Introduction to Digital Garden Photography
by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

Part One: Introduction

Everyone who has grown roses has thought about preserving that perfect bloom in a photograph. Up until a few years ago, that would mean taking a picture using print or slide film. But the days of film are numbered, at least as far as the non-professional photographer is concerned. The age of the digital camera has arrived, and rosarians are embracing this new technology.

Most rosarians now own--or are interested in owning--a digital camera. This series will explore the wonderful world of digital photography, and discuss tips and techniques for taking digital pictures of your roses. Although some general techniques will be discussed, the emphasis will be on photographing your flowers, and the special problems digital photographers face.

Before we get into the specifics of this series, I want to relate two pieces of advise I received when I attended the Nikon School of Photography. These pearls of wisdom came in the form of two slogans that have molded my philosophy of photography over the years.

The first slogan is: "No guts, no glory." What was meant by this is that you must get close to your subject to get a striking photograph. Don't think you can slap on a long telephoto lens or power up your zoom and shoot your picture from across the street. Whether your subject is a building, a person or a flower, getting close allows you the opportunity for a memorable photograph.

Telephoto and zoom lenses eat up the available light and decrease the sharpness of your pictures. Not to mention that such lenses are expensive, especially the good ones. Such lenses may be required for landscape photos or at sporting events where you are not allowed to get close. But under most circumstances your feet can get you close enough to your subject if you just increase your courage and get in close.

Getting close and filling the frame with your subject draws in the viewer's attention. It also gives you extra control over light, sharpness and depth of field. Although we will discuss these subjects later in the series, keep in mind that one is almost always better off getting as close to your subject as possible. You have to be brave and get close to your subject to capture an unforgettable image. In the world of photography, it truly is the case that, "No guts, no glory."

The other slogan from the Nikon School is even more important. That slogan is: "You're known by what you show, not by what you shoot." If you want people to think you are a great photographer, never, never, never show anyone your less than perfect photos. Everyone, and I include professionals in this, takes bad photographs. Think about it. A professional photo shoot may take all day for just half a dozen great photos. But it is those great photos that get published. And admired.

It's the same with the photos you take. Don't show people your out of focus pictures. Don't show that shot where you cut the top off your subject. Edit your work. If you only show your good stuff, people will think you only shoot good stuff.

Be proud of your work. Don't feel obligated to show your "mistakes." A pro in any field makes what he does look effortless. That's not because what he does is effortless. It's because he keeps his efforts behind the scene. In your photography you should do the same.

If it takes you ten shots--or a hundred--to get that picture, be proud of that one shot. And don't let the public see your "practice sessions." As they taught in the Nikon School, "You're known by what you show, not by what you shoot."

Composition :

Composition in photography is the study of how you want your photograph to appear to the viewer. There is nothing special about composition when it comes to digital photography, except that you can view your picture on the camera screen immediately after you take it. This gives you an idea as to whether the composition is as you wanted. That is both good and bad. It is good because you can see if you got what you wanted in the picture. It is bad because it sometimes encourages shooting first and thinking after. That is bad because good composition requires much forethought. Great pictures usually don't just happen. They are preceded by serious thought about what kind of picture you are after. And the more forethought, the better the result. Next month we will take a look at some of the fundamentals of composition as they apply to taking pictures of flowers. Stay tuned.

Part Two: Composition

In Part One of this series we discussed some basic theories of photography, and began our consideration of composition. Part Two continues the discussion of composition, which is the study of how you want your photograph to appear to the viewer. Let us now look at how the fundamentals of composition apply to taking pictures of flowers.

The first issue in composition is what exactly is the subject of your photograph. It is not enough to say a rose is your subject. Is it the petals? The stamens? The stem? Is it a single rose, or a spray?

It is usually better to keep your subject simple, and specific. A single rose often makes a better subject for a picture than an entire rose bush. A rose bush may make a better subject than a rose bed. Less is more.

So let's say you've settled on a single rose as the subject of your picture. The next decision is where, within the borders of the picture, should you frame that rose. Experts in composition agree that dead center is not the place to put the main subject of your photograph. A little to the left or right of dead center is much better. And a little above or below dead center looks better.

When photographing a rose, give some thought to which way the bloom is facing. If a bloom is "facing" to the right, the rose will look better if it is slightly to the left of the center of the photograph. That way the rose is looking "into" the photo instead of "out" of the frame. Likewise, a rose that is looking upward will look better in the lower third of the frame, which gives it some space to "look" into.

Another aspect of composition is the camera/subject angle. You can take a picture of a rose from the ground, looking up, from above the rose, looking down, or straight on level. In most cases a view with the camera looking down on the subject will be most pleasing. On the other hand, views where the camera is looking up at the subject can be striking because of the unusualness of the viewpoint.

