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Getting Great Garden Photos

taking great garden photos

Do your photos scream 'beginner!'? If so, we've got three great tips that will help you shoot like a pro.

Break the Internet Garden Photography Part 2

Welcome back to our Break-the-Internet Photography series! Because we’re in the thick of taking submissions for our Summer Photo Contest, we want to be sure we give you plenty of meaty tips for getting great garden photos from your garden.

Whether you’re shooting on your phone, or a more sophisticated camera like a DSLR, we’ve got lots to great photo tips to share.

Last time, we covered your general plan of attack behind the camera - composition, exposure, and the merits of hitting that shutter button over and over again, so that you can improve your odds of creating a true photographic masterpiece - and plenty of Facebook envy.

This time, we really need to get down to business. Today, we want to help you to correct some common mistakes that make your photos scream “Beginner!”

Ideally, you’ll never stop practicing our first set of suggested exercises for creating thoughtful compositions, getting truly varied shots, and being very intentional about your point of focus. Find them here.

There are three serious setbacks that make the beginner in you stand out:

  • Tricky Lighting
  • Correct Exposure
  • Color Accuracy (White Balance)

Let’s dive into each.

  1. Lighting
    Because you’re in the garden, luckily you’ll only be dealing with natural light. Wait, did we say luckily? In fact there’s one scenario that makes shooting in natural light very tricky - and that’s full sun.

    The same full sun that invites bees to swarm all over your coneflowers and heat-loving butterflies to dance on your zinnias. The sun is a force to be reckoned with; your photos appear harsh and contrasty and you just can’t seem to escape your own shadow.

    Let’s fix this. Ready? Body Block.

    harsh light casts shadow on flowers

    Full sun in the garden can make photography very tricky. See how our gardener's shadow is cast right over the flower bed that she's trying to photograph? The truth is, overcast days rule for taking great garden photos. Ask any professional photographer and they'll choose a cloudy day every time.
    Garden Photo Bright Sun

    The zinnia in this shot is half in bright sunlight and half in the shadow cast by the photographer. This makes things difficult when you want both sides of the flower to be properly exposed.

    By positioning her body in between the sun and the zinnia, our gardener is able to use her shadow to recreate even light on the flower. Body block.
    Garden Photo Hat Block

    This time, our clever gardener uses her sunhat to intentionally cast a shadow over her subject. You can use whatever's handy - including pets & people!
    garden Photo with Umbrella

    When photographing larger areas, such as entire flower beds, you can use an umbrella - but be careful to choose one that doesn't cast a funny color over you shot!

  3. Exposure

    The goal of a proper exposure is to have the whites be true white, the blacks be true black, and for both areas to show visible details within.

    Often times, our exposures don't show all of the subtle nuances that are happening in the highlights or in the shadows. The presence of true detail is what can make the difference between a good photo and a bad photo.

    Take a look at the photos below and notice that sometimes the lightest parts of the flower petals (where the sun is hitting them on the left side) are so blown out that if you were to cut away the rest of the image, you'd just have an area of pure blinding white. You'd no longer be able to tell that this area was part of a flower!

    Likewise, the bottom right corner of the shot begins to slip into pure blackness as the exposure is lessened. There's no longer any detail left to inform you that you're looking at plant foliage.

    overexposed garden photo

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 125 (+4)

    slightly overexposed garden photo

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 160 (+3)
    garden photography exposure

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 200 (+2)
    garden photo exposure

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 250 (+1)
    photo exposure in the garden

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 320 (Automatic*)
    slightly underexposed garden photo

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 400 (-1)
    underexposed photo in the garden

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 500 (-2)
    underexposed garden photo

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 640 (-3)
    really underexposed garden photo

    ISO 800/ 7.1/ 800 (-4)

    *Automatic - the center photo is what the camera selected as the 'correct exposure', using its built-in light meter. You may prefer an under or overexposed version of the image, and may even find it to be more accurate.

    Overexposed: too bright. The whites are 'blown out', meaning that there are no detectable details in the whitest parts of the photo. This happens when the camera settings are not taking in as much light as needed for a good exposure.

    Underexposed: too dark. There are no detectable details in the shadows, or the darkest parts of the photo. This happens when the camera takes in more light than is needed for a good exposure.

    How to change exposure on an iPhone:

    Most folks don't realize that the iPhone's camera allows you complete control over your exposure. When you press the shutter (picture-taking button) the camera is automatically choosing the exposure for you - but you don't have to be locked in to that choice. To overwrite the iPhone's exposure selection:

    1. Tap the live preview screen, just as though you're choosing a point of focus.
    2. Tap and hold the sunshine icon that appears; this is the exposure control.
    3. Adjust the exposure by using the slider that appears.

    Getting Good Exposures the Easy Way

    Using the photo examples above, you can probably see how it would be helpful to shoot slightly underexposed and slightly overexposed versions of the image, using the camera's automatic settings as a starting point.

    This is called bracketing. The good news is that most cameras, both point & shoot and DSLR, have a specialized tool that will do this for you. Most phones also have an HDR setting that will bracket your photos for you and compress them together seamlessly, stealing the finest-detailed portions of each version.

