Not everyone has a brown thumb like mine. We’re talking terrifyingly brown, like toxic rays of plant-killing energy emanating from my thumbs at all times brown. If you're one of those fortunate people who is not like me and has a way with flowers and vegetables as well as a way with a camera, you have a constant source of photographic inspiration in your own backyard. Keep reading to find out how to take fabulous photos of your garden.
Shoot from garden’s eye view
Think of your garden just like you would think of your child. You probably do that anyway. Your garden should be shot from the garden's perspective. In the past, when you've photographed the plants in your garden you probably took them from standing position, which means (unless your flowers are unnaturally tall), that you're shooting them from above, looking down. Just as with your child, or with your dog or cat, a photograph of those flowers from above just doesn't look very compelling. Instead, you want to take the flower’s-eye view— photograph it from the perspective of another flower.
What you need
You can take garden photos with almost any camera, but if you want to get close to your subject you will need a camera with a macro setting, or a DSLR with a macro lens. You will also need a tripod—a tripod will help you keep the camera stable, especially when you're shooting macro. Remember that just a little bit of motion in your hands at macro ranges is going to cause a camera shake and possibly throw off your focal point as well, so camera stability is your friend. And along with that tripod you’ll also need a remote release—there’s no real point in having a tripod if you’re going to create shake in your photo by touching the shutter button.
Regardless of what you have growing in your garden, it's almost certainly a place of color. Whether it's tomatoes against green foliage or beautiful, multi-colored flowers planted in a flower bed, color is one of the prime appeals of garden photographs. Now I will say that I have seen fine examples of garden photography shot in black-and-white, but generally speaking those red tomatoes don't look as plump and delicious when they are gray tomatoes.
To bring out the color in your garden, try shooting on an overcast day. I know what you're thinking—don't gray days mean dull color? Actually, for bright, bold colors such as you will find in a garden, an overcast day is ideal. The light on an overcast day can actually make those colors look more punchy, and one of the added advantages is that the light is soft and even, which means you won't have any shadows obscuring detail or bright white highlights that get in the way of showcasing the form of those flowers or vegetables. Now, on an overcast day there tends to be less dynamic range, which means the difference between the lightest parts of the scene and the darkest parts of the scene are going to be less. So you may end up with an image that looks kind of flat, that is, it has no true blacks and no true whites. Fortunately this is a pretty easy fix in post-processing — you simply go into the levels tool and move the highlights and shadows sliders towards the center of the histogram until they are under the point where you start to see pixels. That is going to add a true black and a true white to the scene, thus making for better contrast and a more three-dimensional look overall.
Of course some of gardeners are fair-weather gardeners, which means that you may do most of your planting in the middle of the spring and your harvesting by the end of summer. So it's possible that your part of the world just doesn't get a whole lot of overcast days during the times when you are actively gardening. That's OK—you can still get beautiful photos during the golden hour. I recommend a shooting during the morning golden hour, or that time just after the sun comes up.
The reason why the morning golden hour is typically better for photographing plants is because there tends to be less wind. Less wind means that you won't have to worry about motion blur when you get very close to your subject. Remember that when you're shooting the details of your vegetables or flowers, you're going to have a very limited depth of field, and when you've got limited depth of field it only takes a little bit of motion to throw off your focus point. And that means that even a slight breeze could lead to a blurry image.
Whether you plan to take photos during the golden hour or on an overcast day, what's important to remember is that it is the light that makes or breaks your vegetable and flower photos. Vegetables and flowers alike have a lot of fine detail, but more importantly they have form. Form is the three-dimensional shape of an object, and it can be incredibly difficult to reproduce on a two-dimensional piece of paper or computer screen. So you need to have the right kind of light to help define the subject’s form.
The light during the golden hour is soft and diffused, but more importantly it's light that comes from a specific direction. Light that comes from in front of your subject doesn't do a very good job of emphasizing form because the shadows are in all the wrong places. Front light casts shadows behind the object, where they are hidden, which means those shadows can't do the job of filling in detail and making texture and form stand out visually. Likewise, light that comes from behind doesn't do a very good job of bringing out form, either, although backlight can make for interesting compositions for other reasons. If you photograph your garden from behind, you may get some interesting silhouettes of the leaves, fruits and vegetables, or you may get what we called veiling glare, which is a reduction in contrast that can have a vintage or dreamy feeling to it. But generally speaking, if your goal is to really give your viewer a good look at what you have in your garden, you want side light. Light that comes from either the left or right side of your subject will cast shadows in even the finest details, which will make the image look more three-dimensional to your viewer.
Now, if you are shooting on a day with heavy cloud cover, the light doesn’t really have a direction—the clouds will scatter it to the degree that it’s coming from all over the place. If you’re working in those conditions, try adding light from a reflector or even using a black flag to create shadow. That will help bring out an object’s form even if the light is a little bit flat.
Look for the most perfect specimens in your garden, unless your goal is to showcase a particularly unusual tomato (say one with the face of Dumbledore or Jon Snow). But if your goal is to simply showcase the beauty of the specimens in your garden, you're going to want to find the most perfect tomato, snap pea or bell pepper that you can. Avoid vegetables that have cracks or blemishes on them, and remove or crop out any leaves that have insect nibbles or brown spots. The same goes for flowers—you should aim to photograph only the most perfect flowers in your garden. Now it's a little bit of a lie because we all know that not every flower is perfect, but for aesthetic reasons there's usually not much point in photographing something that has even minor blemishes, unless the blemish is the actual point of the image.
Having said that, you also want to capture some of the personality of your garden. Everybody's garden is a little bit different in that we all have varying preferences for the flowers and vegetables that we like to grow (I like to grow brown ones). The location of your home and garden also has a lot to do with what might be planted there—very hot places favor certain plants, while very cool temperatures favor others, so it's worth making sure that you capture some of the character of that combination of plants in your own garden.
Your own personality is probably somewhere in your garden, too. Try to include some of those quirky planters, the antique gardening tools you like to use, or some of the backyard decor that you have added as an effort to beautify the space. That personality is just as important as the vegetables themselves, and will really give your viewer a feeling for what it's like to stand in your garden.
Don't just stick with macro images—if you're a real hard-core gardener, you've probably designed your garden so that it’s not just a place for plants to grow, but is also a beautiful place to be. So zoom out, and use a wide angle lens to capture of those rows of vegetables or flowerbeds or the beautiful pagoda in the middle that helps serves as a centerpiece for all of that floral beauty. Again, you're going to want to photograph these scenes during the golden hour or on an overcast day when the light is soft and even.
If you consider yourself a master gardener, then your garden is likely as important to you as your camera is. So there is really no reason why you shouldn't be out there every day chronicling the growth and progress of the leafy-green part of your family. Shooting in your garden every day is not only going to combine two of your favorite pastimes, it's also going to give you a great series of images that show your viewers how your garden grows and what it means to you and your family on a personal level.
- Shoot from garden's eye view
- What you need
- A camera with macro mode or a macro lens
- A tripod and remote release
- The light
- Shoot on an overcast day or during the golden hour
- Choose the morning golden hour to avoid wind
- Use side light to bring out form and detail
- Use a reflector if you need to add highlights, or a black flag to add shadows
- Perfect specimens
- Look for blemish-free subjects
- Photograph different kinds of plants together
- Photograph the personal touches in your garden
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