Gear for Garden Photography

8x10 Dahlia_BellevueBG-WA_LAH_6725_filteredIf you read last month’s post, you now know why you’re taking garden photos. The next question is, what kind of camera do you need? Cameras range from simple point-and-shoot models to the camera in your phone to professional DSLRs. While there’s a lot of truth that you get what you pay for, all of them take photos.

At least to start with, use the camera you have. Yes, you’ll have more creative latitude with extra lenses, camera features, and other equipment, but keep in mind that most important part of the process is the photographer.

The first essential is to read the directions. Make sure you know how to use your camera. Is there a macro option? Know where it is. Find out if you can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and/or ISO. Practice using every feature available to you so that when you’re in the field you don’t have to worry about all the details, and can instead focus on creating the perfect composition.

When I get a new camera, I go through the instruction manual and try out everything. Then I go outside and take bad photos. My goal is to familiarize myself with the controls, not to take the perfect picture. I want to make sure that my fingers know what to do without me thinking about them.

I have friends who are excellent photographers who prefer the lighter weight and hassle-free convenience of a point-and-shoot. I finally made the switch to a DSLR when I found myself pushing the constraints of the simpler camera. I wanted a camera that didn’t hesitate when I pushed the shutter button. I wanted a variety of lenses with different focal lengths. And I was willing to pay the higher price and tote a heavier body and extra lenses with me when I was in the field.

But let’s say that at some point, you find that you enjoy photography and want to upgrade your equipment. What should you prioritize? There are entire websites devoted to the pros and cons of different cameras and lenses. I’m not going to try and replicate that information here. (I highly recommend Digital Photography Review for a lot of very nice experts and accurate, unbiased information.) Here is a quick overview:

Wide Angle. A wide angle lens allows the photographer to include more of a scene in a photo. You can step back and get the big picture. Things will look smaller and farther away. Wide angle lenses also provide more depth of field—how much of the scene is in focus. They’re great for taking pictures of an entire garden. This is the lens on most phone cameras and simple cameras with a fixed focus. Here are some examples of photos I took with a wide angle lens:

Japanese Garden_DBG_LAH_1703

Telephoto. This lens is like providing a telescope for your camera. You can fill the frame with your subject from a distance—very helpful if the gardeners frown on people traipsing through their plants. This lens makes things look bigger, and more crowded together. On the other hand, you will lose depth of field—your subject may be in focus, but the foreground and background will be blurry. Here are some examples of photos I took with a telephoto lens.

Close-up. If you want to take a picture of a single flower or leaf, you’ll need a close-up lens. These lenses can focus very close to the subject—less than an inch!

There are several ways to achieve this close focus. On some cameras, it’s a built-in setting. If not, extension tubes allow you to move your lens farther from your camera, changing the focus point. Or, you can screw one or several extra lenses—similar to filters—to the front of your normal lens, allowing you to focus closer. If you take a lot of close-ups, you may decide to spring for a dedicated close-up lens. My favorite garden lens is my 105 mm close-up. Nikon calls it a “micro” lens; everyone else labels these macro lenses.

There are pros and cons to all of these approaches. Extension tubes and screw-on close-up lenses don’t allow you to focus far away, whereas a macro lens can be used to infinity. It also takes patience to be adding and removing these accessory lenses every time you compose a new picture. Screw on lenses add layers of glass between you and your subject, degrading focus and using up light—and they’re a pain to keep dust-free. On the other hand, a dedicated macro lens has a significantly higher price tag. Here are some photos I took with my macro lens:

One more detail. Lenses can be a fixed focal length—28 mm for a wide angle, or 300 mm for a telephoto, for example. Or you can get a zoom lens, which has a range of focal lengths. In general, zooms cost more, and are slightly less sharp, than a prime lens. But they also allow more flexibility when composing your photograph. Yet another decision to make!

There are a few more accessories I like to use when taking pictures in a garden. We’ll talk about those next time.

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