    Bracketing: the practice of taking multiple versions of each shot, including underexposures and overexposures, using the 'correct exposure' settings as your starting point. This creates a safety net, ensuring that one of these shots will have the necessary amount of detail in the darkest and lightest areas of your photo.

    exposure compensation bracketing in the garden

    Modern cameras have an Exposure Compensation setting that puts bracketing literally at your fingertips. After reading up (in your manual or on the google) about exactly how your camera's exposure compensation needs to be set, you should be able to shoot away while operating a simple dial that tells the camera: "Same exposure again please, but this time, add more (or less) light!"

    Perfect Garden Photo Light Metering - For Free!

    Another favorite tool we have is a free app, called myLightMeter, that turns your phone into a light meter (you can find this in your phone's app store). Normally, your camera (or phone) measures the light that's falling on your subject to create what it thinks is the correct exposure.

    While that's all fine and good, there's one potential flaw: you're pointing your camera at your subject instead of at the light that's falling on your subject to take your reading.

    What we mean by that, is that the most accurate reading comes from measuring the light exactly as it falls on your subject, which is best done by positioning the meter you're using slightly in front of your flowers, and pointed in the general direction of the light source.

    using myLightMeter Garden Photography

    myLightMeter in action! Here, our gardener is able to freely move about to take her exposure reading. She can either manually set her camera to match the suggested exposure values, or she can just check in to see if her camera is delivering accurate information. Not a bad service for free!

    As part of our Break-the-Internet Photography Series, we'll definitely be diving deeper into exposure. We'll cover aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, giving you all of the nitty gritty on how and why you should be adjusting these settings to get different (properly exposed) outcomes.

  4. White Balance (aka Color Accuracy)

    Oh, white balance. Ever have one of those days when none of your shots look anything like what you’re photographing? Reds seem pink and purples seem blue and all of your greens look downright yellow?

    It’s not you, it’s your white balance.

    Because you are your camera’s set of human eyes, you alone have to tell it what it’s looking at - clouds, full sun, fluorescent lighting, or maybe shade. Of course you can leave your white balance (WB) set to 'Auto', but it doesn't always work as smoothly as you'd like.

    Take a look at the images below to see what different WB settings will translate to in your final image. And then, we'll tell you how to be the boss of white balance!

    custom white balance with expodiscWhite Balance set to: Expodsic

    auto white balance flower photosWhite Balance set to: Auto
    garden photo with daylight white balanceWhite Balance set to: Daylight
    garden photo white balance shadeWhite Balance set to: Shade

    fluorescent white balance garden photoWhite Balance set to: Fluorescent
    tungsten white balance garden flower photoWhite Balance set to: Tungsten

    Our Favorite Tool for Getting Perfect Garden Photo White Balance

    Just like a handheld light meter delivers an accurate exposure measurement, you can use a special tool called an Expodisc to create accurate white balance.

    how to use an ExposDisc photography

    The ExpoDisc is positioned directly over the lens and pointed in the direction of the light that's falling on the flowers. Then, the photographer (gardener!) will push the shutter down and take a photo.

    The ExpoDisc has simplified white balance problems for professional and beginning photographers alike. Don't feel badly if you rarely get correct color values from your camera - welcome to one of photography's biggest headaches!

    garden Photo setting custom White Balance

    Next, the photographer uses the photo she shot through the ExpoDisc to create a 'Custom White Balance' setting in her camera. This setting will be used to create accurate color representations in all of the photos that she takes under this particular light, during this shoot. If she moves to a different part of the yard or notices a big shift in the lighting conditions, she can take out her ExpoDisc and create a new custom setting.

    Don't have an ExpoDisc or a DSLR camera to attach it to? There's still a saving grace if you're image's colors are off. Most photo-editing software allows you to change the white balance after you've uploaded your photos, changing the color back to 'normal'.

    Correcting White Balance in Adobe LightroomUsing photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom, the photographer can access a dropdown menu of White Balance settings to correct her color accuracy after the day's shoot.

Great Garden Photo Takeaways

Hopefully, you've learned a few things here to improve upon the quality of the photos that you take in the garden!

While automatic camera settings are a life-saver, understanding some of the common issues that beginners face can help you to leverage the hard work your camera is already doing, so that you can walk away with better images overall.

Have questions about this post? Or want to know more about specific photo issues that you're having in the garden? Feel free to leave a comment below and we'll try to get you the info you need!

You can check in with Part One of our series here and remember to stay tuned for even more photo tips this summer!

2 thoughts on “Getting Great Garden Photos”

  • Diana C Kirby

    Great post! I frequently bracket my garden shots when I'm photographing in hot sun. That makes it so much easier to have a beautiful, natural shot, instead of having to adjust it later in editing.

    • Jenny

      Thanks Diana! Hot sun is so tricky for photography; I really struggle with it. And you're so right, any work you can do right 'in the camera' will surely save you some amount of aggravation later!

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