The roots of creativity: mastering plant photography
05 August 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer
In the latest of our Masterclasses, nature photographer and WPY regular, Sandra Bartocha, gives her expert advice on photographing the botanical realm, and reveals why plant photography makes her feel free.
I can't remember a time without photography in my life. My father was a photographer, and he would often pick me up from kindergarten and take me with him on shoots in the beautiful countryside around where we lived in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, in Northeastern Germany.
I’ve worked indoors in a studio, as well as out in the field but, over the years, I gravitated increasingly towards plant photography, for one main reason: freedom! Plants stay put, and for me as a photographer, that offers many benefits. I don't need to wait for the right behaviour, the right time of day, or the right moment. My subjects never need to get used to my presence. I don't need to conceal myself, and it doesn't really matter what time of day it is. I've got the luxury of time, and so I can spend all day experimenting with various angles and lenses, and I can be flexible in terms of when I work. And because the subjects are often small, I can usually work with whatever shadows and light is available. As an area to specialise in, plant photography is liberating.
I have two very different approaches to my work. The first involves working on a concept, thinking about how to execute an idea I have. I will have an image in my head, and I will do a lot of planning to try and make that come true. This image below, for example, was carefully planned. I found out the best time of the month to see liverleafs in full bloom, and then I waited for a clear and almost windless March evening. I knew that when the sun set, the lake in the background would reflect the light. I knew too that a westward exposure would offer me the best possibility of grasping the last light. This level of planning meant that I had confidence that the images would work out.
The second approach is entirely intuitive, much more haphazard. It happens if my creative brain suddenly sees elements coming together that hadn't occurred to me, as happened for this much more spontaneous shot. I had no intention of photographing spurge that day. I was just wandering around with my camera and macro lens, trying out various subjects, when I noticed the monochrome features of the plant. As I was photographing, I noticed the way the shallow depth of field creates human characteristics, and so I played with that interpretation.
A shallow depth of field can create human characteristics in images.
So a planned approach is more reliable, but sometimes being open to intuition and experimentation produces marvellous things. By keeping my eyes open for details, I find that my mind is more open, too; more receptive to ideas. I can go into a kind of creative zone, a totally different state of mind, a bit like meditation. It's all about paying attention: when I do that, I start seeing the world in a different way. It's very rewarding.
For me, plant photography is essentially about creativity. But that's a difficult notion to grasp - there's a big difference between a creative photograph of a plant and a highly aesthetic image that happens to be of a plant. Both of the images below were taken in the same forest, on the same day, and almost the same time. The first tries to show the anemone as it is, but in an abstract surrounding.
This next one is much more abstract and reduces the trees to lines and a bit of colour.
I think that it doesn't matter if you are successful in competitions or not, or if you can make living out of your photography or not. I focus on my own work, on what I love and what I want to create. If, when I go through my images at the end of the year, I find some that might be suitable for a competition such as WPY, then I submit them, and if I win something, then of course that's great. But I don’t let it drive my photography. As long as I am happy with the way I am expressing the world around me, as long as my images that are meaningful to me, then I am successful in my own eyes and I feel fulfilled.
Sandra Bartocha's plant photography tips
You can use all kinds of cameras and lenses for plant photography. Each system will have its advantages and disadvantages. If you start with a DSLR camera and a macro lens, you can use them in combination to work with a range of distances, from shots taken from some way away to those that are very close up. Typical lenses range from 60mm to 200mm. For APS-size DSLRs, I recommend short lenses as it's only a short distance between the object and the camera. For full frame cameras a 105mm to 200mm lens is ideal.
The equipment I use most are my D800, my 105mm macro lens + extension tubes, a standard 24-70mm zoom as well as a very comfortable 80-400mm lens (all Nikon). I also play with a very old Meyer-Görlitz-lens, which produces awesome bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the blur) and a weird background.
It is very important to pay attention to flowering seasons. If you want to photograph a certain plant, you must research the best times to do so. Even then, it's important to pay attention to what's actually happening. Early flowering plants, for example, usually flower for a short time only, and timing can vary by up to four weeks; it depends on the duration of winter.
Look for places where you have a lot of plants to choose from as it is vital that you are able to choose your viewpoint (though, of course, if it is a very rare plant you might have to take what you get!). Choose plants that, as well as looking good (intact petals, good shape etc), are growing in an attractive biotope.
This will allow you to shoot in a range of directions, e.g. against the sky, next to a sunset, in front of a beautiful meadow, etc. If you include other elements of the plant's setting, then you have even more scope for playing with opposing structures and colours. Here, I wanted to photograph the orchid Serapias lingua in its broader biotope, so I included a variety of different grasses in order to harness the atmosphere of the location.
Including other elements of the plant's setting gives you more scope for playing with opposing structures and colours, says Sandra.
This is critical. The best idea is to get down low and look for a perspective that is at eye level with your subject. This also means that you will easily get a clean background, and any other vegetation in the foreground can work in your favour as it produces a soft base for the image.
The options for composition are endless, but the rule of thirds is always good to bear in your mind: imagine that two vertical and two horizontal lines divide your frame into nine squares, then place the important compositional elements along these imaginary lines or at their intersections. From there, you can experiment with making plants either very large or very small within the frame.
Or you can be brave and place subjects right at the corners or edges of the frame. But always take care that the balance of the whole image is preserved. In this image, I positioned the main subject (the grass) at the intersection of the upper right imaginary lines.
"Be brave with composition."
- Depth of field
Images of plants can either render the subject sharp from the front to back or make just a few details sharp (e.g. pollen, a petal, etc). It is very important to pay attention to the background. The more you have in focus, the more cluttered the background will be. If you have a very limited depth of field, it is very easy to create a soft and dreamy background.
Light is easier to handle with small subjects. Morning and evening light is of course great – the colours become warmer and more intense, and you can include the sun as a warm source of light in the background. In the morning, there's a high chance you will also have dew to work with, which can provide an additional layer of interest. During the day when the light is harsher, you can easily cast a shadow on your subjects with the help of reflectors or other things (e.g. your backpack) and use the sun in the background as a contrasting light source.
- Soul of the plant
Nature photography can offer you the chance to experience nature deeply, and that will generate better images. Try to identify the one element that captures essence of the plant. What appeals to you? What do you find fascinating about the plant; its shape, colour, translucency? What characteristics make it special? Spend some time thinking about how you feel about the subject, and then work out how to use your equipment and all the natural opportunities available to you in order to do justice not just to the plant, but also to your reaction to it.
ABOUT SANDRA BARTOCHA
Sandra Bartocha is a photographer and author specializing in natural landscapes and plants, with the specific aim of creating images that evoke an emotional response. Her pictures have been published in European magazines, books and calendars, and she has been awarded in numerous international competitions, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Sandra was vice-president of the Society of German Nature Photographers (GDT) from 2007 to 2013 and is chief editor of the magazine GDT Forum Naturfotografie. She was one of the photographic team on the pan-European Wild Wonders of Europe initiative. Currently she is working on a long-term project about the north of Europe - LYS.