By Antonio E. (Tony) Amador, @2011
Continuing with our description of those elements that make good flower, garden, nature photography, let's delve a bit deeper into those that separate outstanding work from day to day shots.
1. Back-light and Side-light on Sunny Days.
When the sun hits, move behind subjects for a whole new world of possibilities. Tree leaves show their beautiful color and venation; flowers acquire a translucent quality; "hairy" or "fuzzy" specimens acquire a beautiful halo.
Another great use for direct light is side lighting. Textured subjects, like old tree trunks, show punch and drama.
While soft overcast days, or open shade shooting, do provide very pleasant conditions for overall flower and close-up photography, direct sunlit days bring wonderful opportunities for eye-catching, WOW type of pictures. Just don't give your back to the sun!
2. Tame those Harsh Shadows.
Sometimes we have no choice but to shoot front lit in harsh direct sunlight. For these cases, the handiest fix is your camera flash (fill flash). While you may not end with a contest winner, at least you will have the shot with relatively decent quality, perfect for documentary purposes, and even your own portfolio.
You may also resort to the use of a diffuser to block the harsh sun, or a reflector to fill in shadows, just like the fill flash does. An assistant is helpful for such situations.
Oh, and never underestimate the usefulness of your own body as a light blocker; just stand on the way of the sun and shoot your subject with shaded uniform light. Wear a white shirt; it may help to fill in shadows when close to the subject.
3. Depth of Field Control for Beautiful Bokeh
One of the best tools you have to control background and thus differentiate your subject, is your ability to control depth of field (how much is in focus in the background) using your different aperture settings. The wider the aperture, the longer the lens (focal length) and the longer the distance from subject to background, the more ability to create beautiful bokeh. Bokeh refers to the unfocused parts of a picture, usually the background. Beautiful bokeh is as defining of a good picture as the subject itself, so have it very present when shooting, especially with delicate subjects like flowers.
4. A Macro Lens takes you to Another Level.
Not only will you be able to get really close, or fill the frame with very small specimens, with a macro lens you will gain much control on where you place your focus point, which is sometimes the difference between an okay shot and a perfect shot. This kind of control is hard to get with the macro feature of any point-and-shoot camera.
Remember, when shooting close-up, especially macro, even the slightest movement will affect the focus point or the photo's sharpness, so make sure you assume a comfortable posture, and keep the steadiest hand you can while keeping a close eye on the focus point. Hold your breath and click gently. Raise you ISO if you feel you need to; it's much better a grainy sharp focus than a blurry low grain one.
A macro lens will let you get into the realm of abstract photography as well; see how artistic you can get when emphasizing a tiny detail or part of a subject.
5. Exert More Control over the Scene.
Why not carry a small misting bottle for adding droplets to flowers or leaves for a nice touch on an otherwise common shot? Usually, the more you spray, the larger the droplets. Be ready to remove debris, spider webs and anything that may distract from the main subject or subtract from its beauty. Sometimes it's useful to carry a utility knife or similar tool to get where your fingers cannot, or should not. A set of garden clippers can also be helpful in removing those unwanted dead stems or twigs.
Bring an assistant, and have him/her hold a black or white card behind your subject for instant studio background. He may also hold a white card to fill in shadow areas. This same assistant can probably hold an off camera light source, like a flash, for more controlled lighting, or small lantern for particular or peculiar effects. Or just bring a couple of light stands to hold any off-camera lighting, reflector cards or backdrop.
The more you control the scene, the more professional your shot is going to look.
6. Use a Tripod when you Really Need it.
At some point you may require to shoot with a longer depth of field and low ISO requiring a slower shutter speed than your hand steadiness will allow you. That's when you will need a tripod.
A tripod will also let you concentrate on the composition and the elements of the frame in a more meticulous way, gain more depth of field, and may even give you the free hand necessary for other uses like holding an external light or a reflector. Think of it as a tool for your more formal, commercial, or trophy shots: those that require special attention. So bring it when you already know what you're shooting.
Oh, and be patient, as you still have to wait for the wind to calm before shooting at slow speeds with a tripod; your subject has to be as steady as your camera.
7. Know Your Subjects.
Learn the species name. Learn its blooming time. Maybe learn about its origin. Not only will you become a better photographer and a more educated person, you will also have an easier time when titling, captioning or keywording your image for online publishing.
Keep shooting beauty!