Thinking of entering our Online Flower Show? Here are Jon Evans’s top plant photography tips for capturing your plant in the best possible light!
If you’re thinking of entering your plants into our Online Flower Show, I’d like to share some of my top plant photography tips with you so that you can do your plant justice.
First of all, our online flower show is only for plants in pots. So I’ll direct my remarks at photographing those (though to illustrate my points, I sometimes use examples of plants in the garden).
Secondly, the plant photography guidance for the show says:
“This is not a photographic competition … the quality of the photograph is not being judged but it should be good enough to do justice to the plant being exhibited. It is vitally important that as much of the exhibit is shown as possible, both flower and foliage as appropriate, avoiding close-up shots…”
The sentence I have marked in bold is crucial. If you look below, you’ll see that the first photo is much better than the second at meeting these guidelines.
As it says above, you should try to include the whole of your plant in the photograph. It’s a good idea to include the top edge of the pot, to make clear that the plant is in one.
If you put the plant in front of a flower border or rock garden and don’t show the pot, the judges may be unclear about whether the plant is growing in the garden. In the interests of fairness, if they cannot tell, they will disregard your plant. Is this Gladiolus atroviolaceus in a pot or not? You can’t tell – and it is, indeed, growing in the rock garden.
Firstly, take your photos when your plant is in peak condition. Don’t take them when your plant is in bud or when the flowers are tiring. So, for example, I needed to take the picture of the Pulsatilla below before the front left flower got tired.
Of course, if it is your plant, you can always remove one poor flower. Don’t forget to turn the plant around so you’re looking at its best side.
In my show photography diary, I often discuss the use of artificial light vs. daylight, most recently at the Pershore Early Show this year. Generally I prefer daylight, but show conditions mean that bright daylight is not always available and I have to improvise.
In the garden, the place, weather conditions and time of day you take your photos can also make a big difference. If you take photos in full sun, they will tend to have bright highlights and dark shadows.
Instead, most photographers recommend taking pictures in bright overcast conditions or light shade (in shade, but plenty of sky visible). The colours will look nicely saturated, but you won’t have the high contrast and harsh shadows to detract from your picture.
These two close-ups of Paris japonica show the difference – first sun and then shade.
Photos taken in overcast conditions will also look a bit bluer than pictures in the sun. That can make flowers in the pink-purple spectrum look a completely different colour. Pictures taken in early morning, or evening light, will look much yellower, and even redder. This Astrantia was photographed at lunchtime, and again around 6pm.
Personally, I quite like sunshine, particularly hazy or spring sunshine, but then I like strong, saturated, high-contrast images of plants, rather than the classic soft tones. I feel that a touch of sunlight brings an image to life. I took the first picture of the meadow at Blackthorn in heavily overcast conditions. In the second photo, the sun was just trying to break through. It didn’t succeed, but even that hint of sunshine makes all the difference to the colours and contrast.
You can avoid getting burnt-out highlights by shooting with the sun behind you rather than behind the plant. Be careful not to cast a shadow on the area you are photographing. Shading the viewfinder of the camera from the sun will help to prevent mis-exposures.
For the online flower show, the main subject of the photo should be clear, with no other plants to detract from it.
Put your plant in the middle of the picture and try to get the whole of the plant in focus. If that proves difficult, try to make sure that the flowers closest to you are properly in focus – don’t worry so much about the back of the plant. And leave some space around the plant – don’t crop in too closely.
It’s best to use a plain background, with nothing distracting in it, preferably out of focus and possibly in deeper shade than the subject. This is my setup at shows.
At shows, I use sheets of grey card for a background and you could do the same. If you don’t have this sort of thing to hand, you can substitue all sorts of things. I’ve used white-washed greenhouse glass effectively, for example.
A garage door, a concrete path (for an aerial view), or even a house wall will do. These photographs used a painted wall at the old Loughborough show venue.
You can even use your lawn, provided it doesn’t have bright eye-catching flowers. My lawn has daisies and dandelions but you may have buttercups or even orchids.
The angle from which you take your photo can make a huge difference to how good your plant looks. Show photographers tend to use a standard angle, looking down slightly at the plant. However, some plants look better from overhead, and many look their best when photographed from the side at a much lower angle. Often you need to experiment to find the best angle. Changing the angle of view can also help you disguise weaknesses in the plant e.g. a bald spot on the top of the cushion.
