Get creative with indoor nature shot

Even if it’s grey and cold, you can hone your close-up skills by taking advantage of indoor locations – greenhouses, hothouses, orangeries or even indoor rainforests!
Text: Florian Schuster; Fotos: Ed Godden, Richard Suiters

Whether you choose to shoot in a large botanical garden or your own back yard, creative plant and wildlife photography needn’t be difficult. You don’t need expensive kit and amazing locations to capture eye-catching images, just good technique and a little imagination. Kit yourself out with an SLR, a couple of lenses, a flashgun and a simple black or white backdrop made of card and you’ll be amazed by the unusual images you can capture.This month, we took Digital Camera reader Richard Suiters to The Living Rainforest in Berkshire to show him how to do just that – sharing some tips and techniques he could use to take impressive images of everything from tropical flowers to mischievous monkeys.

Above: Shooting at a low ISO setting and a smaller aperture gives optimum sharpness and quality

Before taking your shot you start…

Shooting in a humid environment, such as an indoor rainforest, means overcoming a few obstacles. By far the most common problem is condensation appearing as mist on the front of your lens, especially if you’re coming into a warm environment when it’s cold outside. The best way to avoid this is to bring your kit down to the right temperature before you start shooting. We left our cameras and lenses on a table for 15 minutes or so while we planned our shoot – and got a guided tour from Hannah McVey, The Living Rainforest’s education development officer, who pointed out some cracking photographic opportunities we might otherwise have missed.

Use a simple white backdrop (made of card) to help your plant shots stand out. Just remember to let any movement subside before taking your shot.

Dealing with low light

Even though we were shooting in a giant glasshouse, the canopy of trees overhead reduced the available light. Rather than bumping up his camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) and risking visible noise and lack of detail in his photos, we advised Richard to mount his camera on a tripod and use a cable release to fire the shutter without risking camera shake. This allowed him to shoot with a smaller aperture of f/11 for maximum sharpness and use a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/10 sec. This would have been impossible if he’d been shooting handheld.

04 Above left: Richard’s first shot of the day. Although sharp and well lit, the subject’s natural background makes the overall image look a bit messy

Above middle: Richard tried a black backdrop, but didn’t wait long enough for the plant to settle

Above right: This white background makes the colours really punchy. Richard also cut down on the harsh shine by blocking out the overheadlight with another piece of card. A clear improvement!

Off-camera flash tips

Richard hadn’t really used a Speedlite flashgun for indoor photography, so after running through the basics, we showed him how to use it more creatively. By firing flash directly at a subject, the camera captured shots with obvious shine and over-exposed areas. Instead, we showed Richard a simple way to create stunning results, by using an off-camera flash (attached to the camera with a cable) to light a leaf from behind. This instantly boosted the colours and revealed maximum detail and clarity. Richard experimented with different camera settings and flash positions to get the exposure spot-on.

Left: By using the flashgun on Manual mode Richard could adjust the flash strength until he got the effect he wanted
Above left: With the flashgun positioned far too close to the leaf, a bright hotspot appeared, making the artificial light obvious

Above middle: Once Richard had cracked the exposure, he zoned in on a specific area with a macro lens to create this striking abstract shot

Above right: By moving the flash about 50cm from the leaf and reducing the power of the Speedlite’s output, Richard captured a more even, subtle image while retaining essential detail

Get creative with light and shadow

Off-camera flash can also be used to bag eye-catching shots with a dramatic contrast between light and shadow. Using the techniques he’d learned earlier in the day, Richard used a white background, flashgun and 60mm macro lens to create a shot with such depth and drama, it looked as if it had been taken in a studio – proving you don’t need an expensive set-up to get superb still-life shots. By setting the flash to Manual and experimenting with different flash strengths, he could take control of the light for creative effect.

Above left: Without a white background, Richard’s image lacks interest, and the harsh flash light has plunged the background into darkness

Above: For a completely different effect, Richard ditched the flash. He widened the aperture of his 60mm macro lens to f/3.2, then moved in closer to the flower head to create a simple, head-on composition. The careful focusing and wide aperture has given a real sense of depth, while the white background makes the subtle colours really sing. Good enough to sell as a professional fine-art print!