Photo masterclass part 3: Plants

You might think that plants make easy photographic subjects, but there are many things you need to consider to bring out the best in your floral pictures. 

Photo masterclass part 3: Plant portraits
You might think that plants make relatively easy photographic subjects, but there are many things you need to consider to bring out the best in your floral pictures. Controlling the light and wind levels, trying different angles and learning to love rain can make all the difference.
Plant photographers have to use more imagination and creativity to produce really eye-catching pictures than most other nature photographers. Their subjects are relatively static (they do not yawn, breach or run) and even the most exotic and colourful species photograph badly without beautiful lighting, an artistic crop, the right depth of field and so on.
It’s not surprising that budding plant photographers often find it difficult to see past the jungle of foliage and isolate a single, striking concept.
Even professionals fall into fixed ways of thinking and working. The challenge is to break out of this photographic rut and push the boundaries.
  • When is the best time of day – or best time of year – to photograph a particular plant?
  • Is it in tiptop condition or slightly damaged? (You have to be brutally critical of your subjects and discard anything less than perfect.)
  • Does every element need to be in sharp focus or is a little selective focusing likely to produce more interesting results?
  • Are there any interesting textures (which can add a tactile quality to the picture) or minute details in the petals, leaves, branches or trunks?
There are so many weird and wonderful variations and possibilities.
In this class, we’ll be overturning many of the preconceptions about plant photography, discussing how to overcome some of the challenges and learning a few invaluable tricks that will help transform otherwise ordinary pictures into shots with real artistic merit.
MEET THE EXPERT: Peter Lilja, Sweden
Peter Lilja is an award-winning photographer based in northern Sweden. He won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year ‘In Praise of Plants’ category in 2002.
Peter Lilja laughs when I ask about his favourite time of day for photographing plants. “I prefer late evening light to early morning light,” he says, “because I find it hard to get out of bed first thing in the morning.”
Joking aside, he points out that good light is crucial to plant photography and he’ll often wait for many hours until the conditions are just right. During the summer near his home in northern Sweden, he frequently works through the night to make the most of the long hours of gorgeous light. 
Peter works in two ways: searching for suitable subjects on a spontaneous basis, and planning ahead to photograph a particular species when it is looking its best. He rarely just walks around, preferring to get down on his hands and knees to look for the most perfect specimens.
He designs a photograph through the camera viewfinder rather than with his naked eye. “I spend a lot of time lying on the ground, at or below the level of the plants, trying different lenses to compose the shot,” he says. “And when I start work I use a beanbag, rather than a tripod, to rest my lens as close to the ground as possible.”
Peter finds plant photography more challenging than many other forms of nature photography, but raves about the enormous pleasure of capturing their beauty in a single image – even if it does mean getting up early in the morning.
Peter Lilja’s top plant portrait photography tips
  • Think in colour
    Understanding colour is important in plant photography. Primary colours (red, blue and yellow) have the greatest visual impact, but mixing these with certain secondary colours (eg red-green, blue-orange or yellow-purple) can make each hue even more intense. Contrasting colours add a feeling of depth – warm colours appear to advance while cool colours recede.
  • Think graphically
    Plant photography also requires a basic understanding of design. Study photographs taken by other photographers and look for a ‘rhythm’ formed by lines in the composition. Diagonals, wavy lines, zigzags and radiating lines, for example, all create strong images with power and energy. Lines can also be used to generate a feeling of depth.



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