Plant Photography: Composition

Last month I wrote about keeping your photo simple—isolating the subject and avoiding distractions. But there’s much more to composition, many more ways to make your photos terrific. Here are a few tips and suggestions you may find helpful.Photographing Tiger BeetlesFor example, consider the angle you’ll use. Most of us are on automatic when we aim our cameras. We take our pictures from approximately five feet off the ground. If the plant is short, we look down on it. If it’s a tree, we look up. It’s certainly easiest to shoot from a standing position, but is that the best option? I come home from many of my photo outings covered with dirt and leaves (yes, that’s me on the left). That’s because I tend to take pictures of small things, and they’re likely on or near the ground.

Get out of automatic and try something new. Are you a bird, looking down? Are you a worm, looking up? Or perhaps you want to be at the same level as your subject, so you can look them in the eye. Or stamen. Or whatever. Here are some examples:

Another decision to make is how much of the scene to include. Are you photographing the entire garden, just one plant, or merely a piece of a plant. Do you include multiple flowers, one flower, or a piece of a flower?

Whatever you do, don’t leave a lot of useless space around your subject. If you want to set your subject in its environment, fine. But otherwise, try to fill the frame. Get closer, or crop if needed.

Macro lenses come in handy when getting close up and personal, but you can take close-ups with any lens. Would you believe that this picture was shot through a 500 mm telephoto? I love how the background blurred!

Asclepias syriaca_Milkweed_FCNC-CO_LAH_1029.jpg

And these were taken with a wide angle lens (so was the photo at top, left). Many wide angle lenses allow you to get remarkably close, and you’ll have plenty of depth of field.

If you do decide to shoot the whole scene, be sure to consider the foreground, middle ground, and background. Do you want elements in each part? Don’t just focus on one part of the scene, and ignore the others. The entire view is going to be in the photo anyway, so be intentional.

While photos of single flowers are nice, and including two may be better, I like to shoot groups of three. When it comes to groups, for some reason, our brains prefer to look at odd numbers—three, five, seven. This is good to know when landscaping, and also when assembling a photograph.

Then there’s the “rule of thirds.” Just as we prefer threes, we tend to agree that a photo looks best when you can divide it into thirds. In your mind, draw a tic-tac-toe grid over the photo, then place your subject either along one line, or at the intersection of two lines. Some cameras even have this grid built in to the viewfinder.

You can frame your subject. We put frames around pictures because we think they look better that way. You can build a frame into your composition. When tourists take pictures of Yosemite from inside one of the tunnels, they are framing their snapshots. You can use all sorts of elements as frames—doorways, tree limbs, foliage—just look around and see what’s available.

When you see a picture with a path or river receding into the distance, it forces your eye to move through the scene. We can accomplish the same thing by how our subjects are arranged. Here are two examples:

I enjoy looking for patterns, and plants provide plenty of opportunities. Did you notice how many plants grow in a spiral?

I liked the bands on this palm trunk. Or maybe the pattern’s not in the plant, but in the way the gardener arranged them, as with these tulips.

Look for textures. Leaves can be smooth and shiny, or soft and fuzzy. Tree trunks can be rough or smooth. Remember to use side-lighting, if you can, to be sure the textures you want to capture show up in the picture.

Now I’m giving you a photo assignment. Try to take at least one picture for every suggestion I just mentioned. Which do you like best?



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