Making Plant Still Lifes: A Simple Approach

By Neil Lipson Back to

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Having taken thousands of photos of African Violets and Gesneriads, I have fine-tuned a method of photography for them.  In reality, this approach can also be used for almost any kind of small plant photography, and for many types of other small still-life photography such as jewelry, machine parts, you name it. In this article I will demonstrate using African Violets as the subjects using a simple backdrop set up and on-camera flash.

Materials /Gear Used
• Black cloth for backdrop
• A home made setup using any low profile art work case, such as the Mezzi line of cases Canon 7D
• Canon Speedlite 580EX  E-TTL Flash or 580EXII Tamron AF 18-270 f/3.5-6.3 Macro len
• Black/White/Gray card

Setting up
For a variety of reasons, transporting show plants to your studio is usually ill-advised. The tips in this article are aimed at photographing the plants at a show site or a remote location.

The first consideration is the background.  No need to worry about shadows on the background (which can be a huge problem) if you use a black crushed velvet cloth on a right angle Portable Studio in a suitcase. For bringing a portable “suitcase studio”, buy any oversized attach case and drape the black cloth over it. Choose one that has a low profile, not necessarily an actual suitcase, to allow the cloth to lay flat. Mezzi makes a nice line of oversized cases. The Mezzi 36″ Art Work Portfolio Aluminum Case will handle very large plants with ease.  Choose a case that fits your needs. The trick is to lay the cloth on it smoothly to avoid ripples that can reflect light.  Instead of crushed velvet a very black cloth will also work well.  Pick a cloth that doesn’t reflect light when folded.  Another reason to choose black is to avoid the crease you will get where it is folded at a 90 degree angle.

I always place the plant on the cloth with the “good” side facing the front.  The good side is when either the flowers are facing you (or most of the flowers) or the plant symmetry is best at a particular angle.  With African Violets, you can move the blossoms to some degree, but be careful to not break them off of the plant.  Move them carefully towards the center to give them a “bouquet” look, or at least in a symmetrical pattern. When I photograph at a show, they are usually already in perfect form.

I place a small black/white/18% gray card off to the side of the object being photographed.  This can be removed later using Photoshop.  Or you can take a separate shot of the card and use it to calibrate your color “en masse.”  If you use a black background you’ll only need a white and gray card (meter the black cloth near the card, not too close or far).  Important: place the card in the same plane as the object, so you can use it for both color balance AND exposure.  Too far and the white won’t be white, and too close will lead to underexposure.

I shoot at f/11 or f/13 depending on the size of the plant and how close I am to the subject.  You really don’t have to worry about the background’s focus, as it will be out of the exposure range.  My simple camera setup is the Canon 7D, the Canon Speedlite 580EX E-TTL flash and the Tamron AF 18-270 f/3.5-6.3 Macro lens.  The reason I like the Canon 7D is the wide range of settings for both saturation and sharpness, but also for the micro-adjustment focus setting for the particular lens you are using. I found that up to f13, there is very little diffraction to worry about and I can shoot on the fly without worry of depth of field problems. There are numerous flash diffusers, which are very portable, that can be Velcro’d on the flash, and you would choose a larger diffuser for a larger plant, but I have chosen the Opteka flash diffuser (4×6 inch), which was less than $10, and was perfect for plants up to one foot wide.  If the plant is much bigger, they make larger diffusers that are portable, up to 8×12, however, be careful that the larger diffuser does not block or hit the lens you are using.

If you want to have a narrow depth-of-field (DOF) you need a thorough understanding of what happens when you use different focal lengths or a zoom at different distances and F-stops.  One excellent tool is dofmaster.com, which allows you to calculate many aspects of DOF.  However, when you’re dealing with a macro lens and this kind of photography, you want to tweak your lens with the micro-adjustment feature on your DSLR.  If you don’t have this, then run the test on the lens by printing a downloaded chart and calibrate your camera/lens combination.  (See Resources).

An advantage of using an on-camera flash is to have freedom from finding power outlets for a large studio flash during a show, or wherever the plants may be located.  You will also find that at African Violet or Gesneriad shows there is very little room for any kind of large studio flash setup so this must be considered. There are dozens of lighting setups you can use but this particular one works quite well for me.  Also the freedom to move left or right to “fine tune” the way the plant is facing you is another advantage to using an on-camera flash.

Color accuracy
Now, there is one sticking point to plant photography and that’s color accuracy and saturation. You do not want to enhance either one, but then again you don’t want the photos to look drab either.  Because of the many photos I submit to African Violet Magazine, I must make sure they look like they do in real life.  I spoke to Ruth Rumsey, editor for the magazine and this is what she said about the subject:

“The accuracy of color in the photographs of plants displayed in the African Violet Magazine is of utmost importance. Many years ago in my early days as Editor, I sent an issue to press and was very surprised when I saw the finished product. The slightly-yellow flower blossom that was to be displayed on the cover was now a very-yellow blossom. The color had been enhanced by someone, and it no longer looked like the original photograph. The hybridizer called me very upset when she received her copy of the magazine, to tell me that, “My plant does not look like that. I wish it did!”

Later I heard from more than one vendor, letting me know that some of their customers who had purchased the plant, were upset because it did not bloom “true,” because it did not match the cover of the magazine. Since that incident, I do not accept photographic submissions that have been altered electronically. That does not mean all folks have admitted to altering, enhancing, and performing “color correction” on the plants they photograph, but that I have the ability of discovering if a submission has been altered. In the Horticultural World, “true color” is important, as it should be.”

I go to great lengths to make sure that the photos look like the actual plant.  The black background does wonders in “isolating” the plant photographically but in many cases, once the black background is removed from the photo, I’m done.  Exposure is an important aspect in getting things right and that is why I bracket the exposure with the 580EX flash.  I keep the F-stop the same, but the 580EX has a dial to increase or decrease the intensity.  Sometimes I have to take the photo three or more times because I want the background to disappear while also being careful to not underexpose the plant.  Many photographers think they can simply use the Exposure controls in Photoshop RAW, and this does work for minor adjustments. However I find that at large degrees of over or underexposure these controls distort the correct color saturations. Inevitably one adjustment leads to another and it can take forever to get it right.  It can be very dicey when you don’t expose properly.

There are a couple of ways to achieve accurate color balance with good results.  If you have a white-gray-black card, like the one from photovisionvideo.com, you can calibrate the color using Photoshop.  If you really want very accurate color calibration, then the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport does a professional job.

If and only if you decide to touch up your photos with Photoshop with the publishers’ permission, there’s an excellent series of free articles on http://www.shootsmarter.com .  There is also a DVD you can purchase on Quick Reflections On Color Corrections: The Five Simple Steps, also from Shootsmarter.One final thought, make sure the photos are taken in the proper mode with respect to sRGB or Adobe RGB (1998) as an example, so you match the profile of the color lab you are using, or for a magazine’s requirements.

Resources: Canon: canon.com, Mezzi: mezzi.com/Large-Briefcases, Opteka: opteka.com, Shootsmarter: shootsmarter.com, X-Rite: xrite.com, Charts for focus calculations: http://www.bobatkins.com/photography/technical/focus_testing.html  
Here is another site to download a similar chart: http://regex.info/blog/photo-tech/focus-chart#print  
There is also a $2 app from Apple that lets you do calculations on site at http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/simple-dof-calculator/id301222730?mt=8 on your iPod


About the Author

Neil Lipson
NLipson
Neil Lipson is a computer and advanced image editing consultant and has been doing serious photography for almost 50 years. He has written for numerous photography magazines during this time. He can be reached at lipson@att.net.