has taken the time to arrange into a pleasing pattern for us the camera doesn’t bother to do. Add to this that we have a small point of focus and a large area of peripheral vision where we are sort of aware of stuff but only in a fuzzy way. Again the camera does not discriminate, it treats the whole scene equally. It is the photographers job to tell the camera what is central and what is peripheral.

Anyway, before this all gets to esoteric lets get back to practicality, what does this all mean? It means that the person who is taking the photograph really needs to have some thoughts about what they are photographing beyond, ‘Guess that’ll make a nice photo’. The photographer has to think what about the subject or scene will make a good photo then work towards emphasizing this things. This can be a really hard concept to grasp at first – it does come with practice though. The things to look at are composition, i.e. framing, geometry, simple shapes work well, color and tone.

About time for a concrete example. Remember that the camera doesn’t discriminate so it will place exactly the same emphasis on your prize rare orchid as it will on the siding with the flaking paint that is behind it. Oh, and another thing the eye/brain does is to magnify the stuff you like so where you see the orchid as being huge and the siding flaws tiny, you can bet that the camera won’t. So, lesson number one, control your backgrounds and your photographs will automatically be better than about 95% of what is out there. Learn to see as the camera sees i.e. pay the background exactly the same attention as you do the foreground even if it is only so you can work out a way to lose it.

I don’t want to get to technical here -hit me up in the comments though and I’ll be more than happy to expand on this but the usual ways of controlling backgrounds are: make it look as uncluttered as possible i.e. physically move stuff so it is out of shot, change your angle to lose the clutter e.g. get down low and shoot the flower against the sky, throw the background out of focus by getting in as close as you can and using as large an aperture as possible. This is easier to do with a DSLR camera but there are ways of doing it with most point and shoot compact type cameras. With a lot of point and shoot cameras getting about a foot away from the object and flipping the camera to macro is an easy way to blur the background.

The take home message is simplify as much as possible, get in a bit closer, watch for background clutter and have a good idea about exactly what it was that made you want to photograph the current scene all make a huge difference. Anyway, here are some pics and a few thoughts.

Photographs of Plants and Flowers


Hosta leaves. This is all about pattern, tone, negative and positive space and abstraction.  The directly overhead view is important to this shot as it kills any real sense of depth forcing the brain to see it as a pattern, i.e. an abstraction. What it actually is is relatively unimportant. The irony  being that working in these terms often makes for the best photographs.  It all comes back to knowing what attracted you to the scene in the first place.

garden plants

A Tulip. Very plain background but still blurred.  The thing that attracted me to this scene was the relationship between the tulip and the green blurry thing on the left which is actually a leaf from a different tulip. This was shot before the sun had come fully up hence the very warm soft light. As a rule harsh shadows are to be avoided but there are exceptions to that one. Another general rule, flowers should be photographed at just about any angle apart from a normal standing position looking down, i.e. about 45 degrees. . Side on, as in this case, is a fairly safe one, perpendicular (90 degrees) or from underneath all work better. The same incidentally, applies to food, kids and pets, as for some reason we respond better to images shot from any other angle than that which we normally view them so photographers are more than happy to get on their knees, bellies or step ladders for that matter. Gets harder as we get older though.

leaves and shadows

Here is an exception to the shooting on soft early morning or late afternoon light rule.  This is an indoor plant reduced to abstraction by the strange camera angle and the strong sun and  shadows cast by the blinds. The dust adds a certain something other than a commentary about my housekeeping skills that is. I default to black and white. Unless color adds something to the image I’d rather not use it. Photography is all about reducing, simplifying and going from color to black and white takes that process a further step along.


This is an illustration of a way of simplifying a background that I didn’t mention before and works well for certain images and that is to deliberately overexpose it.  Of course it over exposes the whole photograph but that gives the image a delicate quality that works in this case.

black and whire hosta leaf

Another Hosta leaf. This was a very technical shot. I wanted a lot of depth which is very hard to get with close up photography so, just in case anyone is interested here what I did, I shot this indoors with the camera on a tripod, a very small aperture f30ish and solved the fringing problems that come from using such a small aperture but inserting a polarizing filter between the cheap kit lens and the even cheaper macro attachment that I was using. Explanations of any part or all of the above happily given in English if anyone wants one.

monochrome flower

The flowers of a cleveland pear tree after the blossom has gone. I love the structural in nature and I wanted to really show off the whites and the blacks of the sexual parts. I shot this on normal settings then turned up the contrast to 11 or something when I was doing the post processing on the computer. Adobe Lightroom 3.0 is my tool of choice.

Inside of Tulip

This was fun, just put the zoom lens of a point and shot into the top of the flower and shot the photo. all the light is coming through the petals and that is why it is so soft. If a subject is transparent, e.g. stained glass it is  best to illuminate it from behind. The same principle is at play here.

allium leaf

Here I show off my modernist tendencies.  These are allium leaves and shadow. I was fascinated by the tip of the leaf on the left and the shadow it cast. Again I increased the contrast on the computer as this one really was all about shape and tone.

Final Thoughts

The images above are not great photographs by any stretch, in fact a couple of them are definitely substandard, at least technically, but I hope that they show that there are many different approaches that can be taken when approaching a subject. Not all photographs of a particular type of subject have to look the same.

Experiment a lot and develop your own eye. Compliments are nice but go with your gut. Don’t try to produce what you think the market ot your friends want. Let curiosity be the driving force. Garry Winograd, one of my favorite photographers, said that he took photographs to see what things would look like as photographs – he wasn’t under any illusion that he was producing a perfect copy of something. He was driven by this essential curiosity.

That will do for now. I have a blog (doesn’t everyone?) here where there is lots more stuff about photography.

Here are the photographs that didn’t quite make it into this post:

Any comments thoughts or questions welcome and I will try my best to answer any photography questions whether technical, aesthetic or on my obsessions which are the history and philosophy of photography.

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Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson