Mother Earth Living

Photographing Your Herb Garden

Whenever I visit my mother in southern Colorado, one of the first things she does is bring out her most recent snapshots. Her latest garden shots are usually among them. There are pictures of rose bushes, gladiolus beds, flowering herbs, and any other vegetation she has grown and found interesting. Usually these photos are out of focus, taken in the wrong light, or poorly composed. I remind myself that she is proud of these photographs. She sends copies to her sisters and friends.

After many years as a professional photographer, I know that the definition of a good photograph is “whatever you’re happy with”. But the pros have a few tips and techniques that may help as you try to preserve some of the enticing images of your garden at its height. Photography can be as difficult or as easy as you care to make it. It needn’t be intimidating.

The garden offers so many sights worth capturing on film–towering seed heads of dill, dew glistening on leaves at sunrise, the different stages of a blooming flower. Each year, as conditions alter through the changing of the seasons, events will happen in your garden that may never happen again. Through photography, you also can record lessons you have learned in the garden, your successes and failures from one season to the next. You can also photograph gardens you visit so that you’ll remember designs or appealing combinations.


Cameras. Many of the new 35mm cameras popular today are the “point and shoot” variety. Some have built-in lenses that zoom from a wide angle to telephoto. They are totally automatic: they will focus, set the exposure and the shutter speed, and rewind the film. They’ll work fine for shooting landscape photos of gardens, but if you want to take close-ups, you’ll find these automatic cameras very limiting.

The biggest difficulty is that the lens simply will not focus up close to the object you want to photograph. And because automatic cameras don’t usually have interchangeable lenses, you can’t change to a special close-up lens. Another drawback is that what you see in the viewfinder of an automatic camera is not precisely what the lens sees; this problem is even greater in close-ups.

A 35mm single-lens reflex camera is the best overall camera for taking quality garden photos, from close-ups to scenic vistas. Its viewfinder shows exactly what you’ll be getting on film, and you’ll have the option of changing lenses. This kind of camera usually has a built-in light meter and comes with a 50mm lens.

In today’s sophisticated, automatic-everything market, don’t overlook the “old-fashioned” (and somewhat less expensive) manual cameras. If you already have an automatic 35mm or are planning to buy one, check to see if it has a manual setting. This setting comes in handy when you’re photographing the garden because your automatic setting will not always give you the best exposure.

Tripods. Probably the second most important piece of equipment for garden photography is a sturdy tripod that will allow you to get close to the ground and keep the camera steady. Use a tripod whenever you can. Any small movement of the camera when you’re exposing the film can result in a blurred photograph, and in a close-up, this movement will be greatly exaggerated. A ball-and-socket tripod head is helpful because it allows you to position your camera at odd angles for shooting close-ups. A cable release also helps prevent unwanted movement by letting you trip the shutter without touching the camera.

For close-ups. If you like to photograph the intricate details of herb leaves or flowers, you’ll want to add to or change the 50mm lens that comes with most 35mm cameras but won’t allow you to focus up close. For a subject closer than 2 feet, you can use either a close-up attachment, an extension tube, or a macro lens.

A close-up attachment, or supplemental close-up lens, is the easiest to use and the cheapest to buy. You simply screw it onto the front of the lens. Unfortunately, the quality of the image suffers. Photographs taken with one of these attachments will usually be out of focus at the edges. And when you want to take a photo that’s not a close-up, you have to remove the attachment, which can be inconvenient.

Extension tubes, which are simply rings or tubes mounted between the lens and the camera, are also inconvenient to use. The image quality is much better than with a close-up attachment, but a tube also requires more light for exposure, and some tubes will render in-camera light meters inoperative.

The best solution is a macro lens; these usually come in 50mm or 100mm sizes. A 50mm macro lens also can be used for shots taken from more normal distances. With one of these lenses, you can shoot an extreme close-up of a plant or plant part, then move back and show how that plant fits into the garden with other flowers or herbs. The major drawback of a macro lens is its cost, which can be $200 or more.


