Top Tips for Plant Photography | Nature Picture Library (2024)

Botanic photographer Adrian Davies gives us some top tips on how to take captivating photographs of plants

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Adrian Davies has been photographing natural history subjects for nearly 50 years, and more recently has added various scientific techniques to his portfolio including high speed, time-lapse and ultraviolet imaging. He has written 15 books about photography and numerous articles, as well as running over 250 workshops. He is a popular lecturer to camera clubs, conservation bodies and other organisations. His latest book, Plant Photography, is published on 24th April, 2023.

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ON THE FACE OF IT…

Plant photography sounds simple. Plants do not fly, jump, or run away when you get too close, they generally last for a few days, and most are reasonably predictable in their appearance. It may be easy to produce average results, but it is up to the skill of the photographer to achieve something more, either aesthetically, technically, or both.
For many, plant photography equates to taking pictures of flowers. Understandably so, as flowers are surely one of nature’s most photogenic subjects. But plant photography encompasses a huge range of other subjects, from the smallest mosses to the largest trees, and everything in between. Although not perhaps as “exotic” as wildlife safari photography, plant photography can lead you to some wonderful places, and often challenging conditions

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Portuguese scilla (Scilla peruviana hughii) flowering, botanical garden, Surrey, UK, April. by Adrian Davies

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Common haircap moss (Polytrichum commune) Snowdonia, Wales, UK. by Adrian Davies

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Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) leaf transilluminated showing vein detail. by Adrian Davies

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Knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior), a parasite of Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), with host, Hampshire, UK, June. by Adrian Davies

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Ethiopian Banana (Ensete ventricosum) close up detail of leaf taken in Botanic garden, Surrey UK by Adrian Davies

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Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) in flower, Surrey, UK. March. by Adrian Davies

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Alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), Alps, Switzerland, June. by Adrian Davies

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Wilson's filmy fern (Hymenophyllum wilsonii) Snowdonia, North Wales, October. by Adrian Davies

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naturepl_01717747 by Adrian Davies

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Tunnel of Trees, Halnaker, Chichester, West Sussex, UK. October 2017. by Adrian Davies

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Beech tree (fa*gus sylvatica) in autumn. Surrey, UK. by Adrian Davies

WHY PHOTOGRAPH PLANTS?

There is also a whole host of reasons for photographing plants – for botanical identification, biological recording and habitat monitoring, through to fine art and creative imagery. As with all forms of photography there is no one right answer – indeed that is the great thing about photography – twelve photographers will probably produce twelve entirely different images of the same subject.
Plants are extraordinary, and we are learning new facts about them all the time, including the fact that they communicate with each other, capture prey, and even compete with each other for resources. It has only recently been discovered, for example, that at least four species of Gentian are touch sensitive – i.e. they close several seconds after being touched, probably in response to bumblebees foraging inside them.

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EQUIPMENT

Because of the range of subjects , and their size, you will probably need a range of lenses to capture plants. Wide angles are good for placing plants in their habitat, whilst telephotos, even long ones used by bird photographers, are great for throwing backgrounds out of focus, removing distracting objects such as twigs and branches.

Additional items

I always use a tripod to not only hold the camera still, but also to slow me down. So I can check the frame for any distracting elements. One word of caution – take great care when placing tripod legs and your feet. As with all nature photography, the welfare of the subject is always more important than the image, and as photographers we have a responsibility to not damage the environment. Even with the best tripod, there will still remain the problem of plant movement. Single-stemmed subjects such as orchids or poppies will blow around in the slightest breeze, making it difficult to get photographs with sharp focus. A plant clamp (PLAMP) and ground spike can be used to secure the plant and keep it still for photography.

Finally, one thing which all plant photographers will suffer from is bad knees, so I always carry a kneeling mat!

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THE RIGHT LIGHT

I always prefer to use daylight if at all possible. Bright and overcast conditions work best for plant photography, helping to bring out the fine details. Of course, daylight is highly variable. A reflector can be used to add light to darker, shadowy areas of a scene, thus reducing contrast. You need to be careful not to overdo this, however, or it will look very false. Diffusers are also available for reducing contrast, acting like a cloud over the sun.
I will occasionally use a diffused flash when working in dark woodland.

EXPERIMENT WITH COLOUR

Getting the colour right in our images applies to all forms of nature photography, especially so with plants, where the subtleties of flower or foliage are really important. Take bluebells for example. Shoot them on a sunny day and the colour will take on a distinct pink cast, with the blue more desaturated. Shoot the same scene on a bright overcast day, or with cloud covering the sun, and the blue becomes more dominant. I often use a photographic grey card to help capture colours more faithfully.

Taking a photo with the grey card in the image helps determine the correct ‘white balance’ (a measure of how accurate the colours are in your photograph). The white balance can be adjusted in camera or when processing the image afterwards. Make sure you photograph the grey card under the same lighting as your subject and that no shadows fall over the card. This technique is covered in more depth in my book ‘Plant Photography.’

AVOID DISTRACTING BACKGROUNDS

The background (and foreground) to your subject is an important element to your image, which can distract from or enhance your subject. Throwing a background out of focus can be achieved in a number of ways:

• Shallow depth of field. Use a wide aperture (small F number) to achieve this.

