Those of you who are photographers may wonder how I got such and such an effect in one or more of the pictures that you see in this column, so let me explain a few of the things that I’ve done and give links to examples. I’ll list the techniques in no particular order but I’ll number them for easy reference in my posts. In the first few cases, I’m reminded of the adage that the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location, except that I’ve modified that to position, position, position.
1) Get close.
There are photo-worthy details in many subjects that become visible only when you get close. Even point-and-shoot cameras often have a macro mode, and if you use an interchangeable-lens camera you can buy a macro lens for it. I took the majority of the pictures in this blog with a macro lens.
2) Shoot horizontally.
Often that means kneeling or sitting down to isolate a subject against things that are far enough away to remain nicely out of focus in the background. In the picture of a green lily budding, for example, the surrounding land has lost most of its detail; even less distinct is the background in the picture of a new cedar elm leaf. If a plant is growing along the bank of a river or lake, that body of water can become a mostly neutral background; an example of that is the seed head of a sunflower by a pond. Shooting horizontally, especially with a long lens, can also produce a different effect; with objects that are numerous but small, aiming horizontally can bunch them together and partly fill the spaces between them, as in the photograph of rain-lilies in a colony.
3) Shoot upward.
This is a variant of the preceding. Getting down low and shooting at a sufficiently raised angle lets the sky becomes the background. That could be a clear blue sky, as in the photograph of a Clematis drummondii flower and bud, or a softly clouded sky, as in the picture of the basket-flower with which I began this blog; it could also be an overcast sky like the one above some decomposing Texas thistles. Shooting upward also often allows you to eliminate distracting objects behind your subject, like cars, buildings, or people walking by. An example is the picture of a colony of Maximilian sunflowers, beyond which was a row of houses.
4) Play a bright subject off against a darker background.
By moving around your subject, you may be able to find a position that lines it up with something shaded in the background, like a grove of trees. That was what I did in the photograph of a mountain pink bud and flower with a stand of ashe juniper trees some distance away. Even greater was the contrast between sneezeweed flowers and the ashe juniper trees behind them, with the result that the background came out a solid black.
5) Play a subject of one color off against a background or a background element of a different color.
An example is the photograph of a coreopsis bud opening in front of a pink evening primrose. Another example, with a similar color scheme but in reversed positions, is the picture of a Texas thistle bud that appears against the bright yellow background of an out-of-focus colony of Engelmann daisies.
6) Use an elongated format.
Your camera’s sensor has a fixed length-to-width ratio (often 3:2 or 4:3), but in processing an image you can crop to a more extreme ratio. An example of a vertically elongated picture is the one showing conjoined rain-lilies, and even more so the one of three-seeded mercury in flower. An example of a horizontally elongated picture is that of the dense colony of bluebells on the prairie, and in the photograph of switchgrass in autumn, the wide format conduces the viewer’s glance to follow the horizontally undulating forms of the grass.
7) Position your primary subject way off center.
People talk about the rule of thirds, which amounts to putting the primary subject a third of the way over from a vertical edge and simultaneously a third of the way above or below a horizontal edge in order to avoid the static image that can result from a centered subject. For example, in the picture of two ants entombed in a drop of sunflower resin, the ants occupy a position one-third over from the left edge of the frame and a bit more than one-third up from the bottom. But the rule of thirds is merely a guideline, and an even more extreme position is possible, as in the placement of the swallowtail butterfly in a wildflower-covered cemetery and of the flowering goldenrod played off against wispy clouds. And of course a centered subject may be just fine too.
8) Use a flash even in broad daylight.
One purpose of flash is as a fill light when a subject is intrinsically dark or has the light coming from behind it (photographers call that a backlit subject). If the backlighting is unusually bright, for example from the sun itself, you may have to set your camera to underexpose by several f/stops to keep from getting blown-out highlights in the photograph; then you can experiment with varying degrees of flash to brighten the subject of the picture enough to bring out its details. An example is a cattail partially blocking the sun.
Another application of flash, even with a well-lit subject, is in taking a close-up. In that case the flash lets you stop down your macro lens to a very small aperture, thereby increasing the depth of field and keeping as many details as possible of your subject in focus. An example is the close-up of Texas thistle flowers.
