Focus on Photography

David Wrightson

Example 1
Central subject but with a subtle 'rule of thirds' composition in the background
Example 2
Framing the subject gives depth to a picture and helps draw the viewer in.
Example 3
Example 4
Small aperture photo with good detail in foreground, middle distance and sky
Example 5
Short depth of field (large aperture) or use macro setting.

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.

Digital photography for publication

To give some sort of shape to the overall process you can look at it as three separate sections.

Using the camera imaginatively to capture the essence of your subject in a lasting image
Ensuring that your picture is seen in its best light
The business of getting to know your camera and planning ahead

Within each area there are rules, but remember that these are meant to be broken.

Production: framing and focusing

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):

  1. By using a telephoto lens from a distance.
  2. By holding the camera horizontally and using only the top of the photo i.e. by cropping the image later. Best results are obtained using wide-angle lens.
  3. By correcting in Photoshop or similar. Allow a bit 'extra' around the edges of the frame for subsequent cropping of the resulting trapezoidal image.

Digital tweaking

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:

Publication: technical criteria

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.

Preparation: taking control

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.

Image size:
Choose a higher setting for better-quality JPEG images, but remember to use a high-capacity memory card so that you don't run out at the last minute. Some small and medium-size cameras now have a very high quality setting known as RAW. This is not an acronym; it means that the image in the camera has not yet been processed to make it instantly viewable, as in the case of the standard JPEG image (named after the Joint Photographic Experts Group). This is done in the computer, using suitable software. RAW files can be manipulated over and over again with no loss of quality - like having an everlasting slide or negative.
Ignore anything saying PORTRAIT, BEACH, SUNSET, LANDSCAPE, NIGHT etc. These options pre-process the image to make adjustments for different kinds of lighting conditions. They only do what you can do later under more controlled conditions using photo software on your computer, and are aimed at people who want to print directly from the memory card. Other settings you won't need are the ones that mimic various types of old film. Switch off the VIVID setting if there is one!
This setting allows you to over-ride the automatic functions, leaving you in control of focusing by hand. In some cases, it may over-ride all automatic operations.
Shutter-priority auto, aperture-priority auto, programmed auto:
These allow you to control shutter speed and aperture, while leaving auto focusing in operation. You will need to understand what these settings do if you want to use differential focusing or if you need good close-ups. The best way is to experiment, following the steps in your instruction manual, and taking a series of shots with different apertures and shutter speeds. Aperture priority auto is probably the most useful mode for still shots because depth of field is always under control. It allows you to choose a small aperture (large f-number) so that as much as possible is in focus (large depth of field), or a large aperture (small fnumber), if you deliberately want part of the subject out of focus (short depth of field). The camera chooses the shutter speed accordingly. This effect is most evident when using the telephoto end of your zoom lens, but may be hardly noticeable with a wide-angle lens. Learn how to use manual focus, just in case you ever need it.
You will need this setting for close-ups. Images may be badly distorted because of the way in which lenses are constructed; photo software may be able to correct this if the subject demands it.
Exposure compensation:
One of the most important things to know about. Brightly lit skies can mislead the camera's exposure meter into automatically reducing the shutter speed or the aperture, or both. This leads to underexposure - pictures that are too dark. You can compensate for this by adjusting the settings as shown in your manual. An underexposed image can often be rescued in the computer, but it is better to be aware of the problem before it happens. Some professional photographers leave this feature on permanently, on a setting that (for any given speed or aperture) always reduces the amount of light entering the camera. Overexposed images can seldom be rescued satisfactorily.
ISO speed:
This is the same as film speed - the higher the ISO speed, the lower the quality. If your photo is to be reproduced at a small scale this may not matter. A setting of ISO 200 is adequate for most purposes.
Many people have difficulty seeing through the viewfinder, not realising that many cameras allow the viewfinder lens focus to be adjusted to the user's needs.
Focus lock:
Your camera will almost certainly have a two-position shutter release button focus lock, which allows you to choose for yourself what will be in focus. Focus (and exposure on some cameras) are locked while the shutter button is depressed halfway, allowing you to set these just before recomposing the picture. This is one of the most useful features you will find on your camera.
This has no place in outdoor photography. Switch it off - it uses up battery power. At the same time switch off FACE RECOGNITION if you have it - it will just confuse your autofocus system.
Black and white mode:
Use this if taking photos for black and white reproduction. Later conversion from colour to black and white can be disastrous. Put your eyes into black and white mode while taking the shots, to avoid this.

Planning ahead

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.