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Photographing Your Garden – things you can do to improve your pictures

Gary Westlake

OK so you bought one of those new digital cameras that the computer geeks and their associated execu-weenies have designed for you with all the bells and all the whistles. Now you sit staring at it – quivering with indecision, wondering how to make it take pictures of your garden. Don’t worry. There are many things you can do to outsmart and to tame this beast to do what you want it to do!

The first thing to realize is that there is an auto feature on the camera. Turn it to auto and let the camera decide the technical issues for a now while you work out the more important things like composition, and what and when you will photograph.

There are a number of things you can do to improve pictures.

  1. Eliminate confusing backgrounds. Our brains are amazing. They will take a scene and automatically filter out the confusing detail, focussing on the important elements that make you remember the experience. Cameras are essentially dumb like computers and only accurately record everything that they see. First, decide what it is about the scene that made you want to take a picture. It is up to you to point the camera in a way that shows only enough of the scene to record the message that you want to convey minimizing the extraneous detail, like telephone wires, cars, people half way out of the frame etc. If the photo is about a specific flower, get in close and let the flower fill the frame. If it is about the garden, make sure that you show the relationships of the plants with each other and with the overall structure. Try not to take pictures of blemished flowers and remove distracting sticks and leaves.
  2. Avoid harsh sunlight. Gardeners are like mad dogs and Englishmen. We like to go into our gardens in the midday sun. But cameras do not take great photos in bright light because it washes out all the detail and gives you bad colour and contrast. Always avoid it if you can. If you cannot avoid the sun, try to take pictures in the shade or hold an umbrella over the plants. Cloudy days are great and early morning and late afternoon give you wonderful colours. If there is not enough light to take a picture without getting motion blur, use a tripod. Where possible, try to keep the light coming from behind the camera, not from behind the subject.
  3. Improve the composition. The natural thing to do is to plunk your subject dead centre of the frame. This does not always give the most pleasing arrangement. Try this. Divide the frame into a three by three grid and place the subject or point of interest at one of the intersecting points of the resulting nine rectangles. It is often pleasant to have something in the foreground framing the view. Paths are great vehicles to draw the eye on a gentle curve or diagonal from one part of the photo to another. You need to think about more than the subject matter of the photo to end up with a good shot. It is also about finding a balanced and pleasing two-dimensional arrangement on the photographic surface.
  4. Hold the camera steady. Try not to breathe while pressing the shutter. Use an object like a tree or fence to steady your hand. Use a tripod. Squeeze the shutter slowly. Anything you can do to stop moving the camera while you are taking the shot will improve your photos. I see people shooting from the hip while walking through a garden. I think it is better to stop and take the shot calmly.
  5. Make sure you are in focus. Most digital cameras have an automatic focus feature. This has done a great deal to increase the number of photos that are in focus but the camera can still focus on the wrong part of the scene. Even on auto, usually there is a way to get the camera to focus on a specific spot and hold the focus while you compose the scene. If all else fails, there is normally a manual focus that you can read about in your manual. Many cameras beep when they have achieved focus on something in the scene.
  6. Set your camera to the right grain or pixel size for what you are trying to do. Seven megapixels is common now on a relatively inexpensive camera. If used at full capacity, this is adequate to create a poster sized print, but the downside is that it will eat up memory in your chip and you will get fewer pictures. If all you ever want to do is share photos on the computer or make 4x6 inch prints, then you can safely turn down the resolution to 1000 pixels in the horizontal direction. If there is a chance that you will want a large print of one of your photos, then crank the resolution to as high as it will go.

Once you have mastered these basics of taking good photos, then it is time to start taking your camera off auto to explore the bells and whistles with the help of your manual. The more you understand your camera, and the more its features become second nature to you, the better your photos will become. I would suggest you learn how to set the white balance to improve the colour in various lighting conditions; how to use macro features for close up focusing; how to use depth of field to bring parts of the scene into focus while leaving others blurred; how to use and set the film speed or asa to help you with low light and fast moving subjects; and how to force a flash for filling in shadows or backlit subjects and how to eliminate a flash to improve colour. Don’t assume that you can fix problems in the computer later and remember that getting good photos is like getting to Carnegie Hall – it takes practice, practice, practice.