Friday, December 3, 2010

How to take better photos of the natural world

I recently wrote a guest column on how to take better travel photos for a great blog project a friend of mine is involved in, Novel Adventurers. Quite a few of these tips apply to plant photography as well so here’s an adapted version.

In the 30+ years that I’ve been taking photos, I’ve made all the mistakes that can be made—many more than once. Eventually I came to realize that each mistake is an opportunity to get better. If you feel frustrated with your pictures, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, look at them calmly and try to figure out what exactly you don’t like. Then work on improving that particular area. The following tips should help you get images that you’re happy with, whether you’re a complete novice or have been taking photos for a while.

Pick a subject.

This may sound redundant but a lot of photos don’t have a real focal point, especially those showing more than one plant. What is the viewer supposed to look at? If they’re not sure, their eyes will soon glaze over. Before pressing the shutter button, ask yourself: What is it that fascinates me in this scene? What do I want others to see? If you can’t answer these questions, chances are your photos won’t excite others either. As Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Take a look at the two photos below. I find the first one to be too busy, with too many competing elements. The viewer’s eyes dart back and forth between the various agaves, not sure which one is the main focal point. The second photo, in contrast, shows just one artichoke agave (Agave parryii ‘Truncata’), dynamically positioned in the lower 1/3 of the frame, with a darker-colored Agave americana providing a complementary backdrop.
 

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Agaves at Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, CA
 

Don’t center your subject.

Putting the focal point of your photo right in the center does result in a symmetrical, balanced image. Often that works, but almost just as frequently it results in a less than exciting composition. Move your subject off center, even right into a corner. This will create visual tension and grab the viewer’s attention.

In the photo below, I could have positioned the lantern in the center of the frame, but moving it to the lower left and including the bamboo results in a more dynamic composition.

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Japanese lantern and Buddha Belly bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa) at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia
 

Get closer.

Many photos do have an interesting subject but unfortunately it only occupies a small portion of the frame. Taking photos means being in motion. Don’t stand still. Get up close with your subject, or at least zoom in. Know that in many cases walking right up to a subject and using a wide-angle lens creates a more dynamic composition than standing back and zooming in. In addition, zooming in, or using a telephoto lens, increases the risk of camera shake, even in spite of today’s image-stabilization technologies.

Unless you want to take extreme close-ups, specialized macro equipment is not needed. Many compact digital cameras have a macro setting that allows you to get impressively close.

The leaf in the photo below was so large and so high up on the plant that it was able to walk right up to it. Focusing on just one leaf, rather than including the entire plant, I was able to emphasize structure and color.
 

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Elephant ear (Alocasia sp.) at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia
 

Change the perspective.

We’re used to seeing the world from eye level. To mix things up, lie down on your belly or climb onto a table or wall. You’ll be surprised by how different everything looks from down low or up high. The best photos show us the world from an unfamiliar perspective.
 

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Tree canopy, Sarah Island, Tasmania.
 

Include people.

A photo showing nothing but a plant can be a thing of beauty. In some cases, however, including people in the frame adds perspective that emphasizes a plant’s height or other special features. Take a look at the photo below. If it weren’t for the people, you wouldn’t really know how tall this Bambusa oldhamii is.
 

Bambusa-oldhamii-Royal-Bot-Garden-Sydney_06
Giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia
 

Take control of the flash.

When set to Auto, the flash often pops up when it’s not really necessary and conversely it doesn’t come on when it is needed. Remember that you are in control. You can turn the flash off when you get a washed out photo, and you can force it on when having extra light is a good thing. Take a look at the picture of the spider below. If I hadn’t forced the flash on, the spider web would have been barely visible. The flash brings out the beautiful colors in the spider and illuminates its web.
 

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Unknown spider species, Sydney, Australia
 

Don’t be daunted by the information in this post. You don’t have to remember it all right away. Just focus on one or two of these tips at a time, and then go out and practice, practice, practice. There are beautiful images all around you, just waiting to be captured.

5 comments:

  1. Some great tips here Gerhard! That tree canopy photo: WOW. I love that! Also, I never think to use the flash to supplement natural lighting, as I've convinced myself that flash = evil. I'll have to experiment with that.
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    I'd also like to argue that the first agave photo isn't bad, and in fact is better than the second photo in some ways. The second photo is nice, but it doesn't give a sense of the mass planting of agave. My tip would be: don't take ONLY closeups. Take normal or wide-angle shots, but then take some closeups too.
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    I still can't believe that tree shot is real. Amazing.

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  2. The tree canopy shot! It belongs on a psychedelic tshirt along with an edgy band name. :) Excellent post, thank you!

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  4. Thanks for the nice words! That tree shot is one of my favorites from our Australia trip. There were some amazing tree ferns on Sarah Island as well. I'll write a post about them soon. Our Australian friends were making fun of me because I got super excited every time we saw yet another tree fern :-).

    The first agave photo is a bit too cluttered for my taste although, as you said, it does give you a good idea of what the overall planting looks like. But I prefer to isolate visual elements to draw the viewer in.

    I use fill flash a lot, usually at -1 stop, just to get a little more balance. But I didn't want to go into fill flash vs. full-on flash because that's too much technical info for a lot of people.

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  5. Great tips you've shared for shooting better photos of nature! Most people just turn their camera to auto and shoot.

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