Plant photography tips for botanical artists

The author of this post is Bernard van Giessen ( Bernard is a professional photographer with over 30 years’ experience both in his native Holland and here in Ireland where he has lived for 13 years. In this post he provides hints and tips on macro photography, a useful tool for botanical artists who wish to record details for later reference.

Macro photography–for example, close-ups of flowers and insects–requires the right combination of patience, favourable weather conditions, suitable backgrounds and some basic knowledge of your camera equipment and specific techniques.

More important still is an awareness how we perceive the world around us. Just look at your subject for a little while before you whip out the camera. As you focus on your subject you may well discover details you would have missed if you had started to take pictures straight away.

The technical bits
Most compact cameras are equipped with a built-in Macro setting (often displayed as a little flower icon) that will allow you to get pretty close to your subject. If you own a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) you can increase your potential for great shots but at a cost. With compact cameras you can get away with using automatic settings and still get pretty decent images. With an SLR you may need to learn a bit more about Exposure, Aperture, Depth of Field etc. There are very useful websites that explain technical issues these very well;  one I’d particularly recommend is
Briefly though:
  • For Macros and Close-ups, the lens-opening should ideally be small, this means the aperture setting, or F-number, should be high. Remember, the bigger the F-number, the smaller the lens opening and so the greater the depth of field.
  • Shutter-time is important too and is directly related to Aperture; if you change either, the other will change too.
  • Sensitivity (ISO) directly influences Aperture and Time. Higher ISO values give you more room to move, but increase the risk of ‘noise’ which is the digital equivalent of grain and unsharpness in traditional film.
JPEG, TIFF and RAW are file formats and vary in quality and size. JPEG files are heavily compressed and ‘throw away’ information at the start. Most compact cameras shoot in JPEG. They are a bit like the Kodachrome images of the day, suitable for average print quality and size. Most photographers shoot in RAW which is the equivalent of a digital negative; the image still has to be ‘cooked’ with a software program.
En plein air
Keep the following suggestions in mind when you’re out and about.
  1. The closer you get to the subject, the more you also magnify movement caused by wind, camera shake etc. A tripod will help to suppress camera shake but the downside is that you become less flexible and unable to move quickly.
  2. The area that will appear in focus on your screen/photo will decrease as you get closer. This relates directly to the severely reduced Depth of Field which can be as little as 1mm, even at very small lens openings of F16, F22 etc.
  3. Direct sunlight can cast deep shadows and/or can cause parts of an image to appear ‘washed out’. Most garden and plant photographers will prefer overcast weather because of this. The saturation of colours remains limited and there are virtually no shadows. If it’s sunny you can try to shield the light with your body or buy a cloth diffusor which you will need to place/hold between the sun and the object.
  4. Be conscious of a background that will make your subject stand out and avoid clutter. Because you are very close to your subject it will be important to choose an angle that will limit a distracting background.
  5. As you know from your painting work, with flower portraits you can try different compositions. Sometimes an off-centre image creates a bit more tension and interest. This matters even more when you are showing a section of a garden. You may want to use ‘leading lines’ to guide the viewer and give a sense of a three dimensional space. Background, middle ground and foreground need to be in harmony and allow the viewer to briefly rest their eye on each part of an image before returning to the main subject.
  6. In photography you ideally want to have an image in your head of what the actual photo will look like when you’re done.
The Digital Darkroom
Last but not least, the digital darkroom: photographers use powerful software that enables them to improve an image. It may be worth investing in such software if you want to do more than crop an image and/or use the auto-enhance option with the software that came with your camera. Popular photography sites like Picasa allow some minor enhancements too. Such enhancements can however produce very saturated images.
Here are some photographs I’ve taken with a brief explanation of settings and conditions:
Welsh Poppy: Aperture F16 – Time 1/500 – Sensitivity iSO 800 – 105MM Macro lens, handheld in bright sunny conditions. I photographed this poppy at ground level to achieve minimal distraction in the background and a background colour that enhances the yellow of the poppy.
Welsh poppy bud

