Garden Photography 101: The Technicals of Great Garden Photos

Garden Photography 101: The Technicals of Great Garden Photos

Today Maria at Sweet Domesticity is back for another guest post. One of Maria’s signatures on her blog is stunning photos of the plants in her garden. She’s stopping by during the month of June to share some info with you in a series we’re calling Garden Photography 101, on how to capture great photos of your own garden this season.

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I am happy to be back on Minnesota Locavore this week to bring you another installment of Garden Photography 101! This week we are going to dive into some of the more technical aspects of garden photography with some tips and tricks to help you compose great garden photos.

Here’s the thing about garden photography: it’s not so much about what camera you are using, as much as it is about good composition. Some of you may primarily use your phone to take photos to share on Facebook and Instagram, while others might have a top of the line DSLR. As for me, I photograph my garden almost exclusively with my little Cannon point and shoot camera. It’s practical for carrying around the garden and it takes sharp, clear images—two very important considerations for me.

I’m a big believer that you can take great photos with any kind of camera; you just have to know and apply a few basic rules of good composition. With that in mind, the following advice is intended to make garden photography completely accessible, no matter what type of camera you are using or how robust your photography background might be.
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Light

The best light for photographing the garden happens in the mornings and evenings when the sun is closer to the horizon and the light is a little softer.  At these times of day, I find the light more dramatic, and it readily lends itself to highlighting intricate details of leaves and flowers and capturing true-to-life colors. When possible, I try to avoid shooting in the bright mid-day sun, which can create harsh shadows and strong contrast that can wash out the more subtle details of the subject. Overcast or mostly cloudy days present another opportunity to take advantage of diffused sunlight, though you might notice that truly overcast days may make the colors in your photographs appear more saturated. They key is pay attention to how your subject photographs in different kinds of light and use the light to your advantage to obtain a desired effect.
Try this:

  • Conventional wisdom might tell you that the sun should always be behind you when taking photos, but play around with capturing photographs with the sun in different positions in relation to you and your subject.
  • When photographing in the sunlight, find an angle that captures your subject without distracting or distorting shadows.
  • Position the rising or setting sun just on or outside the edge of the frame to achieve a sun flare or bokeh effect.

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Focal Point

Good garden photography should have a strong point of view. When selecting a subject for your photographs, determine exactly what it is about that subject that you find interesting and then compose the photo in a way that highlights and accentuates it. Your eye should be drawn to that focal point immediately, and everything in the frame should support that point of view. Avoid trying to jam too much into a single frame, as the excess can muddle the photograph and make it difficult for the eye to focus on what it is you want to showcase.

Try this:

  • Adjust your position. Sometimes taking the photo at a slightly different angle or distance from the subject can make a big difference in achieving a desired point of view.
  • Use your hand or a small piece of cardboard to block out the background as you set the focus for your photo, and then remove it just prior to snapping the photo.
  • Once you select a subject, play around with making different parts of your subject the focal point. Draw visually interesting stems, sepals, and tendrils front and center in the frame, and let the actual pepper, tomato, or pumpkin play more of a supporting role.

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Composition

When it comes to where to place your subject in the frame, use the rule of thirds. I learned this trick from my high school photography teacher and I still use it to this day when composing my garden photos: divide the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically (imagine a tic tac toe grid on top of the frame), and try to position the focal point of your photo on or near where the lines intersect. Ideally, your subject should also occupy some space in more than one square on this imaginary grid, creating a good balance of positive (the subject) and negative (the background).

Try this:

  • Play around with positioning the subject in different areas of the frame.
  • When capturing multiple flowers, fruits, or vegetables in a single frame, pay attention to how they are grouped. Odd numbers tend to be very visually appealing, as do asymmetrical lines created by offsetting a pair of subjects.
  • Be sure to take some wide photos as well as the close ups. There’s not much you can do a photo that is too close, but crop and straighten tools are a great way to improve composition after the fact.

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Background

When composing your garden photos, look beyond the subject of your photograph and see everything that the camera sees.   Stray weeds, garden tools, and busy backgrounds can distract from a well composed photo. The background should enhance the photo and assist in telling the story by creating context, contrast, and scale.

Try this:

  • If it’s not possible to physically remove distracting elements from the background, reposition the frame to cut them out.
  • Utilize a variety of backgrounds that are at your disposal in the garden, like fences, soil, and foliage.
  • Let the background tell the story of your garden: a backyard raised bed, community garden, or urban balcony.

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Depth of Field

One of the ways you can draw the eye into a photograph and eliminate distracting backgrounds is by adjusting the depth of field. Depth of field is the distance into the photograph where elements remain in focus. A shallow depth of field will blur much of the background while maintaining a sharp focus on the foreground, and a greater depth of field will move the area of focus deeper into the photo.  Depth of field is what gives photos dimension and that “I want to reach out and pick that tomato” feel.

Try this:

  • Use a wide aperture setting to create a shallow depth of field and use a smaller aperture to create a deeper depth of field.
  • The closer you are to the focal point of the photograph, the shallower the depth of field will be. You can extend the depth of field by moving further away from the focal point.
  • Wide zoom or wide lenses will create shorter a greater depth of field, while the closer you zoom in on the subject the smaller the depth of field will become.

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Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to get familiar with what your camera can do is get out in the garden and start snapping photos. Whether you are using an iPhone or a DSLR, take some time to get to know your camera and its capabilities. Play, experiment, and be inspired! Think of garden photography as a dynamic process: it will change as you continue to learn and grow as both a photographer and a gardener.
Try this:

  • Experiment with preset modes as well as adjusting the various settings manually and take note of what is easiest to use and where you achieve the best results. If you’re not sure where to start, search online for tutorials designed for your specific camera make and model to help you discover how to make the most of the camera you have.
  • Take a lot of photos. For every good photo that I share on my blog or to my social media feeds, there are at least half a dozen (often times many more) similar photos on my computer that were not quite right for one reason or another.
  • Pay attention to the composition of the photos that you really like and learn from your own best work.   Use those photos as a jumping off point to continually build upon what you’ve learned .

Sweet Domesticity profileMaria Slavik began Sweet Domesticity in 2010 to document her Minnesota gardening experiences. She and her husband grow on 170 square feet of backyard space and share recipes, photos and green thumb tips. Maria writes “my blog is equal parts inspired creativity and applicable practicality as I chronicle my journey towards a domesticity all my own.” 

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