Skip to main content

Julie Magura's Digital Photography Tips - Botanical Photography in the Digital Age

Julie Magura compiled this information for a workshop she taught on Digital Botanical Photography at the Cornell Plantations. She was employed by the Cornell Plantations to "capture" images of the thousands of accessions in their gardens. Currently, Julie is the Digital Collections Photographer at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell campus. Many thanks to Julie for this glossary of digital terms and "how to" of digital photography.


Basic Digital Nuts and Bolts:

Always have a second set and keep recharged. . . nothing worse than going out and having your battery die. Most cameras come with one set and a re-charger, or better yet, having a 2nd set on hand is worthwhile.

The digital equivalent to a photograph. We don't actually photograph something with a digital camera; we capture it, resulting in a digital file (like the negative), which is then a printed image (technically for all intents not actually a photograph).

CCD Sensor (Charged Coupled Device)
This is the electronic semiconductor, which is sensitive to light... in which the captured image is recorded with, then saved to your cameras removable memory device. The megapixal size refers to your cameras digital pixel density, comprised or Red, Green and Blue pixels (RGB). The more pixels, the larger the file size, the higher the quality your finished print will be.

Memory Card (Compact Flash, Memory stick, Microdrive etc...)
This is the sturdy removable storage part of your camera used for storing the actual images. The equivalent of film. Varying sizes of storage and "write speeds." Reusable until damaged. . . water, laundering, stepping on it are the lengths which you need to go to damage your storage device.

Tip: Choose the maximum amount that you can find for your camera. This will allow you greater variability in choosing which kind of file you choose to shoot in and amount of captures which you can make.

Similar to film speed, refers to capture sensitivity. Use lowest possible setting. Use higher ISO setting for less light, but like film, results in more "noise" in the image.

The equivalent of film grain. Becomes more apparent at higher ISO settings, resulting in a "noisy", less sharp capture.

A vertical bar graph displaying the distribution of pixels from shadow to highlight and the tonal value. Truly helpful, especially if you experience loss of detail in highlights. This loss of detail is called "clipping", and is usually remedied by a slight underexposure of about -.03. Most cameras have this function.

Loss of information, usually in highlight areas of an image, resulting in hot blown-out white regions. Often happens in bright sunny, or mixed light, such as shooting in the shade with dappled sun. The sensor gets confused as to how to read the light. Remedy by under-exposure (the opposite of film).

If you find that your images have a consistent pink or green cast then you might have an issue with white-balance. I usually use the auto function, which is mostly, but not always accurate on my camera. Overcast days can get a bit funky. WB function calibrates the temperature of light in relation to how the sensor reacts to different lighting conditions; such as artificial fluorescent, tungsten (household lamps which cause an orange cast) and degrees of sunny or shaded light. ­

A bit nerdy sounding, but this is how the process is described from start to finish if you choose to invest in a computer and printer, modify your images and create a working archive. There are no negatives in digital, so many people want to be able to modify and store their images at home. Otherwise, most photo labs will allow you to download your memory card at the lab, and they will give you a CD when you pick up your prints. Start a CD notebook, rather than tossing the discs from the lab into the miscellaneous drawer in you entryway!

Archival Storage
Generally done with archival CD's or a second back up external drive. Cheap CD's do not have a long half life, so if you are interesting in creating a decent library it is worth investing in higher quality CD's and alcohol free CD writing marker. I use Gold "MAM-A" 700MB discs. Not absolutely necessary if you are not worried about archiving your digital captures. Maxell CD writing pen.

CD's are not always failsafe, and who knows how long the technology will last. Pro's create 2 back-up copies, plus an external hard drive of only image files. Not really necessary for most people.

Image Management
Creating a system for managing files through folders titled by Subject and Date. If you are interested in organizing your images, and digital files can really add up, it's a great idea to do this from the start, as opposed to just randomly saving on your desktop. This makes search and retrieval easier in the long run!

Before your Shoot.. .Setting your camera

(Read the manual.. .sorry, its true! You gotta give it a try, from start to finish. Yuck.)

So your manual was written in Chinese, translated into Urdu, then rewritten in English by a Persian speaking fellow. . . this is sometimes a problem, but most of the major camera manufacturers have help on their web sites, or help-lines that you can call. Read the glossary, then try again, sometimes understanding the basic lingo helps.

Here's the basic settings you need to attend to:

Fresh Battery

Clean Memory Card
Best but not an absolute must. Nice to have lots of room to work with.

The ISO of your digital camera should be set to the lowest possible setting, to achieve "low noise" in your digital "capture.

Choose JPEG, TIF or RAW. .