Because most people want their garden record in color, I’ll discuss only the use of color film. However, black-and-white film can yield pleasing effects, too. You also will need to decide if you want prints to show your friends and relatives, as my mother does, or if you want or need slides.

Print film is a bit more forgiving than slide film if you expose a subject with the wrong amount of light. Another benefit is that many copies of a photograph can be printed or produced in different sizes from the same negative. You can easily create a home display of your favorite photos. A disadvantage of print film is that it is usually printed by automatic equipment and may not render the colors accurately. To get the best out of your negatives, you’d need to take them to a custom photofinishing lab and pay a much higher price for your prints.

Slide, or transparency, film produces better color than print film; for The Herb Companion, I photograph everything on slide film because it produces the correct color needed for reproduction. However, it has its limitations, too. For one thing, we all want to show off our photographs, and to do this with slides, you need a slide projector and a screen or a white wall to project them on. In addition, more steps are involved in making prints from slides, and the quality of these prints will always be a bit below those obtained from print film.

All film is rated for its speed, which is a measure of the amount of light ­required to expose a photograph ­correctly. Film speed is indicated by its ISO number: the higher the number, the faster the film and the less light ­required. However, faster film produces a grainier image in the finished print or slide.

For photographing gardens and ­individual plants, choose a film with a speed of 50 or 100. I recommend Kodacolor, Vericolor, or Fujicolor for prints; Fujichrome, Ektachrome, Koda­chrome, and Fujichrome Velvia are ­excellent for slides. Each renders color differently, so try various films to find what appeals to you.

Seeing the Light

In garden photography, you depend on whatever natural light is available. Certain times of day and conditions produce what photographers call “sweet light”. Think of the mornings when you stroll through the garden, coffee cup in hand, admiring your work in that soft, early light. Or remember late afternoons when the light bathes everything in a warm, golden glow. In both situations, the light is coming from a low angle and enhances a plant’s texture and shape. It is soft, without harsh and distracting shadows. But you have to work quickly because good early morning or late afternoon light doesn’t last long–usually only about twenty minutes.

Intense midday sunlight can create harsh shadows. The contrast range, or the ratio of light areas to dark, may be too great for the film to record, and so the result is too-bright and too-dark areas in the photo. In the light of very early morning or late afternoon, this contrast range is not as great, but that doesn’t mean you must give up on the rest of the day. Good photographs can be taken at any time and under a variety of lighting conditions, and some simple light manipulation will achieve better results.

Use a reflector–a piece of white card stock will do–that will reflect light back toward the subject you are photographing. Position the reflector just outside of your viewfinder frame opposite your light source (the shadow side of your subject). The reflector will bounce light into the shadow areas and reduce the contrast, helping to create a better photograph.

If the light is extremely harsh–as it is here in the Rocky Mountains because of the thin atmosphere–you can use a diffuser to soften the effect, just as lace curtains at a window diffuse and soften the light coming in. Take a wooden frame about 8 by 10 up to 16 by 20 inches–such as a picture frame, an artist’s canvas stretcher, or something similar–and stretch a piece of diffusion material across it. This can be sheer curtain fabric or a sheet of frosted mylar, which art supply stores carry. Any material will work as long as it’s white and diffuses light. If you position the diffuser between the light source and the plant you are photographing (with the reflector on the opposite, shadow side), you’ll have soft light bathing your subject.

Don’t despair if it’s cloudy: a bright, cloudy day is great for garden shots. The clouds act as a diffuser, reducing the contrast and wrapping everything in a soft light. Shooting in the rain or the fog can result in some interesting, even eerie effects.

Measuring the Light

Most 35mm cameras today come with a built-in light meter. This works fine–most of the time. When my mother photographs her beds of shasta daisies, the pictures show dreary-looking flowers with no detail. That’s because the light meter in her camera is fooled by the white of the daisies and the camera underexposes the film. This problem is common in garden photography. All in-camera light meters are designed to “see” a subject as if it were all one intensity. The light meter takes the brightest and the darkest parts of the scene and combines the two to get an average on which the exposure is determined. So if the plant or flower being photographed is very bright or very dark, the light meter can be fooled.

