Story and Photography By Ron Capek
The first time I taught an adult photography class, I asked the participants to list what they hoped to gain. A novice photographer said, “I only have one question. Why, when I take a picture, it never looks like what I saw?”
I was speechless for a moment. Then I realized that this is what photographers spend their life trying to accomplish.
The human eye and brain are an incredible team for seeing the world. The eye can change focus on near and far objects so rapidly that we think we see everything in focus at one time, but the camera records only a frozen moment in time and focuses on only one element layer in each image. The rest is out of focus.
When we look at objects in changing light, the brain makes these color shifts seem normal, but the camera records only the color of the light as it affects the film or chip in the back of the camera.
If we turn our heads to follow the action at a sporting event or watch the wind blow through the grass, everything seems sharp, but the camera may produce blurred images because the camera or the subject were moving too fast for the shutter to stop the action.
We look at a cluttered garden scene and automatically isolate the beauty in our mind, but the camera records everything the lens sees, both beauty and blemishes.
The garden looks beautiful on a bright sunny day. The highlights and shadows make the scene dazzling to our eye. But the camera functions within a limited range of contrast. It cannot record details in the dark shadows and extreme highlights in the same picture.
The camera has many limitations. The problem is that we have to learn how the camera “sees” and use it to our advantage.
Here are 10 basic tips for improving your garden photography with any kind of camera and skill level. In today’s busy life style, very few people read their manual unless the camera stops working. While there is no substitute for the knowledge of the inner workings of the camera and how the settings will affect your images, you can greatly improve your photography without opening your camera manual. Remember: there are photo geeks who know how every part in the camera works, but still have problems taking pictures with impact.
1. Lighting is Everything
Bright sun is a very difficult light source in photography. It may look wonderful to you but it will not flatter your garden or people in your photos. On sunny days, take pictures early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Avoid high noon. If you must shoot in bright sun, look for shady spots or create your own localized shade by holding up a sheet of cardboard or fabric over flowers to be photographed. Cloudy days solve your photographic problems. Garden photographers pursue a bright cloudy day like the Holy Grail.
2. Vary the Zoom Ratio on the Same Scene
You zoom in to get closer to the subject and zoom back to take in a larger area, but that’s only the beginning. Telephoto settings will seem to compress things while wide-angle settings give you a feeling of separation.
3. Try Different Camera Angles for Impact
Stand on a ladder, shoot from a window or lie on the ground. Don’t take all your pictures standing in a normal upright fashion.
4. Fill the Frame With the Important Parts of the Picture and Crop out the Distractions
Painters have the luxury of deciding what they want in their paintings. Photographers have to decide what to include and also what to leave out. Fill the frame with what you think is important. Look around the frame of the viewfinder. If you find empty space or a distracting background, get closer to the subject or zoom in with your telephoto. If something does not improve your picture, crop it out.
5. Composition Tells the Story
Don’t always place the center of interest in the center of the picture. Change the composition by physically moving elements in or out of the picture frame. Your feet are valuable tools. Move around and hold the camera at different angles. Experiment with different zoom ratios. See how the composition changes.
6. Focus on the Point of Interest, Not Necessarily the Center of the Picture
Look through the viewfinder or at the screen and frame your picture for maximum impact. In the center of the screen there is usually a focusing area. After choosing the desired position, move the camera so the focus area is over your main subject. Press the shutter release halfway down to lock the focus. Then move the camera back to the desired position while continuing to hold the shutter release halfway down so that the picture is framed correctly. Hold the camera very steady and squeeze the shutter release button. This approach you will allow you to have a well framed image with the point of interest in focus.
7. Hold the Camera Steady
If you want razor sharp pictures, you must hold the camera steady when you press the shutter release. Experiment by watching yourself in the mirror while you take a picture or test yourself by taking one picture hand-held and another resting the camera on a firm flat surface. Compare the results. Most professional photographers use a tripod to reduce camera movement.
8. Take More than One Picture
Try varying the position of the camera, the zoom ratio, the composition and the lighting angle of the same scene. By changing each variable, you create a series of nuanced photos, one of which will capture that perfect moment. Professionals take hundreds of pictures to increase their odds of success.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Close-ups
They can make a poor garden look good. Most digital cameras allow the camera to focus very closely to the subject. Take advantage of it. Flowers can become powerful abstractions and even the blurs can be beautiful. If you have a macro setting on your camera, it makes it even easier to get close.
10. The Garbage Can is Your Best Friend
The best way to improve your photos is to edit. In the darkroom it was the garbage can. Today, it’s the delete button. Do not show your weak photos. The beauty of digital is that you can experiment at no extra cost if you don’t print the photos.