Are you confident that your digital photographs of plants, gardens and landscapes are as good as they can be? Can they be both effective and attractive in a Powerpoint presentation to illustrate a talk? Will they enhance your contribution if you submit them for publication? Do you ever feel that some guidance might be useful?
What follows is of necessity only a very brief refresher course intended to provide a simple low-tech overview of the subject as a preliminary to consulting the great mass of detailed photo guidance freely available on the internet, and in bookshops. The guidance is not directed at those aiming for startling effects, or at the devotees of 'photography as art'. You are not aiming to become the International Garden Photographer of the Year, just trying to produce images that are consistently clear, informative, useful, and attractive to look at. In order to demonstrate that semi-professional results can be achieved with inexpensive equipment, only affordable compact or medium-sized cameras were used to take the photographs reproduced here, and none were taken using a tripod, flash, creative filters, special lenses, orother accessories. But all were processed or enhanced on the computer, using a program such as Photoshop, which is now an indispensable extension of the camera.
To give some sort of shape to the overall process you can look at it as three separate sections.
Within each area there are rules, but remember that these are meant to be broken.
Most compact cameras have a lens that will zoom from wide-angle to telephoto. The wide-angle is good for sweeping views, but if you have an extra-wide-angle lens, use it sparingly. For most purposes the standard-to-telephoto range of the lens will be the most useful. In framing your shot, you have a choice of format - landscape or portrait. Consider using both for important subjects. Remember that many magazines and journals display photos in portrait mode on their front covers, and be prepared for images being 'cropped' to fit a given space.
Some subjects benefit from differential focusing, which involves highlighting the subject in sharp focus against an out-of-focus background. Using a long focus / telephoto lens, select the largest aperture and focus on the subject; the background will become blurred. If you want the subject to be off-centre, use the focus lock facility - focus with the subject in the centre while pressing the shutter button half-way; then move the camera and press the shutter all the way down.
In composing the picture, a useful basic rule (made to be broken) is that the subject should be off centre and the horizon always above or below the centreline of the frame. The 'Rule of Thirds', invented by an eighteenth-century painter, is still used as guide by many artists and photographers. Although this is largely discredited in the art world, it is still promoted by some photographic bodies as a useful starting point for composing pictures and way of sharpening up the beginner's critical faculties. Some cameras offer this as an option on the camera's viewing screen. Photoshop's cropping tool has an optional 'Rule of Thirds' mode. Another out-dated but useful trick when surveying the prospect is to close one eye and half close the other; this cuts out the stereoscopic 3D effect and flattens the picture you see. It also reduces peripheral vision, removing distractions; at the same time the amount of detail in shadowed areas is minimised. The effect is to reveal the strong lines and shapes in the composition.
If you always hold the camera horizontally, the results will lack interest. Try to be creative, without taking too precious a viewpoint. Some variation is a good idea - look up as well as looking down at your subject. Fill the frame and keep it simple. Avoid always placing the subject in the centre of the picture, unless detail in the subject is also the centre of interest. Tilting the camera sideways can give striking results but this 'dynamic' approach should be used sparingly. Pay particular attention to distracting backgrounds, and to unwanted elements in the picture. Include foreground or middle-distance interest where possible to set off views of far-off subjects, or frame your picture at the top and sides. Water and reflections are always appealing.
Try to avoid converging verticals ('buildings falling over backwards'). This can be achieved in three ways (unless you have perspective control lens):
Prepare your photographs for publication by editing them using one of the readily available photo-editing tools. One of the most commonly used is Photoshop Elements, an inexpensive basic version of a suite of professional editing tools, and probably all you will ever need. Tools for improving your photos will include some or all of the following features:
Images should be in focus, free of camera-shake, with a range from black to white in the darkest and lightest areas, converging verticals corrected, without excessive colour saturation or colour cast, but should be, above all, informative and aesthetically pleasing.
For publication, make sure that the technical criteria have been met. Typically these will be jpeg or tiff files, at a resolution of 300 pixels/inch or above.
Print colour is different to the light-based RGB colour used on a computer screen. Bright sunsets, tropical fish and fuchsia-coloured flowers may look magnificent on screen but much more subdued in ink on paper. For this reason, it is helpful to familiarise yourself with CMYK print colour settings to view the difference. It is however acceptable to submit RGB colour files to print, as the files will be converted during the production process.
Cameras are now mini-computers and do everything for you. But they don't always do what you want. It's a good idea to read the manual all the way through and familiarise yourself with the default settings and see if it might help to change them. Take time to experiment with the settings and see what happens as a result. Here are the settings that will affect you most: IMAGE SIZE, MODE, MANUAL, SHUTTER- PRIORITY AUTO, APERTURE-PRIORITY AUTO, PROGRAMMED AUTO, MACRO, EXPOSURE COMPENSATION, ISO SPEED, FLASH.
Take charge of these so that the camera ends up doing what you want it to do rather than the other way round. Your manual will explain them in detail, but here are few pointers.
Professional photographers plan ahead so that they don't waste time on their assignments, watching weather forecasts closely, and timing visits to coincide with the best position of the sun. The sun moves around the earth (for our purposes, anyway) by 15 degrees in every hour; so it is possible to predict where it will be in the sky. The worst time for outdoor photography is midday in mid-summer, when the sun is at its highest point and shadows are shortest. One of the best times is from autumn to spring, when the sun is lower, giving interesting side-lighting. Professional garden photographers work from early in the morning during the 'Golden Hour' when the light has a soft, warm quality. This option is not open to all of us, so we mostly have to take pot-luck and hope that good composition and technical quality will give the results we need.
Strong sunlight is good for dramatic architectural shots, especially if shot in black and white, but intense shadows can obscure detail in foliage. Thin cloud can give diffused sunlight, good for most shots because detail can usually be seen in shadows. Moving cloud introduces variation in landscape views. Thick cloud makes for dull pictures, unless the subject is colourful or particularly interesting. Pleasing results can be obtained at twilight or at night, even in atmospheric misty conditions.
If your subject must include large area of sky, you may want to use the exposure compensation setting. Or you can point the camera down, rather than horizontally. Other technical solutions include using a graduated neutral density filter in front of the lens, or taking two shots and stitching them together in Photoshop or similar software. Photographs taken into the light, though, can often emphasise attributes of a subject in an appealing way. A silhouette can sometimes be effective (in which case you won't need to think about exposure compensation).
It sometimes helps to imagine that you have only one picture left in the camera, and that you have to encapsulate the entire character of the subject in this one shot. This will lead to more careful assessment of the scene before rushing ahead and shooting away in all directions. Remember that one well- chosen general shot and a single significant large-scale detail will say more about your subject than a dozen indiscriminately chosen views. Fill the frame every time. Study and try to analyse successful photographs in the better-quality gardening books and magazines. Watch television documentaries and feature films intently and notice how many times the cameraman uses differential focusing to throw his subject into sharp relief, and how often the Rule of Thirds seems to have been employed (consciously or unconsciously). Assess your own results constantly and be ruthless in deleting unsatisfactory work. By being your own harshest critic, you will have a better chance of finding fulfilment and gaining a reputation in the world of publishing.