There are steps you can follow to achieve better exposures if you think the light meter is inaccurate or playing tricks. The simplest is to take a reading off the back of your hand. Hold your hand in the same light that shines on the subject and point your camera at it. Put the camera close enough to fill the viewfinder with your hand, and use this reading to set your exposure. An accessory called a photographic gray card, available at any photo store, can be used in the same way.

Another method is to use a separate hand-held light meter, which will “read” the light conditions and indicate what camera settings you need to use. A separate light meter is the most accurate way of measuring light, but also the most expensive.

Setting the Exposure

All adjustable cameras come with two methods of controlling exposures: aperture settings and shutter speeds. Aperture refers to the size of the lens opening admitting light into the film. The aperture settings, or ’-stops, are indicated on the barrel of the lens. They typically run from ’/1.4 to ’/22. An aperture setting of ’/1.4 allows a lot of light to reach the film, while the higher ’-stops close up the aperture and let in less light.

Shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open to allow light to reach the film. Shutter speeds typically range from 1 second to 1/1000 second. For pictures taken without using a tripod, most camera manufacturers recommend a shutter speed no slower than 1/60 second; at a longer exposure, movement of the camera will blur the photograph. If you’re chasing a butterfly or some other moving subject, you can stop the action with a faster shutter speed, but you must have enough light to use this higher shutter speed, and here is where the ’-stops become important. The higher the shutter speed, the more light you need, so you would set the ’-stop to a larger aperture (smaller number).

The relationship of the shutter speed to the ’-stop determines the depth of field, or how much of a picture is in focus, which can be a creative tool in composing your photograph. A setting of ’/1.4 gives you a very shallow depth of field and lets you make one or two flowers stand out dramatically from the rest. To keep the entire field in focus from front to back, use an ’-stop of ’/16 or ’/22 and adjust the shutter speed to a slower setting to get enough light to read the film.

Professional photographers usually hedge their bets by bracketing their shots–shooting three or more frames of film at different exposures. When you feel you have the correct exposure, take a shot, then add just a bit more light (lower ’-stop or longer shutter speed) and take another shot; then subtract a bit of light from the starting exposure (higher ’-stop or shorter shutter speed) and take a third. That way, even if your light-meter readings are off a bit, you’ll probably still end up with a good picture.

Don’t Forget the Fun

Adding lenses to your basic setup can really add some adventure to your garden photography. Try using your lenses in different ways. A wide-angle lens, which lets you take in the entire garden without having to stand in the neighbor’s yard, can also be used as a close-up lens for some fascinating distortions of the view. A telephoto lens can help isolate parts of your garden, or even just one or two flowers or petals within the photograph.

When composing a picture, many people center the subject in the middle of the viewfinder and shoot away. Try moving the subject or focal point to the right or left of the frame. Shoot both a vertical and a horizontal picture of the same scene.

Go ahead, waste some film. One of the best ways to learn about yourself as a photographer and about what your camera can do is to go out to the garden and shoot a roll of film without worrying much about exposures. Try different types of light conditions. Explore different angles to see how the light shapes a plant. Don’t overload yourself with the technical details of this hobby. Have some fun. Be happy. You may be amazed at what you come up with.

Further Reading

• Fell, Derek. How to Photograph Flowers, Plants & Landscapes. Tucson: H.P. Books, 1980.
• Rokach, Allen, and Anne Millman. Focus on Flowers: Discovering and Photographing Beauty in Gardens and Wild Places. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.
• Shaw, John. John Shaw’s Closeups in Nature. New York: Amphoto, 1987.
• The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques. New York: Amphoto, 1984.

Joe Coca is The Herb Companion’s favorite photographer. He has photographed gardens, herbs, and food for us since the magazine’s inception six years ago. Coca lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, has a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University, and attended the Art Center College of Design at Pasadena, California.

  • Published on Jun 1, 1994
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