You can also use camera angle to control the background of the picture. If the camera is low, looking up, the "background" will often be blue sky. On the other hand, when shooting at a downward angle you have more problems with clutter in the background. "Clutter" being defined as something other than the focus of your photograph.

You can also compose your photograph in "landscape" or "portrait" modes. Landscape is used when you need more space from left to right instead of top to bottom. Think of shooting mountain scene. If you are shooting a hedge of roses, landscape is the way to go.

Portrait is use when you tilt the camera 90 degrees so the "top to bottom" space is emphasized over "side to side" space. Thing of taking a picture of a person's face. If you need to photograph the bloom and stem, portrait mode is the way to go. Which composition method is best depends on what the aim of your photograph is. The main thing is to think about what you want to achieve with your photo, and don't be afraid to "tilt" the camera if that's what is called for.

Another thing to keep in mind is making sure your photo is "level." On some close-ups this does not matter that much. But a picture of a hedge of roses will look more professional if the top edge of the photo is parallel to the horizon. When using a tripod, a pocket level on top of the camera will insure the photo is parallel to the horizon. Otherwise, just be conscious of this problem and try to keep the camera level.

The last topic we will consider under composition is the problem of background. Everyone has seen the group photo where a telephone pole seems to be growing out of someone's head. It is easy to concentrate so hard on the subject of your photograph that you ignore what's in the background. The camera lens shortens the distance between foreground and background, often with unwanted results. The way to cure this problem is to be aware of what is in the background of your picture. Look "behind" your subject. Often, if you move a little to the right or left, that pole will no longer be in your photo.

Also, just as exhibitors "groom" their rose entries, you can groom your rose pictures. Pinch off that diseased leaf. Move that water hose that is in the background. Get rid of the twig or oversized piece of mulch. Pick that nut grass. Take a handful of mulch and cover that orange dram nozzle. If a plant label with spoil your picture, move it. Use a piece of black thread to move a wayward branch out of the way. These techniques are no more "cheating" than the Q tips and cotton balls the exhibitors use.

Next month we will talk about some tricks to use when you actually snap your photo so that your digital pictures really stand out. Stay tuned.

Part Three

A Leg to Stand On

Camera movement is the enemy of great photographs. Even if you have properly focused your lens, camera movement can make your pictures look fuzzy. Photographers have come up with a brace of tricks to keep your camera steady. This article will explore some of these methods.

A tripod is a must for serious close-up work. If you want to take close-ups of flowers, a tripod is an essential investment. I'm not saying you can't snap an occassional nice picture of a rose without a tripod. What I am saying is that a great photographs takes time and study. And thinking. You don't just walk up and snap a prize-winning picture. Not very often, anyway. You need to think about the background, the point of view, and the depth of field, among a thousand other things. A tripod allows you to consider these things at your leisure. You can consider various options in the viewfinder. Crank the centerpost up or down to change perspective. Tilt the camera to level the horizon. Choose a very long shutter speed, or a very narrow depth of field. All things are possible when you have the time a tripod gives you.

Tripods come in full-sized models that can put your camera at eye height, and in desk top models that are maily for close-up work. If you get a full-sized tripod, look for one with a reversable center pole so you can lower the camera to nearly ground level. Some tripods come with spirit levels so you can be sure the camera is level with the horizon. If yours doesn't have that feature, carry a pocket level.

For flower photography, the main tripod feature to look for is how "low" the camera can go. Lower is better. That's why a tripod with a reversable center pole is so nice. Some tripods, even when fully "collapsed," are too high for photographing low growing flowers. Give thought to this feature.

Unfortunately, tripods are often heavy and bulky. And that means we sometimes leave home without them. So what are good tripod substitutes?

A monopod offers many of the features of a tripod. A monopod is like a walking stick, with a threaded bracket on top for attaching your camera. It will make your camera almost as steady as a tripod, but you have to use at least one hand to hold it upright. Monopods are usually lighter than tripods, and often collapse down to fairly short lengths. It is easy to pack one in your camera bag. But monopods lack the main advantage of tripods. A tripod allows you to "walk away" from your camera so you can manipulate the lighting, groom the background or just think about your composition. If you "walk away" from a monopod, it falls down.

What if you left both your tripod and your monopod home? Are you out of luck? Not by a long shot. The goal is to brace your camera so it doesn't move when you snap the picture. One way way to do this is by anchoring your triceps and elbows against your chest as you hold the camera. This forms a triangle of sorts, and will really steady the camera. More steadiness is added if you press the camera body into your face or forehead as you take the picture.

Another way to steady the camera is to lean on or against your car hood, a tree or a fence post as you take the picture. Your camera bag may also make a nice "camera rest" for those low-to-the-ground photos.

