When I say, “I’m going to sit down and read the owner’s manual for my camera,” what I really mean is, “I’m going to earnestly read the first two pages, immediately forget everything, flip through the rest, then give up and fall asleep.” And I am not alone.
“As a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, I learned how photos define and illustrate the essence of a story,” says Debra Lee Baldwin, award-winning nature photojournalist and author of three gardening books, including Designing with Succulents. “But my eyes would glaze over and my brain shut down whenever someone tried to explain bracketing and F-stops to me.”
If your backyard is full of beauty that your pictures can’t convey, these tips will teach you how to capture the richness, depth, texture and color of professional nature photographs — and put an end to pointless pointing and shooting.
Forget the fancy equipment: Baldwin says all you need is a digital camera with a built-in zoom lens (she uses a Canon EOS Rebel and a Panasonic Lumix) and a computer with photo enhancement software (she uses iPhoto on a Mac). “Familiarize yourself with your camera’s options and play around with them, evaluating the results as you go along,” she says. “But knowing a few secrets to effective composition will give you a great head start.”
The Big Picture – It’s not just about the subject, it’s about the setting. “If something is showing that isn’t ideal—like a piece of trash—shoot around it, remove it or change the camera angle,” she says.
Let There Be Light – If you remember nothing else, remember this: Lighting is the most important part of any photograph. “Circle a plant or flower until the light goes from being flat to showing interesting details such as veins, translucency, shadows or fine hairs that glow,” Baldwin says. “If the light’s not right, shoot tight.” She adds that early morning or late afternoon light can give “magical backlighting effects” and midday light is the least flattering because the sun is directly overhead and backlight is at a minimum.
Shoot for the Moon – “If it’s beautiful, shoot it,” Baldwin says. “You may head outdoors expecting to shoot flowers, and instead notice a dew-bedecked web. Rather than being disappointed by less-than-ideal light or weather, look for beauty everywhere. This is also, by the way, the secret to happiness.”
Testing! Testing! – There’s a delete button on your camera for a reason—use it. “Take a test shot and look at it on your camera’s display,” Baldwin says. “Decide what you like or don’t like about it and reshoot accordingly.”
Key(board) Points – Using photo enhancement software isn’t cheating, it’s part of the process. “Do as good a job as you can, then finish it up on the computer,” Baldwin says. “Even the most basic photo software will let you brighten, darken, sharpen or crop the photo.”