Lighting important in photographing nature

Last Updated: 
October 31, 2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – No matter the time of year, nature can entice you to try capturing its many colors, shapes and textures through the lens of a camera.

If you want to share images of your garden's largess or remember the beauty of plants and trees in a natural setting, the key is to put subjects in the right light, according to Lynn Ketchum, award-winning photographer for Oregon State University Extension and Experimental Station Communications.

"Manipulating the sun's natural light or even adding to it can make a big difference in accurately documenting the color and texture of a plant,” he said. “It also enhances the appeal of the finished photo.”

Experimenting with lighting often produces the best results. A few general lighting techniques and considerations, however, can improve plant pictures.

Avoid "high noon" or midday light (a good rule to follow no matter what you're shooting). Sunlight directly overhead produces hard, contrasting shadows and reflected hot spots. A cloudy day is the best time to shoot plants because cloud cover diffuses light.

"The resulting soft light might not be as dramatic, but even light produces saturated color and an accurate rendition of plant color and texture," Ketchum said.

You don't have to wait for a cloudy day to achieve the soft-light look. Simply shading the plant eliminates harsh overhead light. "But to diffuse the light without significantly reducing your exposure, you need to shade the plant with translucent material (rip-stop nylon, for example) stretched over a frame and placed above the plant," Ketchum said.

You can achieve the same effect with a gallon-size plastic milk jug, if the plant is small enough. Cut out the bottom and one side of the jug, place the jug over the plant and shoot through the open side. The translucent plastic top and sides soften sunlight surrounding the plant.

Be it cloudy or sunny, upper leaves and flowers often shade stalks and lower leaves. It's hard to see and even harder to photograph detail lost in the shadows.

"'Pumping' in light to the lower reaches is a must if you want the camera to see parts of the plant lost in shadow," Ketchum said. A white card can reflect or bounce enough light to show detail, and softens the reflected light. A cookie sheet or card covered with aluminum foil reflects harder light – but more of it – into the shadows. If you don't want to make your own, collapsible reflectors and diffusers are available commercially.

A strobe (off-camera flash) is another way to fill in the shadows. It allows flexibility in controlling where and how much light to pump into the scene.

"Like the sun, a strobe aimed head-on without diffusing can cause harsh shadows, resulting in an unnatural look," Ketchum said. "It's better to soften the flash or strobe light by bouncing it off a white card or covering it with a commercially available diffusing dome or filter."

More photography tips from Ketchum are on the OSU Extension Service website:

Add dynamism to your photos with 'rule of thirds'

Never underestimate the power or usefulness of the flash

Carry a photography grab bag

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Lynn Ketchum