Here both the Crocus and the Calochortus look better photographed from a higher angle.
I expect to photograph tall slender plants like Erythronium and Fritillaria from the side. But other less obvious plants, like these Pleione, and even big pans of Cyclamen look better from a lower angle.
The shape of many plants pre-determines which way up you should take the picture – portrait or landscape. Plants which are tall rather than dome-shaped often look better in portrait mode. This emphasizes the height and elegance of the plant (see the Erythronium and Fritillaria just above).
But sometimes, even when it isn’t obvious, turning the camera on end makes a picture work much better. I had to struggle to find an angle which made this Scilla look good, but it was worth it.
As I said above, it helps if you get all or most of the plant in focus. If you use the wide-angle end of the zoom on your camera, and get close to the plant you are photographing, you should get lots of the plant in focus. This approach also tends to change the shape and geometry of the plant, but that can make it look more impressive and dramatic. Experiment with the zoom to see what works best.
These two pictures of Primula sieboldii have roughly the same composition; but in the first the zoom was at 120mm, whereas for the second I was much nearer with a wider angle at 28mm. Note that the Rhododendron leaves behind are much sharper in the second photo.
The other way of increasing the amount of the plant in focus is to use a small aperture to achieve a high depth of field. I discuss that briefly below, under exposure.
I normally focus on one of the flowers on the plant which is closest to me – it doesn’t matter too much if the back of the plant is out of focus, but it looks awful if the front of the plant is out. (I’m sorry but I couldn’t find a picture of a whole plant to illustrate this). In the first of these two Astrantia pictures the front of the flower is out of focus. That is why I went back out and photographed it again.
You need to be careful to check that the camera gets the focus right – autofocus can be a tricksy thing, particularly when the camera is close to the subject. Here the camera has helpfully focused on the background.
At this point I would normally go on to talk about considerations relating to exposure. But if you are taking a whole plant portrait, in good bright light, then you can probably get away with leaving your camera in automatic exposure mode, unless you are already familiar with your exposure controls.
If you are finding that there is not enough of the plant in focus, then you need to set your camera into an exposure mode where you can control the aperture being used (aperture priority). Set the camera to use a small aperture for high depth of field (for a range f2 to f8, choose f8, if the range goes up to f16 or beyond, choose f16).
The drawback of this is that as you choose a smaller and smaller aperture, the shutter speed the camera chooses gets slower and slower. Eventually, the photo will be blurred when the plant blows around, and you can’t hold the camera steady enough to keep it still. Using a tripod will help with keeping the camera steady, but if it is windy you will have to find somewhere (indoors?) out of the wind.
The two photos of Physoplexis show the difference between f2.8 and f18.
This is what happens when you select a small aperture and end up with an exposure of 1/6th second – the wind blows, and some or all of the picture is slightly blurred. In the second image the wind had dropped.
If you don’t have a mode where you can control the aperture (usually called Av), your camera may have a number of auto-exposure ‘shooting modes’. These normally include Sports (running man icon), Close-up (flower icon), and Landscape (mountain icon).
Surprisingly, the flower icon is not the way to go – this will set the camera up to take ‘arty’ close-ups with shallow depth of field. The option to choose is Landscape (the mountain icon), where the camera will try to get as big a depth of field as possible.
The key to getting good results is to experiment. You can take several different photos of the same plant and choose the best.
So try different angles, portrait and landscape mode, different backgrounds, distances away and zooms. Don’t be rushed – take your time, and keep trying different things until you get a picture you are pleased with.
I said earlier that the easiest lighting to use was bright overcast lighting. And that is certainly the best way to get good photos of your plants for this competition.
But of course, the best photos of all are where the photographer has used more exciting lighting, particularly back lighting. This often makes a technical challenge for the photographer.
Well, that’s all I’m going to say. Don’t forget the competition is for the best plant, not the best photograph. But these tips should help you to show your plant’s features off to the best of your ability. I hope you will all be posting pictures of your star plants which didn’t make it to the shows this year.
Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.
However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.
If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at email@example.com