9) Isolate a portion of a subject to emphasize abstract patterns.
An example is the mottled patches and long needle shadows in the photograph of a stressed prickly pear cactus pad. Examples of patterns in softer subjects are the swirls in a Clematis drummondii seed head and the fluff and chaff of a bushy bluestem gone to seed.
10) Photograph a scene at a strange angle.
In this approach, the edges of the frame are not aligned with things normally seen horizontally (like the ground) or vertically (like a tree or upright plant). When things appear off-kilter, they can take on a dynamism they lack in a conventional view. An example is the photograph of a colony of snow-on-the-mountain. Of course something tilted is often just something tilted, and of no great merit, so I’d use this approach sparingly.
11) Combine parts of images to optimize focus.
Because of limitations of depth of field, and because things in nature move, it can be hard to get all the important parts of a subject in focus simultaneously. Sometimes I take several pictures in quick succession; in the similar photographs that result, a part of the subject may be in sharper focus in one image than in another. If so, I can copy the sharper part from that picture and paste it into the other to cover the corresponding less-well-focused area there. That’s what I did in the picture of the new cedar elm leaf. In the frame from which almost this whole image comes, the bottom margin of the leaf wasn’t quite as sharp as the rest of the picture, so I copied that part from a frame where it was sharper.
12) Photograph translucent objects with the light behind them.
If you can position yourself so that a translucent object is between you and the sun, the light will pass through the object on its way to the camera sensor. That often produces bright, saturated colors in the resulting image. The technique works well for a flat object like a leaf, provided that the plane of the leaf is perpendicular to your line of sight. Two examples of this technique in close-ups are a distressed sycamore leaf and a drying bulrush leaf, and one in a more traditional landscape is a flowering snow-on-the-prairie plant. Sometimes you can even get translucence in animals, as in the photograph of a monarch butterfly. It’s best if the object you’re photographing fills most of the frame, or else you can get lens flare or orbs of light from any bright spots that end up visible in front of you; even those things, though, can sometimes work out well, as in the photograph of a copper lily.
13) Go with the flow.
If there’s movement in a scene, as is often the case in nature because the wind is blowing, you can use a high shutter speed to freeze objects when they’re off-kilter. That directionality can make for a more dynamic picture than if a colony of plants had just been standing there. An example is the photograph of cattails blowing, for which I used a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. to stop the action when the cattails were at one end of their arc. A closer and more extreme view using this technique is one showing poverty weed bending in the prairie wind. Another possibility is to do the opposite and use a slow shutter speed to create a blur while some of the objects in the scene move about. A good example of that is the photograph of firewheels, nightshade, and gaura blowing.
14) Less is more.
That’s the credo of minimalism, an approach that means filling the photographic frame with simple things, and not many of them, so that there is little to distract a viewer’s attention from elemental forms. A variant of that approach is to show a scene that has limited tonal range. A couple of pictures that exemplify both types of minimalism are those showing a gumweed flower head and a section of a bulrush leaf.
15) More is more.
This is the opposite approach from the preceding. An image can be effective when there are lots of details and most spaces within the picture are occupied. The resulting complexity ends up calling attention to itself beyond any of the individual elements. An example in a landscape is the picture of a flowering group of snow-on-the-mountain plants, and an example in the macro world is the photograph of Clematis drummondii swirls.
16) Photograph the same subject in different stages of its existence.
In the botanical world we often photograph flowers, which most people find the most attractive stage in a plant’s life, but the other stages have their charms too and shouldn’t be rejected out of hand: shoots, buds forming, buds opening, the plant going to seed, its seeds and fruits, the plant when it dries up, etc. Sometimes I include different stages in the same photograph, as in the picture of a camphorweed bud just opening alongside a flower head that is already fading.
17) Arrange things (or be lucky!) so that there’s an echo in the background of something in the foreground.
An example is the photograph of flameleaf sumac turning color, where the leaflets that fill most of the frame are echoed by smaller versions of themselves farther back along the left edge of the picture.
18) Favor diagonals.
