Secrets to better garden photography

One of the most dramatic ways to photograph plants and creatures in the garden (and one that's popular among our members) is to take close-up shots.

This technique, also called macro photography, is appealing because it offers endless possibilities as you focus on small patterns, abstract shapes and textures. But good macro photos don't just happen (at least, not usually!).

These tips will help you take advantage of close-up opportunities and get the best results.

Composition

How you frame your subject is as important in macro photography as it is for a portrait or landcape image—and you don't need a high-end camera to achieve it.

• Be selective and intentional when deciding what to photograph. By avoiding parts of a plant or leaf with disease or unhealthy sections, you can capture a cleaner image.

• Pay attention to the background. If you're photo-graphing a flower, choose an angle that puts the flower in front of a green or simple background to create an image with less clutter and distraction behind it.

• Use the rule of thirds as a guideline for positioning subject matter to create a more pleasing image. The rule works like this: Imagine the image divided into thirds horizontally and vertically.

This creates a cross-hatch of nine boxes, like a tic-tac-toe board (see photo example below). If you place your subject in one of the four resulting crosshairs, the image will be more balanced and interesting.

Lighting

Close-up photos are generally more pleasing to look at when the light is fairly even across the entire frame or when it highlights the main point of interest.

Because you're working with a small area in macro shots, you can more easily control the lighting. Follow these tips to enhance the light on your subjects:

• Bounce light onto the subject with a reflector if it's too dark or if you want light from a certain direction. You can purchase them in various sizes with warm (such as gold, pictured above) and cool finishes (such as silver). They collapse and are easy to carry. You can also make your own reflector simply by wrapping a piece of cardboard with foil.

Go to gardeningclub.com/lightreflectors or the end of this post to see a video on how to use light reflectors to dramatically improve your gardening photos.

• Add flash to your subject to lighten dark shadows. But try to avoid the unsightly shadow caused by an on-camera flash. If you have an SLR camera, use an external flash or speedlight instead. If you have a point-and-shoot camera with a pop-up flash, use a small diffuser that attaches to the camera to soften the shadows.

• Take photos in the morning or evening when the light isn't as harsh as midday. Sunrise and an hour before sunset are ideal times.

Camera Settings

Re-read your camera manual and become very familiar with its various settings. Experiment with them so you become comfortable using them.

Though pocket-size point-and-shoot cameras are geared toward folks who want most of their functions, such as focus, to be automatic, you can adjust some key settings. An SLR (single-lens reflex) camera offers more setting controls—and you can pair the main camera body with a variety of removable lenses.

• With a point-and-shoot camera, be sure to adjust your camera to the macro setting, usually indicated with a flower symbol. Keep in mind, however, that once you're in macro mode, some point-and-shoot cameras will not allow you to make other adjustments, such as changing the aperture.

• You can have your camera select the shutter speed automatically by putting your camera in AV mode (aperture priority). Once you select the desired f-stop in this mode, the shutter speed is automatically selected according to the light and your ISO setting.

• If the lighting is too bright or too dark, you may want to adjust your ISO settings a bit. The ISO refers to the sensitivity of the optical sensor in digital photography. Use a higher setting for darker environments (ISO 1000, for example) and a lower setting for sunny, bright environments (ISO 100, for example). Very high ISO settings can create grainy images.

• Adjust your camera's focus settings from auto to manual. This will help you select the desired point of focus on your subject matter.

• With an SLR camera (or a point-and-shoot camera that allows you to manually adjust settings), use a lower f-stop (the aperture setting on the lens that determines how much light gets in). For example, f-5 produces a shallower depth of field than f-22. This will make the back-ground objects appear out of focus, leaving the closer subject in focus. To get more of the image in focus, change the aperture setting to a larger number.

See photos below and their corresponding f-stops:

f-stop 2.8: Only a small part of the image is in focus.

f-stop 7.1: Gradually the background starts to become clear.

f-stop 10: Here they are even clearer.

f-stop 32: Finally, almost the entire image is in focus.

Equipment

Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it makes a difference.

• Stabilize your camera with a tripod to ensure sharper images. Lean your camera up against a tree or set it on the ground or a rock to steady it when you don't have a tripod with you.

• If your camera allows you to switch lenses, use a macro lens for higher quality results.

• As a less expensive alternative to a close-up lens, you can use a close-up attachment on an SLR camera. This is a thin, filter-like gadget that typically is screwed onto the front of your normal lens and allows you to focus closer.

• A cable release also helps to ensure sharp images by eliminating camera shake when pressing the shutter-release button (see photo, above).

Tracy Ann Walsh is an award-winning garden photographer based in Maple Grove, MN.