And don't forget the "time release" feature of your camera. This feature is designed to let you press the shutter release, run over to the "group" and get in the photograph. It has another good use. When you get your camera just where you want it, engage the time release function and any vibration caused by your pressing the shutter release button will stop. This will also increase picture sharpness. Of course, if your camera will take a cable release, use that as your first choice for eliminating vibration from pressing the shutter button.

Both shutter speed and f-stop contribute to sharp pictures. The faster your shutter speed, the more likely any movement will be "frozen." Generally, shutter speeds faster than 125th of a second will "freeze" movement except when using very long telephoto lenses.

F-stops can also help with sharpness. F-stops are fractions, so they work the opposite way you might expect. An f-stop of f16 (1/16th) is half as small as one of f8 (1/8th). The smaller the f-stop, the smaller the lens aperature, and the sharper the image will appear. It's sort of like squinting your eyes.

The relationship between f-stops, shutter speeds, amount of light and dept of field is sufficiently complicated that we will have to leave it for another day. What is fundamental is that your can usually change the f-stop one or two stops or you can incease the shutter speed slightly, and increase sharpness and still have a properly exposed picture.

Give each of these techniques for steading your camera a try and I think you will be plesed with the results. But invest in (and use) a quality tripod for best results.

More to come next month.

Part Four: The Book of Shadows

The use of light will make or break your pictures. Dramatic photos demand dramatic lighting. And a slavish devotion to what your camera's light meter tells you is "proper" lighting is not the path to a striking photo. You will be a better photographer if you concentrate more on creating shadows than if you focus on "even" lighting. Shadows cause texture and texture causes interest on the part of the viewer of your photographs. So let's look at common lighting problems and how to deal with them.

Sunshine on Your Shoulders

Don't shoot into the sun. The sun will cause glare on your lens. Glare on the lens translates to glare on your finished photo. My advice is to avoid taking a picture if you are facing the sun. Ninety-eight times out of one hundred such a picture will be unacceptable. But if you can't get the sun behind you, try shooting from the side of your subject instead of straight on. Or get a tree trunk or other solid object between you and the sun and use its mass to "block out" the sun. This will reduce the chances of glare on the lens. Another trick is to use your hand to create an extended lens shade. Just make sure your fingers are far enough away so they don't show in the picture!

But there is also a danger in shooting landscapes with the sun at your back. You may find yourself with a picture that features your own shadow. When the sun is directly behind you it is in a perfect position for casting a long shadow from you. That shadow may make it all the way into your picture. This is a hazard you can avoid only through experience. You have to be aware of the problem to deal with it.

If you notice your shadow is in the picture, you can often eliminate the problem by simply moving a little to the side. If that is not possible, try crouching down. At the least, that will create a shorter shadow which may not reach the area you are photographing. Simply being aware of where your shadow is will allow you to eliminate it from your photo.

Shootout at High Noon

The sun can also be your enemy if it is too bright. Too much light makes for washed out photos. This effect is worse on cloudless days and for a couple of hours or so either side of high noon. That's why great photographs are often taken in the early morning or late afternoon. The light from the sun is less intense then, and that allows for your picture to have a texture that can only come from the presence of shadows.

Let's say you can't avoid shooting at noon. What to do? If you know before hand that you will be shooting when the sun is at its harshest you can ameliorate the problem with a diffusion tent. Such tents are available from better camera shops. In essence, what you are doing is putting a semi-transparent piece of fabric between the sun and your subject, with the camera underneath the "tent." It's like shooting on a cloudy day. The light is less intense, and the texture of your subject is not washed out.

Fighting the Darkside

Sometimes light is not the enemy. Sometimes you face the darkside. Shadows are too deep, or they fall where you don't like them. It is then that you can add light to fight the darkness. One way to do this is with a flash unit.

Even during the day, a flash unit has its uses. If one part of your subject is in deep shade, a flash unit, mounted off camera on a separate tripod, can be pointed at the shadowed area. That may allow just enough light in to bring out needed details. Just remember that the worst place for your flash unit is atop your camera. Straight-on lighting is seldom striking. Use a cable between the camera's light socket and your flash unit, and hold the flash off to the side.

A flash unit off to the side is also good for eliminating that annoying shadow that is cast when your subject is too close to a wall. When a subject is too close to a wall, its shadow is sharply visible, and that distracts from the photo. A flash unit pointed behind the subject and directly at the wall can wash out that shadow without adding light on the surface of your subject. Another trick to combat wall shadows is to move the subject just a few inches from the wall. This will soften, and often eliminate, the problem.

