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For The Garden

Photographing Succulents

Author: Lori A. Johnson
Issue: March, 2018, Page 152
Photos by Lori A. Johnson

An aloe blossom captured by a Canon M5 mirrorless camera and Tamron 90mm macro lens.
Focus on the details to capture the beautiful uniqueness of desert flora

Chances are, if you’re a cactus and succulent aficionado, you already share photos of your favorite specimens online with a community of like-minded enthusiasts. As a home gardener, you’re in a perfect position to capture your plants at their peak, whether it’s the ephemeral morning flowers of a night-blooming cactus or the progression of an agave inflorescence over time. Kick your basic photography skills up a notch, and turn your prized specimens into art with these tips.

Any smartphone or point-and-shoot is enough to get you started, but a good quality interchangeable lens system, such as a DSLR or mirrorless camera, will produce files large enough to create high-quality prints with a little basic editing on a PC. Any image editing software will do, whether it’s Photoshop or its less intimidating sidekick, Photoshop Elements. Whichever application you choose, there’s no need to master every feature—even the most basic adjustments, such as auto-contrast, can make a big impact. Many local organizations, including Desert Botanical Garden, offer classes and workshops for beginners.

This agave was photographed using a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone.
There are plenty of entry-level DSLR camera bodies on the market, such as the Canon Rebel series, but one indispensable feature is a flip-out screen so you can point your camera down low where it may be too treacherous to follow with your face. Add a close-focusing zoom lens (such as the Tamron 18-400mm), and you can easily maintain a safe distance from your prickliest plants. If you really want to get up close and personal to capture tiny details, such as agave teeth or mammillaria blooms, you can invest in a macro lens, which enables you to focus as close as a few inches from your subject. Macro lenses are typically available in fixed focal lengths ranging from 60mm to 180mm, but the longer lengths are best used with a tripod for stability. A lens in the 80mm to 100mm range allows a better working distance from your subject than a shorter lens while also enabling you to hand-hold the camera.

Another consideration when choosing a lens is depth of field, or in simplified terms, the distance in focus from front to back within your frame. For example, wider apertures isolate the subject and blur the background. Conversely, smaller apertures ensure that everything is sharp within your frame. Macro lenses give you those wider apertures that would make equivalent zooms prohibitively expensive; therefore, two complementary lenses make an excellent toolkit, but, ultimately, choose whichever best fits your budget and photography goals.  

At the other end of the spectrum is the smartphone, which can produce quality results despite its limitations of fixed focal length and aperture. Higher-end models known for their cameras (such as iPhone or Samsung Galaxy) may have tiny sensors and lenses compared to cameras, but their portability, ease of use, close focusing and ability to edit on the same device, make them ideal for gardeners who don’t want to fuss with editing files on a PC. One of the most popular and easy to use, yet feature-rich, apps for editing smartphone files is Snapseed, available for both Apple and Android.

Whatever camera you choose, a few inexpensive accessories make great additions to your basic toolkit. Collapsible diffusers (basically, hoops filled in with translucent white fabric) are available in a wide range of sizes and allow you to replicate the soft, even light of a cloudy day by reducing the harsh contrast between shadows and sunlight. Polarizing filters are best known for enhancing blue skies and eliminating reflections, but they’re also effective for reducing glare on foliage that washes out color. A tripod will stabilize your camera and allow you to shoot the exact same scene with different settings or effects.

A collapsible diffuser filters harsh sunlight and provides soft, even light.
A few household items also come in handy. Use long-handled tweezers to safely pluck stray twigs from a cactus, or dust off an agave leaf with an artist’s brush. Fill a small atomizer with water for instant raindrops. Change out the background from busy foliage or ugly bare dirt by propping black cardboard behind your plant for a dramatic look—or drape the cardboard with a T-shirt in a contrasting color of your choice.

Once you understand both the capabilities and limitations of your gear, start thinking about creative composition beyond simple documentation. Focus on that one detail you found interesting about your plant and zoom in to eliminate background clutter. Look for repeating patterns and geometric shapes, such as an agave’s layered leaves or rows of cactus spines. Shoot at an angle to turn boring straight lines into diagonals that lead the eye around the frame. Practice compositional guidelines, such as the “rule of thirds,” then break the rule to emphasize symmetry from a bird’s-eye perspective. For added drama, look for complementary pops of color, such as a yellow cactus blossom against a purple prickly pear pad—but don’t overlook the subtle variations found in contiguous shades of green.

Above all, get to know the unique characteristics of your succulents throughout their growth cycle, seasons and even time of day, and with your photography toolkit close at hand, you can share your prized cacti collection with friends and family—no watering required.
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