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!