Bonsai Photography (Redux)

grouper52

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Hi fellow BNuts.

Many people have remarked about the photography I use in my posts here. Years ago I made a tutorial on another site that explained the process, which is really quite simple, and available to most everyone. I have sometimes simply referred people to that tutorial, but it is closed to people without a current account on that site - such as myself. So I decided to simply re-create it for this site here, using a similar but new set of photos, and somewhat tweaked text.

I will use the same tree as before, because it is still one of my trees that is hardest to photograph well. The photographs will be done this time with my good camera. Last time I used a Canon Rebel - a solid camera, affordable to most, but I got it out today and it’s not working. Despite using a camera that is better than most people have, the lessons here will still apply to any decent modern camera, and by using this info well your pictures should improve dramatically.

So here’s an update, spread over several posts.
_______________________________________________________________________________


Bonsai are not intuitively easy to photograph well. And yet, it is easy to learn how to do it well. This tutorial will show you how.

It is also something that can be done much more cheaply than most people think, and fairly quickly.

I do not think of myself as a photographer. I never travel with a camera, and really couldn’t care less about taking photos - unless I want to post a tree online, or illustrate a book. Most of what I have learned about bonsai photography came from Old Mr. Crow's Website http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/bonsai/photography/. I studied this, and practiced in my driveway on my own trees until I got it right. For those interested I also recommend studying the owners manual for your camera to see what it is capable of. If you would also like to take your overall photographic skills to the next level, especially if you have a SLR camera (rather than a point-&-shoot) and don’t already understand things like F-stops, ISO, depth-of-field, etc, then I recommend Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson.

I will demonstrate the process with a series of photos of the same tree I used when I posted this tutorial elsewhere: a Seiju Chinese elm triple trunk that I have always found challenging to photograph well. Except at the end, I am not using Photoshop or any other such program for the initial photos except to straighten and crop and mildly tweak them.

Either a point-&-shoot or an SLR camera will work well, as long as there is a way to mount it to a tripod. Cheap table top tripods will serve your purpose well, and can be had cheap on Ebay.

The only other item I use is a 3’ x 6’ swath (two square yards) of dark black velvet. This life-long investment can be had at any fabric or hobby store with only modest expense ($12-15/sq. yard when I got mine). The best I’ve found is from Korea, and you’ll be happy in the long run if you splurge a little bit for good stuff here.

Your main consideration will be to photograph the tree in such a way that there is a sharp sense of the tree’s overall shape and its details. For this, the image must be as sharp and clear as possible.

I think the first thing to understand is the enormous impact you can impart to your photo just by paying attention to lighting, and using a proper background.

Direct sunlight provides very harsh contrasts. The highlights in the photo where the sunlight falls directly on the leaves and trunk will often be overexposed and washed out, showing no detail, whereas the shadows will be underexposed and black, showing no detail at all either. Sunlight coming mainly from the back or one side will cause less of this problem than sunlight coming at the tree face on or from the top. But generally, direct sunlight is no good.

More diffuse light is much better, allowing you to capture the details in both the highlights and the shadows. A cloudy day is good, shooting in the shade is good, and twilight is good: any two of these three is great, and all three are ideal. Usually, all my shots typically are done with all three factors in play, but today it is clear, so only the shade and twilight are at play. If you want to mess with White Balance, I set it here to sunlight in the first photo, and then all the rest were set to “shade,” but “cloudy” will generally work just as well (minor corrections in White Balance can be finessed in photoshop later).

[IMHO, indoor lighting is both a hassle and vastly inferior. It is entirely unnecessary to bother with such things unless you simply must for some strange reason.]

Photo-1

So, let’s look at the first photo. It’s the best photo I could take doing things the way many people would, ie, doing everything wrong. Let’s look at what’s not right here.

First, the light is entirely direct onto the front of the tree. Second, and the main problem, is the background, which is so busy and so full of objects similar to parts of the tree that there is almost no way to see the outlines of the tree itself clearly. You can’t even imagine doing a virt of such a tree.

