Plant and Flower Photography: Composition
by Jimmy Earl Cooley, Master Gardener
Composition has been defined as “The pictorial quality of a photograph resulting from the pleasing arrangement of the elements of the picture”. *Kodak describes it as visual organizations or simply the effective selection and arrangement of your subject matter within the picture area.
Spacing Objects: The spacing of objects or subject matter in a photograph in an informal or unsymmetrical pattern seems to give the most interesting results. Try to avoid placing the central subject in the middle of the photograph, and do not space objects equally in the picture area. Avoid placing important lines of the picture so the photograph is divided in half. A formal composition or arrangement of objects in a photograph gives a feeling of dignity, balance, strength, and stability; i.e. photographing monuments, architecture, cathedrals, documentation, Catalog photos, plant or flower identification is an example of formal spacing. Informal composition allows flexibility and is more creative giving the photographer the opportunity for personal _expression and artistic design.
A basic principal that is accepted in good composition is “Divide the Picture Area into Thirds”. The idea of thirds is used vertically and horizontally. When you look into your camera viewfinder imagine the scene being cut by two vertical lines (cutting the scene into thirds; left to right) and two horizontal lines (cutting the scene into thirds; top to bottom). The intersection of these lines (four places) is the best possible options for placing your center of interest. The major object in the picture (for example a rose) could be placed along any one of the lines, or where the lines intersect or cross. The points where the lines intersect are the most important points in the picture area and objects placed at or near these intersections will attract the most attention. The greatest attention is achieved by using only one of these intersections. Try to have only one main point of interest in each exposure. The principal subject may be one object or several but always choose a main subject. Two can also be used effectively especially when used diagonally opposite each other. Using all the intersections would produce symmetrical, formal designs, which is probably not what one wants when producing photographs of plants and flowers for enlargement and general viewing.
Camera Angle: Position your camera where you get the best camera angle for the center of interest. Also consider whether the photo would be better if you move in closer to your subject. Close up’s tend to bring your attention directly to the main subject and show details that may be missed from a more distant shot. For example, when shooting an open flower, maybe a tulip; move closer to show the reproductive parts, pistil and stamen, as the main interest and shoot straight down the flower. Look into the viewfinder and move toward the subject until everything that does not add to the picture is eliminated, but fill the frame. By doing this you get the largest image size of the subject on the film and when the film is developed and you decide to enlarge one of the shots; you get higher image quality because less enlarging is required. *Kodak says “Careful composing the pictures in the viewfinder is essential for taking color slides because cropping techniques are not generally used with slides and because the frame size of a 35 mm camera is not large, you will obtain the highest quality when you utilize all the picture area.
Background: The background of an exposure is very important and can ruin an otherwise good photograph. The surroundings and background can add to the composition or detract from the center of interest. If you are photographing a flower or group of the same flower and some other plant or variety of flowers are in the background you may lose the concentration on the main subject. Move the camera around for a better composition by changing the background or use a lens or camera setting that will decrease the depth of field; thus burring (out of focus) the background. If there is some object or action in the background that does not add to your subject then try to arrange your setup to eliminate it. If you are photographing tall plants or flowers, shooting from a low camera angle may give you some sky in the background. This may be good if it is a clear day and some interesting clouds around but be sure this is what you want in your exposure as it may turn out to be the highlight and distract from your subject. The sky may make it necessary for you to manually compensate for brightness detected by the camera’s automatic exposure reading. When there is a cloud cover or overcast move, the camera to a high angle and keep the bleak, unappealing sky out of the picture. Plant foliage is a good background and blue is excellent with color slides. Just before you trip your shutter for a particular exposure look through the viewfinder, carefully, at the background (especially the four corners) and beyond your subject to satisfy yourself that all is well and what you see is what you desire and it adds to the composition of your main subject. Your camera lens will surely see all!
So when you are in the garden and have decided on a subject flower or plant set camera and tripod near and look through the camera viewfinder; moving the camera toward the flower (while visualizing 3rds) until the desired picture presents itself. The informal composition concept is achieved by locating the flower at or near one of the intersections. If your subject is a group of flowers, locate a main one and try to place others (perhaps a half-open one) or leaves at other intersection junctions. Place stems on diagonal if possible and keep the foreground reasonably full. Look at the background behind the flower and surroundings to be sure that nothing can be seen that will take away from the interest of the main flower. If there is a distortion, move the camera left to right or up or down to eliminate or diminish the unwanted background. Set your camera for proper exposure, and look directly at your subject, watching to make sure the wind is not moving it and release the shutter with the cable release.