Welsh Poppy; copyright 2013 Bernard van Giessen

Dandelion seed: Aperture F18 – Time 1/50 – Sensitivity ISO 200 – 105 MM Macro lens, Tripod in the Greenhouse, with black canvas background, sunny conditions. I also used a reflector to cast light on the seed, a diffusor to shield excessive light and a few props to hold the Dandelion in place.
Dandelion seed

Dandelion seed; copyright 2013 Bernard van Giessen

Ladybird: Aperture F8 – Time 1/640 – Sensitivity ISO 800 – 105MM Macro lens, handheld in sunny conditions at grassroots level. With insects you have move quickly because they never sit still and this little creature just tumbled down from a blade of grass when I pressed the shutter release. In Macro photography you have to decide what it is that you want be in focus. In the case of insects the focus almost always has to be on the eyes of a beastie.

Ladybird (c) 2013 Bernard van Giessen

Equisetum: Aperture F14 – Time 1/40 – Sensitivity ISO 400 – 105MM Macro lens, handheld in bright sunny conditions.

Equisetum; Copyright 2013 Bernard van Giessen

Good luck and happy shooting!

Trade Secrets – tips from Botanical Artists

One of the great benefits of being in a Botanical Art Society is being able to share ideas and tips on everything from painting techniques to keeping those plants looking fresher for longer. We asked some of our members to send us their favourite botanical art tips.   Read on, there is definitely something here for everyone!

Are you struggling to arrange your plants for painting and can’t afford a laboratory-type stand and clamp? Try this ingenious idea from artist Sarah Morrish

Specimen stand- Sarah Morrish

Specimen stand- Sarah Morrish


I have used a piece of scrap plywood, or alternatively a piece of stiff cardboard will do, and painted it white.  It slots into a piece of wood at the base that has had a slit sawn/cut out of it.  Strips of Velcro self-adhesive tape have been stuck at intervals across the board.  My local florist charges 15c each for old plastic tubes with a stretchy lid, and then I stick some Velcro around them.  These can then be filled with water and hung at any angle to hold your plant specimen.  It’s especially good for trailing plants.

Dianne Sutherland (SBA): I draw all my component parts of a composition separately onto pieces of tracing paper and then move them around on a sheet of white paper to decide on the best arrangement. You can also flip the tracings over if need be.  I take a few photos of the various arrangements to decide on the best option.  Always work in odd numbers.                ( and )

tracing example- Dianne Sutherland (SBA)

tracing example- Dianne Sutherland (SBA)

Pulsatilla, Dianne Sutherland (SBA)

Pulsatilla, Dianne Sutherland (SBA)


Frances Wortley: To keep small plant pieces fresh, place them in a plastic bag and fill the bag with air by blowing into it, tie it tightly and place in the fridge. The air in the bag keeps the plastic off the plant acting as a sort of cushion. A plant will keep fresh a couple of days this way.

If a flower like a rose has wilted and drooped at the neck, lay the whole stem in water for a while, making sure it is all immersed-   it should recover perfectly.


Sammy & Lucy, honeysuckle loveheart- Jarnie Godwin

Sammy & Lucy, honeysuckle loveheart- Jarnie Godwin


Jarnie Godwin (dipSBA dist) :  If you are doing a busy card design or a composition with lots of the same flower or leaves, trace just a few and use these in different ways and directions to give a full appearance. The honeysuckle heart painting is a good example of where I have used repeat tracings of leaves and buds. Using repeats really helps if you have to do an odd shaped composition or a specified size.  (thanks KRD for giving me that tip!)

I was also given a good tip about shadow tones (thank you JJ) – use the colours in your existing project palette to get a realistic and complementary look. My ‘Alternative Alliums’ vegetable study demonstrates the shadow tone tip, particularly on the paler parts of the leek.

Alternative Alliums- example of shadow tone -Jarnie Godwin (dipSBA)

Alternative Alliums- example of shadow tone –  Jarnie Godwin

To keep plants fresh, I keep them in the fridge. I’ve just got hold of a big polystyrene box with a lid, the type that fruit and veg get transported in. Put a freezer block from a picnic set in it and it’s great to pop your plants in.    ( )

Elizabeth Prendergast:  A teaspoonful of brown sugar at the bottom of a vase keeps your flowers fresher for longer- it really does work!

