Learning to Take Better Garden Photos, Part 1

You'll notice that the title isn't 'How to Take Better Garden Photos.' It's about 'Learning to Take Better Garden Photos' because like most of you, I'm still learning! My recent trip to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens was not all about the animals, or even the plants: I spent my time learning ways to take better photos with crisper details, better exposure and more creative composition. In part one of three, I focus on how to make the most of your equipment for great garden shots. Next I'll cover techniques before moving on to composition.

Digital SLR cameras let you adjust the focus and aperture to take better 'close ups' of flowers

'Point and Shoot' or Digital SLR?

A resourceful photographer can take excellent photos with any camera, regardless of price. Many of the photos on this blog were taken with my cell phone or 'point and shoot' and look just as good as many photos on my fancy camera. My wife's pocket sized 'point and shoot' takes great photos even if the photographer has no idea what shutter speed and aperture mean, so why bother with a DSLR? In a word, versatility. When your cell phone takes an awful looking washed out and blurry photo, you're pretty much out of luck. If you shoot that same lousy image with a DSLR, you're able to try again after manually focusing on your subject and adjusting your exposure.

This camellia was in deep shade, so a tripod was needed to prevent a blurry photo

 How to Shake Off the 'Camera Shake' for Good

Have you ever taken a whole day's worth of photos at the botanical garden, only to find that most of them were blurry and unusable? When you're shooting photos in dim conditions, your camera's shutter has to stay open longer to capture the light and record an image. This means that during that long 'click' you hear your camera make, it's recording a blurry image that's been smeared around by your trembling hands. A tripod keeps the camera in one place so that it's recording an image from the exact same spot.

If you don't have a tripod, many cameras have a 'sport' mode that's usually indicated by an icon of a running stick figure. The sport mode uses a faster shutter speed and results in less camera shake, but since less information is captured during that short fraction of a second, the image can end up dark or grainy. Since we're taking photos of a fairly slow moving garden, it's best to skip the 'sports mode' and fast shutter speed, and just use a tripod.

I took this photo of plumbago several times to see a well exposed image on the screen

Preview for (Almost) Perfect Photos

If at first you don't succeed, digital cameras let you try and try again. Nowadays, most digital cameras allow you to see a preview of the image on a small screen after it's been taken. You would think that this would mean the end of bad photos, since we're now able to make sure that we took a good shot before moving on to the next flower, but unfortunately I'm just now taking advantage of this feature.

Here's how to use the preview to take perfect shots every time: Take the photo, preview it on the screen, and zoom in to make sure that it's in focus. If you're not happy with your shot, adjust the focus, exposure settings or mode until the little picture in the preview screen is just right. Another option is to shoot in RAW format, if your camera allows it. RAW format images can have their exposure adjusted on your computer after the photo has been taken.

A crisp image like this was made possible by reading the manual and adjusting the diopter dial.

Get to Know Your Camera

On my trip to the zoo I discovered something amazing about my camera for the first time. When I was researching newer models, a feature that stood out to me was this miraculous dial that compensates for bad eyesight! The next day, I saw that very same feature on my own camera, turned the dial until the view was sharp, and Voila. I can now see things clearly in the viewfinder for the first time. Years of slightly blurry landscape shots and strained squinting into the viewfinder are finally over for me.

Your camera probably has features you've never known about either, and the best place to find them is by looking in the manual that came in the box. Sit down for a spell and try out each feature on the camera before taking it outside for a test run.

To isolate the topiaries, I shot from a distance with a telephoto lens.

Other Equipment

These are just some of the tools available to garden photographers, but they are the necessities. Don't leave home without them!

One of the perks of the digital age is the ability to take an infinite amount of photos on memory cards before uploading them to your computer. Invest in at least a few memory cards, just in case you lose one or your card runs out of space while you're on the road.

Lenses are one of the best reasons to upgrade to a digital SLR. Wide angle lenses are perfect for getting the full view of intimate garden settings, while telephoto zoom lenses let you focus on a specific plant in the distance. A standard lens with a medium focal length is helpful for isolating a plant against an uncluttered background. For the best close up shots, choose a macro lens and think of it as a magnifying glass for your camera.

Get a spare charger just in case. It's pretty disappointing to arrive at your destination only to find that your camera is out of juice.

If you're shooting outdoors in the garden, rain is bound to sneak up on you sooner or later. Get a waterproof bag or a camera cover so you can stick around for the rainbow. In a pinch, bring along a trash bag and some ziplocks.

With a wide angle lens, the palm in the foreground would have shifted to the left.
A telephoto lens helped me position the plants in a pleasing arrangement.



  1. Great ideas. I have learned a lot of these the hard way. I still get blurry images so I like that tip about enlarging a photo on the spot.
    Happy Thanksgiving. Are you ready for a mild winter? I am. David/ :-)

  2. Lots of nice tips. Thanks!

    I don't have a DSLR and just use a P&S for my blog. I have shot plants with a Holga and a TLR though. Shoot from the hip and all that. The resulting images can sometimes be surprising.

  3. Great tips! And, your images are gorgeous.


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