If, like me, you find you have some extra time on your hands during the coronavirus lockdown, why not have a go at some garden photography? It's a great way to develop your skills at photographing close-ups of flowers and insects, shooting abstracts of tree bark and highlighting patterns in nature that you can find right on your doorstep, without having to travel anywhere. I'll be having a go myself over the next few weeks and posting some tips here. To start with, here's an introduction to photographing spring flowers.
I've chosen the snakeshead fritillary as an example – I've got a small clump of them in a patch of rough grass at one end of my garden – but the same techniques and ideas that I'll describe here could equally apply to tulips, primroses and many other spring flowers that might be brightening up your garden at the moment.
Read on for a simple step-by-step guide to taking photographs of spring garden flowers like this
1. Time of day
One of the great things about garden photography is that you can visit your potential subject whenever you like and plan your photo shoot for the very best time of day, when the light is just right for your chosen plant. In this case, the bell-shaped flowers of these fritillaries was softly backlit by late afternoon sun at around 5pm. I felt this particular lighting effect suited the flowers perfectly – giving the translucent petals a subtle glow without losing any of the detail in the chequered petals to harsh highlights or shadows. Try to avoid the middle part of the day when the light can be overpowering or too glaring.
The next critical thing to consider is viewpoint. It's quick and tempting (and easier on your back and knees!) to crouch and shoot down onto garden plants, but there are two major disadvantages to this: firstly, it's often very difficult to obtain a clean, uncluttered background and, secondly, a high viewpoint doesn't always do justice to the elegant 'poise' of a flower, held on a gracefully curved stem. Of course, there are exceptions to this – tulips, for example, offer bold abstract compositions when photographed from above, directly into the flower's interior, focussing on the strong pattern of black stamens against red petals.
3. The set-up
I used a 100mm f2.8 macro lens to photograph these fritillaries, but any lens with a macro (or close-up) setting would work well. There are three other bits of kit worth pointing out in this very simple set-up. A tripod, or some form of sturdy support, is essential, not just to keep your camera steady for sharp images free of camera shake, but also to slow you down so that you can make fine adjustments to composition before pressing the shutter. If you haven't got a tripod that will get you low enough to the ground, try wedging your camera on a beanbag or cushion instead. Another piece of useful kit shown here is a remote release – again to help reduce any chance of camera shake – but if you don't have one you can use the two-second self-timer delay on your camera instead. The third accessory shown in this set-up is an A4 piece of white paper used as a mini reflector to bounce a little bit of light back up onto the underside of the flowers. It's quite possibly the cheapest accessory you'll ever acquire for your camera bag – and it works a treat!
4. Composition and background
When you're lying on the ground taking a photograph like this, you will immediately see one of the main benefits of choosing such a low viewpoint. I picked this particular group of plants, this time of day and this viewpoint so that I could frame the flowers against a nearby wall, covered in ivy, that I knew would be cast in shadow during the late afternoon... an ideal foil for accentuating the delicate petals. Snakeshead fritillaries are meadow plants, so I also wanted to provide some kind of context to their native grassland habitat. By carefully adjusting the tripod controls, I framed the flowers to include part-grass and part-ivy-covered-wall in the background. Another thing to consider for the composition was whether to shoot portrait or landscape. Both seemed to work, so I experimented in both formats.
5. Camera settings
With the camera set to Manual, I started by selecting an aperture of f2.8 (above left) – the widest my lens would open to. Large apertures give narrow depth of field with only a small margin of sharpness either side of the point at which you've focussed. The result: a soft-feeling image, with no detail in the background or even the stems and leaves behind the flower. Next, I selected f8 (above middle) and then f16 (and right), and you can see how more of the flower and stems come into focus, while the background gets 'busier' and more distracting as more detail is revealed by the greater depth of field. It's a matter of personal preference which effect you like best. However, as you try out different aperture settings, it's important to consider how each one affects the corresponding shutter speed. At f2.8 (with the camera's ISO at 100) the shutter speed was 1/30s. But at f16, the shutter speed reduced to 1s – not a problem with the camera secured on a tripod, but even the slightest waft of a breeze would cause these flowers to move, ruining the image during such a long exposure. So, if you're looking for more depth of field with a smaller aperture like f16, consider increasing the ISO in order to keep the shutter speed high enough to freeze any potential movement of the flower.
6. Post production
I shot the original images in RAW (above left), then fine-tuned them in Lightroom (above right). First, a subtle boost (around +15) to both Highlights and Shadows; +20 to Whites and no change to Blacks. Don't fret about these controls too much – just experiment with the slider controls in Lightroom until you get the desired effect. In this case, the small tweaks to Shadows, Highlights and Whites simply gave a little bit of extra contrast and definition to the pattern on the petals. Just remember not to overdo it. Similarly, I added +10 and +5 on Saturation and Vibrance respectively, to make that magenta colour sing out a little. I then gently tugged the Tone Curve to create a very shallow S-curve, just to provide a little more contrast (I prefer doing this to using the Contrast slider control in Lightroom). Cheeky perhaps, but I then couldn't resist giving the Magenta slider a nudge in the HSL/Colour panel. I added 50% sharpening with 100% edge mask to confine the sharpening applied only to the petals and nothing else. A graduated filter effect, with 1-stop under-exposure was then pulled down from the top of the frame to just above the flower in order to darken the background and make the flower stand out even more.
I hope you've enjoyed this mini-tutorial and feel inspired to venture out into your garden with your camera. Please leave a comment. below, or on Facebook, and do feel free to send me any pictures you've taken of plants in your garden. Thanks 😊