Plant Photography: Settings

Pete photographing Paintbrush_GuanellaPass-CO_LAH_0026

The fun part of taking pictures of plants is going out into the garden, admiring all the flowers, and creating magnificent photos. The not-as-fun part is understanding the technology behind your images. Yet, if you’re going to get great shots, you need to know a little about how your camera works.

Actually, I can’t begin to explain your camera. I only have my camera, and my buttons and dials and menus are likely different from yours. It’s essential that you buckle down and read that book that came with your camera. (If you can’t find it, look online.) Try everything out. Mess with the settings. Practice until you don’t have to think about all those annoying details. Then you can concentrate on the more exciting aspects of photography, such as actually taking pictures!

camera mode dialOn the other hand, all cameras have some things in common. I can explain those. Unless you’re using a simple point-and-shoot with no settings, you likely have some options. The first is to choose your camera mode. I have a Nikon, and my modes include:

  • M: Manual—you do all the thinking
  • A: Aperture priority
  • S: Shutter speed priority
  • Automatic—the camera thinks for you
  • P: Program—the camera mostly thinks for you (varies by brand and model)
  • Macro: for point-and-shoot cameras, phones



The aperture is the hole that allows light into your camera. It’s like you eye’s pupil. And like your eye, it can change size. Your eye dilates in low light, and closes down in bright light. Your camera can do the same. The size of the aperture is called the f-stop. Oddly, bigger numbers mean the hole is smaller, so f-16 means a tiny hole, while f-2.8 means a big hole. (If you want details, Wikipedia has plenty.) The aperture numbers are listed on the side of your lens.


The shutter speed is simply how long the shutter stays open. In low light, you need more time to accumulate enough light to make a photo. In brighter light, the shutter can open and close faster. Slow shutter speeds may result in blurry photos, and often require use of a tripod. Faster speeds freeze motion. (This could be handy on a windy day.)

You may have figured out that the faster the shutter speed, the bigger the aperture needs to be, and visa versa. In fact, there’s a direct relationship between the two. In low light, say on a cloudy day or in deep shade, you may need both a slow shutter and a big aperture (= a low f-stop). On a bright day, you can close down the aperture, and/or speed up your shutter.

If your camera is set on manual, you’ll have to figure this all out. (The camera will help.) If it’s on automatic or program mode, you don’t have to consider it at all. Aperture mode and shutter speed mode let you choose which one of those you control, and the camera adjusts everything else so that your photo is correctly exposed.

You may be tempted to leave your camera on automatic or program mode, but you can do better. You are smarter than your camera! It may choose the average exposure, for example, not the one you’re aiming for (white flowers will come out gray, for example). And it won’t know that you want the flowers in the background to be as sharply in focus as those closer to the camera—or not.


There’s one more variable in the equation—the ISO. (On old film cameras, this was called the film speed, or ASA.) ISO is a measure of how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the ISO, the higher the sensitivity, and the less light you need. You’d think we’d all use a high ISO, but there’s a problem. The higher the ISO, the more “noise” you get in your photo. In the ice plant photos below, notice how much noisier the photo on the right is. Generally, noise is bad. So again, you have to balance sensitivity vs. quality, and make a decision. Newer or fancier cameras are often better at taking photos at higher ISO settings. Make some test shots so you know your camera’s limits.

To summarize, we have what’s called an exposure triangle. You have to balance the f-stop, the shutter speed, and the ISO to correctly expose your photo.

I usually set my ISO to “automatic,” also giving it an upper limit. Then I set the camera on aperture priority, and let the software decide the shutter speed.

There’s one more setting that you can adjust—the white balance. This tells the camera the “temperature” of the light you’re shooting by—daylight, cloudy/rainy, incandescent, florescent, etc. For most situations, simply set this to automatic. In this case, the camera is plenty smart enough to get it right. (If you mess up, you can also adjust the white balance in your post-processing, as I did here with this Wilson’s Phalarope. Yet another reason to shoot RAW or NEF.)

So, why do I want the most control over the aperture? Because the f-stop largely determines depth of field, an essential issue in any kind of close-up photography. I’ll talk about that next time. Meanwhile, go play with your settings.

Camera mode dial photo by Graphic: AlthepalDerivative work: Mehdi – ModeDial.svg, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Camera lens photo: Wikicommons.


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