How to Take Better Tree and Plant Photos
Leaves, bark, moss, lichen, mushrooms, nuts, ferns, and seeds, to name just a few plant subject, all have beautiful details that are often ignored.
Many photographers focus purely on colorful flower photography. They forget about the surrounding plants, trees and other non-flowering flora, which can be equally colorful!
Trees can evoke deeper feelings than many flowers, growing majestically tall or tortured, twisted and gnarled over time.
The have a sense of history, photos feel like they tell only part of their story.
Children often have tree-friends, lending them a personality, telling them stories, playing amongst them and of course, climbing up them.
However, children may be terribly afraid of some plants, especially if they cast scary shadows in the moonlight.
Snow covered trees in winter lend a quietness to photos, and can make scenes feel unreal (at least the photos seem unreal to me as an Australian!)
In summer, vibrant greens and patches of shade can show both life and coolness.
Plant lighting - the golden hours
Dusk or dawn gives a more golden light and softer, longer shadows. In the middle of the day, the light is white, and the shadows are strongest.
Light seems softer on overcast days, allowing you to bring out details normally hidden in shadows.
You can create your own shade with an umbrella or a large piece of card or paper, but this often requires a second pair of hands.
Dappled lighting and soft light beams can be captured in a forest or a small stand of trees.
Strong outlines can be captured with back-lighting - use the sun or another bright object such as a sunlit waterfall behind the plant.
Or you can get close into the leaves letting the backlighting expose veins and internal structure in the plants.
The light during sunrise and sunset can have different colors based on the weather. A tree outline often looks beautiful against the rainbow sky.
Plus the softer warmer light deepens the colors of autumn leaves, making these times perfect for fall photography.
Type of light
Effect on plant photography
Dawn / dusk
Plants appear warmer as the red/orange/yellow hues are stronger.
Sunset / sunrise
Capture a shadowed outline against a colored sky. Soft, muted colors, reflecting the sky's colors.
Midday or bright sun
Plants have strong, sharp shadows. The light is a strong and clear white.
Overcast sky or a shade 'tool' such as an umbrella
Softer shadows, less defined shadows and muted colors. Better for capturing fine details.
Backlit with the sun or another light source
Show veins in leaves, or a shadowed outline of the plant.
Photos taken with flash
Shiny surfaces in the foreground are highlighted, shadows are very strong.
- A camera's flash casts sharp shadows and provides a harsh, white light. It is easy to over-expose the details, and focus on the wrong subject. Of course, a flash photo can also show details that are normally hidden.
- You can add warmth to photos by changing the white balance. Some cameras have settings for cloudy or overcast light, enhancing the yellows in the photo.
Plant framing - find your emphasis
You don't always need to place the focus in the middle of the photo. Slightly offsetting the main subject in your photo can seem more professional and artistic.
The golden rule of thirds
To make your photo more interesting, position your subject at either 1/3 or 2/3 in the frame (vertically or horizontally).
Of course, this is a soft suggestion, not a hard rule!
You can fill a photo with tiny details in a macro shot, or with the landscape, capturing how the plants interact with their surroundings.
Wider landscape photos allow you to capture trees as they march in rows and gardens as they display their harsh (or soft) edges.
A small plant can be overpowered by hard concrete, or a tall tree can tower over a small building.
Avoid capturing anything that distracts from your subject, or crop the photo in an image editing program.
Macro photographs are perfect for displaying details such as veins, hairs, patterned bark, needles, woodgrain, water droplets, and new shoots.
Landscape photos are best for capturing forests, hedgerows, manicured gardens and streetscapes.
Plant perspective - play with it!
Tilting the camera so that upright plants are shown at an angle gives a feeling of freedom or movement, such as when the wind blows. For more solid plants, such as huge trees, it lends an other-worldly air.
Get down below low-sitting plants, or high up in a tree for an uncommon perspective. We see trees and flowers from eye level and at a distance every day, so an unusual angle is more interesting.
Highlights - animals, water and more
In macro shots of plants, insects, spiders, or other animals, can make photos come to life. They draw the eye to notice details that are normally overlooked.
Water droplets lend freshness to the photo, and also work to highlight delicate details. A spray bottle of water is a useful tool on a sunny day, if you want water highlights!
If you are taking macro or close-up photos, you want to blur a distracting, cluttered background to keep the viewer focused on your subject. Most macro or super-macro functions choose camera settings that will give you a nice blur in the background.
A photo with foreground details in focus and a blurry background is closer to how we see the world - we focus on a point, and the rest is smoothed over.
Type of camera
Which type of camera do you have?
Tips for a blurred background
- Get close to your subject.
- Avoid the flash.
- Stay completely still or use a tripod and a timer.
- Use a macro or super macro setting.
- DSLR cameras - Aperture Priority (AP) mode, select a wide aperture (small f-value).
- DSLR cameras - Manual mode, select a wide aperture, increase the ISO and decrease the shutter speed.
Post-processing plant photos
Use photo processing software to enhance your shots - there are many available for free online.
Both software (Photoshop, Gimp, iPhoto, etc) and online photo tools, have many filters and settings that you can use to change colours, lighting, crop and tilt photos, get an antique or black and white shot, and much more.
Work on an extra copy of your photos, so you always have the original, and don't need to worry when playing with filters and settings.
Keep on photographing!
Look through inspiring image galleries and useful tips from pro-photographers, such as those at the National Geographic, for ideas on how to capture unique and beautiful photos.
However the best way to capture good plant and tree shots, is to take a lot of photos, and take them often.
As you photograph more, you will get used to your camera's settings, and your skills will improve.
Free online courses
- Stanford has made their course in digital photography available online for free. With demonstrations of key concepts covered in lectures, and photo assignments, it's a great, guided push to improve your photography skills.
- The Digital Photography School blog has organized hundreds of tutorial posts into a variety of fantastic guides, including one for beginner photographers. I could get lost in this blog - chock full of great information!
What are your favorite plants to photograph, or your favorite times to capture photos of trees?
Let us know in the comments below!