It’s helpful to understand your equipment, to know how to set up your camera so your subject will be in focus and properly exposed. Knowing how everything works will allow you to avoid mistakes and the frustration that accompanies them. If you’re especially enamored of technical things, you’ll probably enjoy trying out all your camera’s menu choices, dials, and buttons, learning what it’s capable of. But just as most of us don’t pull out our phone simply to play with the settings, understanding the technical aspect of photography isn’t our final goal. Rather, it’s the means to an end. We want to create quality photographs.
I enjoy the creative, artistic aspect of taking photos. Even if I’m just taking an ID shot, I want it to be a pretty ID shot. Over the years, I’ve learned some basic “rules” of good composition—and how visual artists think. What pleases the eye? Why do we choose one picture over another? What matters? And when should those rules be broken? This isn’t an exhaustive list, by any means. It’s simply some suggestions to keep in mind as you go.
We know what K.I.S.S. means: Keep it Simple, Sweetie (yes, I know there’s another possibility, but let’s be nice). Look at these two photos. They both contain a swallowtail butterfly on a Maltese Cross (Chalcedonica). But one is cluttered with two butterflies and three flowers (plus parts of several more). What is the subject? It takes a while for our brain to decide where to look. The other photo has a single butterfly, and no flower pieces falling off the edges. It’s obvious what the subject is, and our eye goes right to it.
Here’s another example, this time of some hollyhock plants. Which photo do you like better? Why?
When you take a picture, it’s good to decide ahead of time what your subject is, and focus on that. But also pay attention to other objects in the frame. Try to eliminate the extra ones.
One way to do this is with a neutral background, such as the sky, or a shadow. It’s fine if the sky is cloudy—skies aren’t always blue. I used a black clipboard behind the Lenten Rose (Hellebore) on the right.
And notice that you can put a lighter subject against a dark background—or vise versa.
Another way to neutralize the background is with depth of field. Keep the subject sharp but let the clutter behind it fade to a blur. It takes some practice to determine what the best aperture is, so bracket your photo by taking a series at different settings.
Remember that depth of field also varies according to how close you are to your subject. The farther away you are, the more depth of field. Try both a wide angle lens (left, below) and a telephoto .
It’s all right to “cheat” by grooming around the plant you want to photograph. Remove weeds and debris, such as twigs and fallen leaves. If you’re zooming in for a close-up, any distractions become extra obvious.
If you can’t do it in person, you can also eliminate objects in your post processing. Often, plants spill out over one another in the garden. I have no qualms about removing them with a bit of editing.
Another distraction is the bright spots that show up when shooting through foliage. What our eyes automatically avoid, the camera can’t help but see. You don’t want white blotches in the middle of your picture. Aim carefully when composing your photo. If you can’t avoid catching the light, you can sometimes edit out the spots later.
The crabapple photo at the top of the page shows how camera angle can eliminate hot spots.
Now head outside and take (or make) some photos. Try different backgrounds. Try different angles. Get close. Back away. Use your knowledge of depth of field. How many ways can you isolate your subject?
Flower photos, from top: Crabapple ‘Brandywine,’ Maltese Cross (Chalcedonica), hollyhocks (Alcea), rose, Lenten Rose (Helleborus), cosmos, columbines (including Aqueligia caerulea, Colorado Columbine), Speedwell (Veronica), Artemisia, and more crabapple ‘Brandywine’