Keep your light source constant, especially if you have to move into another room or have to use an electric light!     ( )

Shevaun Doherty : Use double-sided sellotape to keep your leaves/petals flat for botanical illustration. (Thank you BS for that tip!)

Breassia arania verde pulled apart and measured up

Breassia arania verde pulled apart and measured up


A leaf rubbing using a soft pencil and cheap paper is a great way of observing the venation and shape of a leaf.

When disaster happens and that splodge of paint does not want to lift, try using a Magic Eraser. Cut it into a wedge shape, dampen it slightly and gently stroke the stain… it really works!! (JML Doktor Power Magic Eraser is available at Homebase and other hardware stores)

Magic Eraser- works for watercolours too!

Magic Eraser- works for watercolours too!


Doreen Hamilton:   Small pieces of plant, leaves and flowers can be scanned directly onto a scanner with the lid open, and then printed out onto A4 paper.  It’s very useful if you think the specimen is going to die or droop                              ( )

Sarah Morrish:  When I’m out and about and know that I may want to collect some small plant specimens, I always take a plastic container with me.  The best type are Chinese takeaway containers as they are quite slim and compact.  I lay several layers of kitchen roll paper in the bottom of the container and then run water over it, letting the excess drain away, and then cover with the lid.  I then place my botanical specimen in the box and it normally keeps really well until I get home and then I place it in the fridge, where it can often live for a few weeks!  If I have cool bag with me when I am out, then I often place the container in there.                 *Sarah’s website is  and the blog is

Liriodendron tulipifera, tulip tree leaf painted using granulating pigments- Claire Ward (SBA)

Liriodendron tulipifera, tulip tree leaf painted using granulating pigments- Claire Ward (SBA)


Claire Ward (SBA) Opaque colours and granulating paints like Daniel Smith’s hematite are great for textures in the last layers, especially for autumn leaves, fungi and lichen twigs. I have plenty of earth colours and browns like burnt umber and sepia but it’s great to mix your own too, for example winsor violet and quinacridone  gold make a beautiful golden brown. This leaf is from a beautiful specimen tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. It was painted with some granulating Daniel Smiths watercolours which are superb for this type of botanical. My favourite autumn colours are PY53(new gamboge by W&N), PY110 (M.Graham) and PO49 (quin deep gold).The pigments PO48 and PO49 are hard to get hold of now so if you can get them, do!  Quinacridone golds are now usually made with a mix of PY150 and other pigments. Beware of staining colours like some of the quinacridones and pthalos if you want to lift paint for veins etc.  (  and )

Lorraine Adams (dipSBA):  Take a photo of your subject in black and white (or change it to grayscale on the computer) so you can see the tonal variations. I often take a photo or scan in black and white/grayscale of my painting at different stages, so I can see if I am achieving the tonal variations correctly.

Always use two pots of water, one for adding water to mixes and blending, and the other for rinsing out your brush.

Holly leaf studies in greyscale - Lorraine Adams

Holly leaf studies in greyscale – Lorraine Adams


Mary McInerney: I was given this tip recently about putting your plant in the fridge.  Stand the plant in a tall container filled at the base with small stones, the stones seem to keep the water fresh.  Place the container in a large plastic bag that goes up and around the plant, leaving the top opened.  This seems to prevent the leaves from frost damage and keeps the leaves crisp.

Jane Stark: Fed up with constantly having to sharpen my pencil whilst doing line drawings, I recently invested in a 0.3mm Pentel mechanical pencil from   It works beautifully.  I bought HB but they come in a whole range of grades from 4H to B




Many thanks to all the artists who graciously took the time to share their tips and images here.

If you have any tips that you also want to share, we would love to hear from you!   Please feel free to add it to the comments below, or email it directly to us. We hope  to make Botanical Art Tips a regular feature of the blog.

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