These file formats refer to the size of the image file. Each image is named with the appropriate extensions to which the camera is set.

Jpeg: is the lowest resolution, lowest memory capture. A compressed "shrunken" format.

Jpeg is fine if you are only using the images of the web or in email, but is not the best for printing any size larger than 3x5. The advantage is the small size of the file, so you can shoot many images on your memory cards.

TIF: is a lossless format, which means that when the image is recorded from the CCD, there is no compression. Results in a rather large megabyte file. Not great for long-term storage on a PC, but excellent for printing.

RAW: this is the newest file extension, more common with higher end consumer and professional cameras. A lossless format that is about half the size of a TIF.

Set WB if necessary... Or at least check to make sure it is on auto. Set mode. Start with Aperture Priority if possible.

Tip: Take LOTS of pictures!!!! I always take numerous shots of a subject I find particularly interesting. Different angles, emphasizing and focusing on different aspects of the plant are the best way to create stellar shots. Magic can happen with the first picture, but having more to choose from is always a good bet.

Have fun, don't worry about making the "perfect picture." Trying to reproduce images that you've seen over and over in books and magazines is fine for working out technique, but if you want to be original, experiment and figure out what you like to see


Composition Basics: AKA Using Your Aperture

Depth of Field
Essentially the range of focus. Critical in botanical photography. This is controlled by your aperture setting. The length of the lens also affects depth of field.

Smaller number aperture results in a shorter depth of focus, blurs out background. This is actually a larger opening for the lens, so you will need a faster shutter speed. Low light generally requires a larger aperture opening and slower shutter. A tripod is often necessary.

Higher aperture is needed for landscapes and images in which you need wider depth of focus.

The camera lens is very similar to the human eye. The pupil, is an aperture which adjusts its focus in relation to the amount of light and distance to a subject matter. Move your eye around and notice that the closer objects are in our field of vision, the less we see in focus.

Rule of Thirds
Divide frame up horizontally and vertically into thirds. Use the meeting points as compositional points of interest.

I don't usually center my subjects, though sometimes this can be a powerful and effective means for showing off striking shape, size or color of a flower.

Framing Flow and Focus
With botanical subject matter, centering an image does not necessarily convey the character or habit of the flower and foliage.

Achieved in close focus photography by emphasizing the flow of the foliage and stems across the frame, as well as by using depth of field to emphasize points of interest

For shots from a greater distance, such as full plant, the habit and growth of a plant can also be emphasized by considering angle and surroundings of other plants, and how they might detract from what you are trying to show.

Two approaches to botanical photography:

1. Descriptive: An image that describes a particular flower or foliage of a plant in terms of classification and function, as well as environment. ie: What makes this plant different from others in the same family; variegation, serration, thorns, color contrast between stem and foliage are all aspects of differentiation botanical flora as well as the actual flower and fruit. This can still be a gorgeous photograph!

2. Aesthetic: Botanical Subject matter conveying beauty through color and form. Not necessarily limited to the clichéd shot of the pretty flower. May show relationship between nature, such as insects, life cycle, such as decay, seasons and environment. May be tightly focused or blurred. The emphasis is primarily about what is implied on a more universal artistic level by the overall composition as opposed to information about a particular plant.

Always fill your frame when shooting!

Of course you can crop and edit your image later, but the best results happen if you start with a good image from the start.

One of the inherent problems with cameras that we can reasonably afford is that there is a slight error between the viewfinder and actual CCD sensor. Every camera is different. It is a consistent error and easy to work out through initial shooting. Compensation is easy once you know where your viewfinder is shortchanging you.

Lighting and Tripods

Overcast light is ideal light. The clouds create a naturally diffuse light, creating a softer more radiantly balanced image. Bright light results in sharper more contrasty images, not necessarily bad, but a little more difficult to work with overall. Shaded areas, such as woodlands, also diffuse the light, though dappled sunlight can create hot spots. The sensor gets "confused." But again, with careful composition, this is not always detrimental.

Hotspots (or clipping) can be remedied by a slight underexposure.

Low light often requires a steady hand or better yet, a tripod. Sometimes a little blur, depending on the quality and sharpness of your lens, can be quite beautiful. But if a sharp image throughout is what you want, a tripod works best.

A good tripod is worth investing in if you find that you are doing a lot of shooting, as cheaper ones tend to wobble and be more of a hassle in the long run. Also, you need a tripod which can sit fairly low to the ground.

Snow, Wind and Rain

Cold can cause the batteries and sensors to act erratically.


Wind: Oh how I have cursed the wind!! But really, the wind can add a sense of realism, particularly with Spring blossoms and grasses. Play with shutter speeds to see the different effects.