That can be accomplished with the approach in point 10 above, but it can also happen when the camera remains level but the subject itself fills the frame in such a way that there are strong diagonal elements. An example is the picture of a possumhaw tree with fruit, in which there’s a pronounced line from the upper left corner almost to the lower right corner; perpendicular to that are shorter angled lines of red that go up and to the right. Another example is a photograph of a red admiral butterfly in which the antenna and a rear leg lie along one diagonal, while the cutting edge of the butterfly’s wing and some smaller elements emphasize the other diagonal.
19) Limit your color range.
While I’m as enamored of gorgeous colors as anyone else, sometimes a photograph with a limited color range can be effective. For example, the picture showing two stages in the life of goldeneye has just three color elements: yellow, white, and black. The photograph of the remains of marsh fleabane has an almost monochromatic feel to it.
20) Limit what’s in focus.
Having just one thing—presumably the most important thing—in focus can make the subject stand out in an image where everything else is soft and dreamy. An example is the photograph of a drop of sunflower resin. In that picture I intentionally limited the focus, but sometimes low light leaves me no choice (unless I use flash, which can be harsh). An example is the picture of an anole, for which I had to open up to my macro lens’s widest aperture of f/2.8. The result was that only the upper surface of the lizard’s snout was in focus, but I thought the image was still all right.
21) Favor crop circles.
No, not the ones in fields of grain. When a subject is inherently circular, cropping its photograph circularly can emphasize that shape and the abstract radial patterns within it. An example is the top of a lace cactus. A circle is just a special case of an ellipse, so cropping an elliptical subject elliptically works at times too. An example of that is the mandala of a sunflower seed head. These types of cropping can have the added benefit of removing junk in the corners of the original rectangular image that distract from the subject at the center.
22) Use a ring flash for macro photos.
If you take macro photos, a flash that’s built into your camera or an external flash that sits on top of your camera can create harsh shadows on one side of your subject. To get around that, literally, you can use a ring flash, which is a circular flash that fits over the front of your macro lens. Because the light comes from all directions simultaneously, there’s no harsh shadow on one side. An example is the photograph of two pearl milkweed flowers.
23) Shoot edge-on.
Shooting a subject edge-on can limit depth of field, but it sometimes produces an appealing picture. One example is the photograph of a tiny fly on a fleabane daisy, although you could argue that the edge-on flower isn’t the picture’s primary subject. Another example is the photograph of pearl milkweed flowers, where the edge-on view reveals colors and shapes that otherwise wouldn’t be apparent.
24) Invert the normal order of things.
We’re used to thinking of clouds above (or mixed with) blue sky, and terrestrial objects below both. Sometimes I like to get close and aim upward at a subject in such a way that the clouds end up at the bottom of the photograph while the blue sky and at least a portion of my subject loom above the clouds. One example is a picture of a flameleaf sumac turning colors.
25) Convert to black and white.
As a more-extreme take on 19), I’ll point out that once in a while a black-and-white rendition of a photograph does a better job of bringing out intricate patterns than the original color version does. That’s because areas of color can call attention to themselves and distract the viewer from perceiving abstract patterns. One example is a photograph of the fractal-like leaves of a white prickly poppy.
26) Block the sun.
In this variant of point 12, a subject is again backlit, but this time the subject is opaque rather than translucent and is position to block the sun in order to keep the intense light from blowing out the picture. The object that blocks the sun will appear outlined in light or have a halo of light around it. Both of those effects appear in the picture of this saguaro cactus. In the case of a cattail, the subject is narrower and the halo therefore more intense, so I purposely underexposed the photograph to keep the highlights in check; to compensate for the resulting darkness of the cattail, I used technique 8.
27) Partially block the sunlight.
Bright sunlight casts harsh shadows and can make a subject look garish. If the subject is small enough, you may be able to get close enough to use your own shadow to cover the subject and nearby surroundings, thereby putting the entire scene into subdued light. The downside of that approach is that things can seem dull. One way around that dullness is to position yourself and your camera so that your shadow covers the subject but not the background, which will remain brightly lit yet still pleasingly out of focus. An example is this bluebonnet inflorescence.
© 2015 Steven Schwartzman