Shooting architectural plants

When it comes to photographing flowers and plants, the thing that really interests me is not the subject itself necessarily, but its structure and relationship with its surroundings. In particular, it’s the way light changes these specifics – sometimes within just a few minutes – that is fascinating, writes Andrew James.

As photographers, light is our main ingredient in everything we do. Its intensity, direction and temperature all have a huge part to play in the success or failure of an image. In most cases we use natural light – for me this is always the best light – and part of the challenge for any photograph is harnessing the light you are given and making it work effectively.

We can redirect natural light by bouncing it off a reflector and we can soften harsh light by placing a diffuser between it and our subject. I’ll do both these things but they’re not always practical or necessary. Of course we can always add artificial light too. Flash or continuous lighting, such as an LED panel, can add a whole new dimension to what we do. Look at my articles on Have a blast with bokeh for LED lighting use or Get Flashing at Insects for more on these areas. But sometimes it’s just interesting and rewarding to play around and see the small difference shooting the same subject in various different lighting can be.

During lockdown, the opportunities for photography were narrow and I know that many of us turned to our gardens or natural areas close-by for inspiration. I have a tendency to become slightly obsessive about a subject when it interests me. Not in an unhealthy  kind of way but more in a manner that eats away at my brain until I’ve managed to get something in the camera that satisfies my personal expectations. This isn’t about satisfying anyone else either – I always think that first and foremost personal photography should be about satisfying ourselves. If then that also makes others enjoy the fruits of our creative labour then all is well with the world.

So one small lockdown obsession for me was a bed of flowers that appeared (planted by my green-fingered other half) earlier this year in our front garden. When they first appeared as a few straggly looking stems and foliage I paid no attention, but when tightly balled flower buds appeared within very architectural foliage, my interest piqued from a photographic point of view. I had to walk past them every time I left the house, and each time I stopped and looked. Each time they looked slightly different and it all depended on the light!

What they were wasn’t important, but you gardeners will recognise them as Love-in-a-Mist or Bird’s Nest – or if you’re really clever and into your horticulture, Nigella damascena. However, I just referred to them as ‘those interesting blue things in the front garden’.

I could continue this article by listing the 10 things you need to know about flower photography but they are a 10 a penny out in the big wide web world and they pretty much all say the same thing. This however is going to look at a few of the images I took during my brief love affair with Nigella and why I shot them as I did…

What is an architectural plant?
Not being a Monty Don type I don’t know if I am using the word ‘architectural’ in the right way when it comes to plants. But by architectural I mean that I am interested more in the structure of the plant and flower as opposed to simply being interested in its colour. This was my first shot, taken with a macro lens with an aperture of just f/4 to limit sharpness. This made the spiky foliage less severe and softened the ball of the flower bud which, to my mind, looks a bit like a blue sprout. The lighting was very soft and quite cool when I shot this as it was an overcast day. In hindsight, I wish I had taken this shot with the stem straight (although it was growing at this angle) so I could have created greater symmetry within the frame and avoided the empty space bottom-right. 

Taken with a macro lens with an aperture of just f/4 to limit sharpness.

First flower
A week or so later and the first flowering started. The lighting was still cool and I think this intensified the blues. It was interesting to see how the blues and greens changed so much depending on the temperature of the day. I shot all these images on Daylight white balance and remained true to the natural warmth or coolness of the scene. One of the things I really liked about Love-in-the-Mist was how you could shoot through the massive of flowers and pick out an individual bloom. This adds depth, as well as some elements of natural framing to the photo, although I’ve cropped this very slightly to accentuate that even more.

This is image was taken with a 300mm lens to allow me to focus through the flowers and create that really lovely diffusion, as well as make sure the background is completely out of focus and not competing with the main flower. I used a single AF point positioned on the front petals rather than the central exposed stamen, because I was using f/4 and wanted the folds of the petals to be sharp enough. The reason for this was because from this angle, I think that’s where the eye falls first.

Taken with a 300mm lens to allow me to focus through the flowers and create the diffusion.

Warmer backlighting
I tried a similar ‘shooting through’ technique using the macro lens for this shot. However, I don’t like the diffusion as much and of course you can’t shoot through quite as many foreground flowers to create a colourful wash. Here, I focused on the central stamen above the flower at f/4 so the petals and surroundings are soft. There’s a slight texture showing through because I was aiming directly into a low evening sun and it was somehow picking up the spiky foliage. Shooting into the light meant I needed to be really careful with the exposure but a small amount of exposure compensation – just +1/3rd stop – was all I needed to balance things. It’s warmer overall, which is more obvious when you compare it to the first two shots.

I focused on the central stamen above the flower at f/4 so the petals and surroundings are soft.

Medusa’s head
The stamen on the top of the flower reminded me of Medusa’s Head from Greek mythology with its wriggling mass of snakes. I returned to the macro lens for this shot and angled my composition from a slightly higher position. I’ve stuck with f/4 to diffuse everything else and as you can see from the Inset, my focus point (the red square) was on a central stamen but not necessarily the one closest to the lens. I’ve also included a tight bud just sneaking into the right-hand corner as a sort of before and after!

My final image is still macro of course, and I focused on a central stamen, but with an aperture of f/2.8 sharpness is hugely limited. As long as there is a point of focus I am happy for my ‘snake heads’ to wriggle in and out of sharpness and blur. I hope these few images from my brief obsession can spark an idea in your head and get you playing around with the same subject and different lenses. And remember, as I said right at the start, personal photography should be about satisfying ourselves. So go get some satisfaction!

With an aperture of f/2.8 sharpness is hugely limited.

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