How to Take Better Plant Portraits

May 14, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

Lone Lily pad / Deborah Casso / Winner: Plant portrait category - International Garden Photographer of the Year

Plant portraits is the most popular category of International Garden Photographer of the Year. With 19,000 entries overall that's a lot of keen and talented photographers who have not won an award this year. So - is that all there is? Well - no.

We are very keen that people can use the competition as a means to improve and expand their experience of garden photography. Becoming more expert in something you feel passionate about is a wonderful thing - whether it's for your own pleasure, or for fame and fortune.

Anyone who enters the competition has the opportunity to get feedback on their entries (after the competition closes) - they can even meet the judges.

We have been giving email feedback for a couple of months now - and we have ourselves learned a lot from this process. There are a number of themes that emerge and we will try to explore these themes in the coming months.

In this article, we will focus on plant portraits.

We see a lot of entries where the photographer has chosen to work indoors - often with available light - in a pro studio or a makeshift 'windowsill'. Here is a really good example of a well-executed entry from Eileen Rafferty of London of a Protea plant. Eileen says: “I love the Protacea family of plants. Such interesting structure and details”.

How to Take Better Plant Portraits

The bloom is perfect, the focus is pin-sharp, the light soft, revealing both colour and texture in the plant. Unfortunately Eileen's photograph was not selected by the judges.

What it lacks is that extra bit of 'life' that will catch the judges eye - especially remembering that competition in this category is particularly fierce.

Frankly, this 'extra something' can be difficult to achieve against a black background which, although enriching colour and texture, has a natural tendency to deaden the image. It is often necessary for the flower in question to be very dramatic and vibrant to pull this off. This Protea almost makes it - but not quite.

The judges see a large number of plant portraits shot out of black or out of white. The best ones of this type are shot against a traditional cloth or paper background in the studio - as Eileen did with the Protea shot - while others have their backgrounds applied in Photoshop. Normally, the Photoshop approach does not work very well as the edges of delicate petals are inevitably compromised in the Photoshop masking process.

In many ways this next shot is the polar opposite of Eileen's shot; soft, flat light, almost abstract - 'Calla Lily' by Volker Lampe of Freiburg in Germany was one of his winning set of portfolio shots.

How to Take Better Plant Portraits

This photograph won a 'Commended' award in the competition. The judges loved the soft and sexy set of photographs that let the viewer 'sink in' to the subject. Somehow the very essence of the flower is caught in the moment. Although the composition looks at first glance to be loose and informal, the more you look the more you realise that the dark and light areas of the photograph are precisely and knowingly placed. For example, the darker area at bottom left pulls the eye back into the frame, and balances the light area top right.

But many photographers prefer to work outdoors for their plant portraits. Here, choosing the right conditions of light and weather is key. It is nearly always light that makes the difference between a good plant portrait and a winning one.

How to Take Better Plant Portraits

Here is a photograph of Cyclamen by Sue McMahon from Kent. The background is subdued and complements the colours of the blooms. The composition is interesting and balanced - Sue has got exactly the right viewpoint - getting down low to ground level to shoot these small plants. The contrast of colour is great and it's good to have got some contrasting and interesting foliage. Sue has controlled depth of field expertly so that the flowers are sharp but the background blurred. So why was this not chosen by the judges?

How to Take Better Plant Portraits

This is a fairly ordinary flower, a Lotus at Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh USA, photographed by Donald Robinson- was a finalist in the competition - and it's the light that makes the difference.

It's not only the extraordinary, almost magical blown-out highlight on the petal - like a kind of natural halo - but also the soft bright light reflected back into the heart of the flower. The photographer probably used a white reflector to achieve that crispness and brightness. Together with a great contrasting background, this made for a photograph that was bound for the final as soon as the judges saw it.

Here are some top tips for great plant portraits:

  • If working indoors you have the scope and time to do plenty of experiments with backgrounds and lighting - trial and error is a great teacher.
  • Avoid applying backgrounds in Photoshop unless you are a real Photoshop expert - it rarely looks right.
  • If working outdoors - 'tune in' to the light conditions. Bright overcast days are good. Morning and evening light can deliver dramatic atmosphere.
  • Use backlight - with the sun to the back of plants and flowers to create drama and highlights. Watch out for lens flare and use a good deep lens hood.
  • Use a good sturdy tripod always.
  • If you don't have a macro lens concentrate on plants set in the border or hedgerow or wherever. Plant portraits don't have to be closeups.
  • If you are not a gardener, get friendly with your neighbour who is - use their garden as your studio but make sure you give them some prints in return.
  • With digital we get instant feedback from our shots - use this facility and be super-critical of your photographs as you take them. If you're not happy, go back and do it again.
  • Macro shots have to be immaculate - if there's a plant label in shot take it out - be careful to replace it after wards - or if this is impossible don't be afraid to get rid of blemishes in Photoshop.
  • Watch for framing. We see a lot of great shots where the ends of petals go out of frame. This can distract the eye out of the frame. The idea is to keep the viewer engaged in the frame of the picture.


Philip Smith is managing director and co-founder of the International Garden Photographer of the Year ( competition and exhibition. Philip trained as a photographer in Nottingham and Bournemouth but went directly from college into the fast-developing computer software market of the 1980s. He worked as Creative Director in a pioneering new media company before co-founding his own company to produce CD ROM educational products for clients such as Dorling Kindersley and Ordnance Survey. In recent years Philip has returned to his photography roots and created a new career as a professional photographer specialising in plants and gardens. He is passionate about the part that gardens play in the lives of people and wildlife. Gardens need to be celebrated and establishing International Garden Photographer of the Year as the world’s leading showcase for garden photography has played a leading part in that celebration.

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