If you can't use a flash, you can sometimes add light at a needed point by use of a reflector. A reflector is a surface that is designed to "reflect" additional light into an area. Commercial reflectors can be purchased from a camera store. Sometimes plain white foam core can function as a reflector when held by an assistant. Sometimes aluminum foil placed on the foam core will add even more reflected light. These effects are subtle, but worth experimenting with.

Another way to manage light is to employ "side" lighting. Side lighting uses a light source (such as a detachable camera flash) coming from the side of your subject instead of from the front. Its virtue is that it may leave half of your subject in deep shadow, which can produce a striking image. This technique can be employed even at night.

The Power of Three

When all else fails, there is a proven technique the pros use to insure their shots have the proper exposure. That technique is called bracketing. If your camera's computer tells you to shoot at f-11 for a 60th of a second, you take three photos. One is taken at the recommended setting. One is taken one stop under exposed and the third shot is taken one stop overexposed. This almost always insures you will get a properly exposed shot. The "over" and "under" shots are adjusted using either the f-stops or the shutter speed. Normally, the f-stop is used because there is often not as much flexibility in shutter speed if one wants to keep camera shake to a minimum.

In our example, if the meter suggests f-11 for 60 seconds, one photo is taken at that setting, the second shot is taken at f-16 for a 60th of a second and the third shot is taken at f-8 for a 60th of a second. One of these three shots is likely to be exposed just the way you want. And since film is essentially free with a digital camera, there is no excuse for not bracketing that important picture. But remember what I said in Part One of this series: You're known by what you show, not by what you shoot. So pick your best shot and throw the other two away. That's what the pros do.

More to come next month.

Part Five: Camera Bags

Taking really good photographs requires more equipment than just a digital camera. A good camera bag allows you to pack that equipment with you when you tour a garden or set up a camera shoot.

On the other hand, hauling around a giant bag of equipment is not appealing. In fact, it is so unappealing that you might be tempted to leave all that gear at home because it's just too much trouble.

The solution is a two-bag system. In your large camera bag you put the stuff you're pretty sure you will not need, but you can't afford to be without if the proper situation presents itself. In a small shoulder bag or a fanny pack, you put the stuff you use all the time. Both bags go in the car. If you're touring a garden you just grab your camera on its own strap, and the small bag, and you're ready to go.

The stuff you probably don't need, but are afraid to leave home without, stays in the large camera bag, in the trunk. Please don't leave your large camera bag in the front or back seat of the car. I know the trunk is hot, but a thief doesn't know that the expensive camera bag doesn't have your camera in it. Do you really want to buy a new window for your car because a thief can't see what's really in the bag? No? Then practice the "out of sight, out of mind" school of preventative maintenance, and hide your camera bag.

I don't have a specific recommendation to make on which brand of camera bag you should buy. But there are several features you should look for. Naturally, a wide strap is essential. Outside pockets are always helpful. Get a bag bigger than you think you need. You will acquire more equipment as time goes on, and you will need a place to store it. Cushioning is also essential. Go to a camera shop and check out their bags. A bag designed for photographers is more likely to contain the little features you will grow to love than a bag designed for some other hobby. This is not the place to skimp on cost.

So what gear do I think you need in your bags? The following is a start of what you might want to have with you. As you take more photographs you will find other items you will want to add. Experience will teach you whether they need to be in the small bag or the large bag. Have fun.

_____ Notepad and pen. Useful for noting the f-stop and shutter speed at which you took the photograph. This is needed if you expect to have your photo published in photo magazine.
_____ A recharger for whatever type of batteries your camera and flash unit uses. A cigarette lighter adapter is useful.
_____ Extra camera batteries.
_____ Extra flash unit batteries.
_____ Extra flash cards so you don't run out of room to store the photos you are taking.
_____ A pocket level to make sure the camera is level.
_____ A small tape measure for accurate measurements on close-up photos so you can be sure the picture will be in focus.
_____ Extra lens for your camera.
_____ Filters for your camera lens.
_____ A flash unit.
_____ A cable release so you can eliminate camera shake on your close ups.
_____ Your tripod or monopod (if they can fit).
_____ Your camera manual. It won't do you any good on your bookshelf at home.
_____ A book on camera tips (geared for your particular camera if possible).
_____ A folding light reflector.
_____ A light meter.
_____ Cleaning tools (lens brush, lens cleanser, camera tissues, etc.).
_____ A Swiss Army knife.
_____ A small flashlight.
_____ A pair of Felco pruners for getting rid of that insect damaged leaf.
_____ Black thread for moving that wayward branch out of the way.
_____ Moist towelettes for cleaning your hands.
_____ Insect repellant
_____ Benadryl cream for insect bites.
_____ A hat.
_____ Tweezers for removing thorns and splinters.

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