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Photography; Portraits of Plants and Flowers

Alun is a keen amateur photographer. His articles emphasise composition and aesthetics - how to get the most from a photo opportunity

A beautiful white Orchid

A beautiful white Orchid

INTRODUCTION

This article looks at the photography of plants and flowers, with the aim of illustrating the kind of images which can be attempted by anybody with a good camera and lenses, and a little thought and care. Throughout the article I have concentrated on the theme of plant and flower portraiture. In other words, the images I have included here are pictures of individual plants or flowers, or clumps of a single species, rather than photographs of a multitude of different plants in habitat. Although a few of the photos have been taken in fields and meadows, most have been taken in the home or garden; the aim is to demonstrate what can be done - not on a journey to exotic places - but in your backyard, your garden, or even your own little balcony or windowsill where just a few pot plants may grow.

In many cases, the plants are taken with the background obscured or out of focus, while in other cases, the background is effectively removed by the use of a backdrop, usually of black cloth, so that nothing detracts from the specimen which is to be the focus of the picture. And sometimes, moving in close has effectively meant that the subject fills the frame and there is no background at all. All of this is aimed at isolating the subject, showing its beauty or its detail as completely as possible.

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Daisies in the sky. Looking up from beneath a flower can give a very different perspective

Daisies in the sky. Looking up from beneath a flower can give a very different perspective

MY PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE

Plant and flower photography was the genre which first interested me as an amateur photographer, primarily because the subject matter is bright, colourful and quite readily accessible. All photos presented here are my own work. Most have been taken in slide (transparency) format, and then scanned digitally. This has inevitably involved some digital manipulation in some cases so as to accurately reproduce the colours of the original. But such manipulation has been kept to the basics, and in almost all instances has only been aimed at matching the digital image to my original slide.

Photography
Primula malacoides is a member of the Primrose family. It makes an attractive little pot plant with bunches of flowers on stalks

Primula malacoides is a member of the Primrose family. It makes an attractive little pot plant with bunches of flowers on stalks

POT PLANTS

Even if people don’t have a garden, that isn’t necessarily a barrier to plant photography in a home environment. Most will have some space for a pot plant or two in a porch or on a patio or a windowsill or a balcony. So here I include half a dozen images of popular flowering plants which can all make really good photographic subjects.

All these images are of flowering plants growing in small pots. But I don't much care for seeing an ugly clay pot, or even a decorative yet clearly artificial china pot, in my photos. So here I have been at pains to avoid all sign of the container in which the plant is growing. In some cases this has been achieved simply by going in close with a macro lens and shooting detail of the flower, or of the flower and leaves, from an angle which avoids the container. In one instance (P.malacoides) judicious movement of a leaf helped to cover a part of the pot, whilst in another case (Streptocarpus) I will confess to having used a very small amount of digital manipulation to black out a small portion of container which could not be hidden in any other way.

Most of these photos are taken in natural light by a window. Natural light tends to show the plant to its best effect, and there is no need for any guesswork about where the shadows will fall on the plant - what you see in the camera lens (should) be what you get in the finished picture.

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Bright yellow Oncidium Orchid stem photographed aginst my favourite backdrop.

Bright yellow Oncidium Orchid stem photographed aginst my favourite backdrop.

BLACK CLOTH BACKDROP

Even at this early stage, the reader will quite probably have come to the conclusion that I like to use black backdrops for my pictures. It's true; there's no denying it. Artificial it may be, but not as artificial as backgrounds which include a red brick wall, or a concrete path or some other intrusion of a man-made construction. Besides, the purpose of this article is to present flower portraits, and black - or at least monochrome - backdrops will bring out the form and colour of the flowers better than anything else can.

One of the main problems with any backdrop - even black - is that it may reflect light leaving distracting pale areas on the image. I use black velvet, felt cloth, or some similar cloth of low reflectivity, hung behind the plant. An alternative is to angle the shot so that light doesn't reflect off the backdrop. Sometimes light falling on the backdrop can turn even black to dark grey. If this is the case, very slight under exposure of the image can blacken the background whilst also increasing the intensity of flower colour. With digital manipulation it may of course be possible to remove any reflections on the background.

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Close up of a Dahlia flower, lit from behind with an ordinary household lamp. Ordinarily photos work best with the light shining on the subject from the front or side, but light shining through petals from behind can really enhance their appeal

Close up of a Dahlia flower, lit from behind with an ordinary household lamp. Ordinarily photos work best with the light shining on the subject from the front or side, but light shining through petals from behind can really enhance their appeal

For this picture it was necessary to bend one petal out of view to get in really close

For this picture it was necessary to bend one petal out of view to get in really close

CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHY

A flower is attractive when viewed in its entirety and as a part of the whole plant, but it is also worth taking a look at the detail of the flower. The central part is often intricate in design, and colourful in hue. If you wish to attempt such photography for the first time, you will of course need the facility to take close-up pictures, such as a macro lens. For some of these photos I used extension tubes which slot between the camera and lens and allow much closer focusing.

I would suggest tackling flowers which present a relatively flattened, open aspect first. The reason for this is that the closer you get to the subject, the narrower the depth of field through which the subject remains pin-sharp. With a flattened flower, there's a better chance of the whole of the image being in focus. An obvious first choice may be a member of the Compositae - the daisy family.

The other problem with close-ups is light. Less light is available the closer you are to the subject. What's more, to maximise depth of focus, it helps to use a small lens aperture, but this again means less light enters the lens. Most flash units cannot be used at such close range though there is specialist equipment for this purpose. However natural light can also be used with a long exposure to allow more light on to the subject. A tripod will be essential for most images of this kind in order to minimise any camera shake.

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The centre of a cactus flower

The centre of a cactus flower

CACTI AND SUCCULENTS

A personal passion of mine is the culture of cacti and similar succulent plants. They are not necessarily the easiest of subjects to photograph however; the archetypal shape of a cactus after all is a globose ball of spines. Small objects require close-up photography and as we've seen, close-up photography generally results in a small depth of field. But if the cactus is globose, then that can create an appreciable depth of field for the size of the plant. What’s more, the spines are usually sharp, and need to look sharp in the image you take. Rather than keeping my cacti in individual pots, I grow them in goups of 10 or 20 in large trays with sand and stones. This not only improves the naturalness of the display - it may also improve the naturalness of any photos one takes. Even so, in some of these pictures a little judicial repositioning of stones was required either to create a more pleasing composition, or to hide the edges of the tray.

One of the many large flowered Epiphyllum cacti. In their native South America, these cacti are unusual in that they grow, not in the desert, but attached to the branches of forest trees

One of the many large flowered Epiphyllum cacti. In their native South America, these cacti are unusual in that they grow, not in the desert, but attached to the branches of forest trees

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VERTICAL FORMAT PHOTOS

Almost the most basic characteristic of most cameras is that the images produced are not square. They are rectangular and one axis is longer than the other. That means that simply by turning the camera through 90 degrees an entirely different form of composition is achieved. And yet all too many users of cameras never even think of framing their subjects in anything other than the horizontal format. Always think before taking a photo as to the best format in which to present the image, either to show the subject to its best effect, or to hide unwanted background detail.

Many subjects including tall buildings and of course human portraits, lend themselves to a vertical presentation. And so do trees and flower stalks, as these images demonstrate. I would think that at least a third of all my plant and flower photos are presented in this format.

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