• Viewpoint. Position your camera in such a way that the background is far behind the subject; this often means getting down very low and angling the camera upwards, away from the ground.

• Lens choice. Using a telephoto lens can also throw the background out of focus. I routinely use 200, 300 or even 500mm lenses to achieve this. Lenses with long focal lengths tend to have a shallow depth of field, helping to isolate your subject. You may need to use an extension to enable the lens to focus closer.

• A combination of the above factors.

UNDERSTANDING DEPTH OF FIELD

As with any form of nature photography, appreciation of depth of field is essential for successful images. There is no right answer as to whether you need shallow depth of field or wide depth of field. Every subject will be different. Use the depth of field preview button on your camera to review the image, and experiment with several different apertures to see which works best.
Insufficient depth of field is a common problem with close-up photography and macro photography. One possible answer, if the situation is appropriate, is to use a relatively new technique called focus stacking, where you shoot a number of images at different focus points, travelling through the subject rather like a bacon slicer.

Many cameras have the facility built-in, but you can also do it manually, re-focusing the lens for each shot. It is essential that the subject remains still throughout the shooting process. Afterwards, the images are stacked in suitable software such as Helicon Focus or Photoshop.

A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE

It’s always worth shooting your subject at different scales to get maximum information about it. Common Scurvy Grass grows by the sea, usually on cliffs, so a wide-angle view showing the sea and cliff will complement the close-up of the flowers.

PAY ATTENTION TO PLANT BEHAVIOUR

One of the most undocumented elements of plants is their behaviour. Many plants exhibit movement, such as the snapping shut of a Venus Fly Trap, the ejection of pollen or seeds, and, of course, growth. For high-speed shots of pollen and seed dispersal, flash guns with an adjustable output setting allowing exposures of perhaps 1/10,000th second will be useful. Most of my work of this kind is done indoors where lighting and backgrounds can be controlled. I often use backlighting to show up the pollen or spores.

We are all familiar with the wonderful time-lapse sequences in wildlife documentaries showing plants growing. These are almost always video, but simpler sequences can also be captured using a series of still image, which can be montaged together into one frame. A plain white or black background will make the compositing easier.

LOOK FOR PATTERNS, TEXTURES & SHAPES

The individual parts of many plants may not be immediately thought of as being photogenic but are nonetheless fascinating in their own right. Leaves, thorns, roots, stems, fruits and seeds are all vital to the plant, and make worthy photographic subjects, and many other details can make wonderful patterns and shapes. Almost by definition, most images of plant details will require close-up or macro photographic techniques.

Invisible patterns

Most insects see the world differently to human eyes. Whilst we see the world as a combination of red, green and blue light, many insects instead see green, blue and ultraviolet. Photographing a flower in ultraviolet can show up previously invisible patterns, the purpose of which is to guide insects to the source of the nectar, in exchange for pollination services. This is not an area of photography for the faint-hearted, requiring converted cameras, UV transmitting lenses, specialist filters and a light source containing lots of UV. The results however can be stunning, giving us a really good idea of how insects might see the world.

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Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) illuminated using different waveforms of light. Visible light (left), reflected UV light (centre), UV light as seen by bees (right). Studio environment, composite. by Adrian Davies

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Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), visible light, studio environment. See also image 01717743 which shows the same plant in UV light. by Adrian Davies

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Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), fluorescing under UV light, studio environment. See also image 01717742 which shows the same plant in visible light. by Adrian Davies

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Pitcher plant (Sarracenia sp.) flower on black background. by Adrian Davies

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Pitcher plant (Sarracenia sp.) flower reflected ultraviolet light on black background. by Adrian Davies

UV fluorescence is much easier, requiring just a UV torch. Some parts of plants such as pollen, or carnivorous plants, glow when illuminated with UV, which can be photographed in a dark room. It may require long exposures in the region of 10 – 20 seconds.

CREATIVE IMAGERY

Plants lend themselves to a whole range of techniques for producing creative or fine art images. I frequently use a light panel to transilluminate translucent flowers in the studio.

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Another effective technique can be to ‘invert” the subject in Photoshop, making it a negative. To do this, convert the image to Lab Color in Photoshop (go to Image > Mode and choose Lab Color). and invert the L channel (Image > Adjustments > Invert).

Putting flowers and other botanical objects in water and then freezing the water can yield some interesting images, each of which will be unique. For the photography you will need a light panel or sheet of glass that you will backlight, probably from underneath. You will need to work quickly to catch it before the ice starts to melt, and make sure any meltwater does not drip into any electrical components.

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IN CONCLUSION

Photographing plants well is not always easy , requiring good technique, subject knowledge, planning, an appreciation of composition, artistic flair and a fair deal of luck. Finding the perfect subject in the right place and in perfect light will not be easy, and you may need several attempts to produce stunning images. But the pursuit of the images can be just as exciting as photographing rare mammals and birds.

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For more top tips, Adrian’s new book “Plant Photography” is published in April 2023 by The Crowood Press.

The book is available to order here.

Find Adrian Davies on Instagram: adriandaviesimaging

Top Tips for Plant Photography | Nature Picture Library (2024)
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