Third, there are other, more subtle problems as well, but once again, the poor background makes them hard to notice. The photo was taken too close, such that the perspective is distorted. Also, the camera is set to the popular “Portrait” setting/program, which creates a shallow depth of field, such that foliage, for instance, at the front of the tree may be in focus, while that in the back will not. Good for portraits of people, but NOT of bonsai! You want it ALL in focus.

Lastly, the camera is hand held. You can’t see it clearly, mostly due to the background, but when a shot is taken hand held, no matter HOW steady the person thinks they are holding it, and regardless whether you spent the extra money for an Image Stabilization lens such as I use here, there is much less clarity of the tree’s details than when it is mounted on a tripod. I did use a 10 second delay, to minimize movement, which helps somewhat, but only a tripod with a delay or a remote switch can reliably insure the ultimate sharpness to the details. Clarity of the foliage and bark details is paramount in bonsai photos.

The next few photos show the progression of improvement as these problems are overcome.

Photo-2

First, we get the tree into the shade to soften the light even further (although it is not cloudy or twilight yet), and we set it against a less distracting background. This takes about ten seconds, costs nothing, and is simple to do. The camera is about 10’ away, set on “Portrait,” the White Balance is set to "Shade" (from "Sunlight"), and the camera is still hand-held with Image Stabilization and a delay.

Photo-3

For the next photo, the camera is still at about 10’ hand-held with Image Stailization and a delay, and we bring out the black velvet [not ‘Black Velvet,’ mind you - barley wines or absinthe works much better here than Black Velvet . . . but I digress . . . ] and drape it behind and below the tree. This takes a minute or so.

Photo-4

Next, we mount the camera on a tripod at 10’. Now we’re getting somewhere!
 

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grouper52

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Photo-5

For the next shot we move back to about 20’ for better perspective, less distortion. The camera could next be set on “Landscape,” a great general setting for bonsai if you’re not generally into the whole photography thing, but “Aperture Priority (AP or AV) mode with narrow apertures works best to get a wide depth of field so the whole tree, front to back, will be in focus. If the camera is on a tripod, and the shot taken with a delay or remote switch, very long exposures will produce no loss of clarity, such that low ISOs can be used to reduce graininess. It is also near twilight, and clouding up a bit, but the White Balance is still set on “Shade” (it could also be “Cloudy”, but either way it can be corrected with “ColorCast" or some such in PhotoShop).

The camera's auto-focus and auto-light-metering is centered on the tree - foliage or trunks work best. You check in the viewfinder to make sure the shot is straight, straight on, and with a little bit of margins around the edges. All this takes at most another minute, (even less if the settings are already still there from your last shoot) and it costs nothing (unless you want to use a remote shutter trigger rather than the camera’s delay timer). You push the button, and wait. If you focused on some non-central structure on the tree, you can then use the ten-second delay to reposition the camera back to center, with lots of time to spare.

Photo-6

Now you’ve got a fairly nice photo, but a bit of post-processing in a program like Photoshop or Paint can quickly bring it to really nice quality, and prepare it for posting on the forum or elsewhere. I use Photoshop Elements 3, about as cheap and archaic as you can get, and better for my purposes than all the upgrades I’ve tried. I typically use it to do only a few things. I straighten and crop the image. I then use the Eyedropper Tool and then the Color Picker to get the blackest black (000/000), and then Paint Bucket and Paint Brush to make the background into a profoundly deep and uniform black - this alone makes a huge difference, and I fill even the smallest spaces between foliage sometimes with this absolute black to bring a look to the image that is subtle but profound, and which takes surprisingly little time once you get in the swing of it.

I then adjust the image using various options in the Enhancement Menu, like ColorCast Correction, Levels, Contrast/Brightness, and Hue/Saturation. (Some of these can also be done in Levels, if you are familiar with that). You can also insure that the entire background is a uniform black by using the "Lighten Shadows" setting to sneak a look. And finally, from the filters menu, I sharpen using the Unsharp Mask - ALL digital photos are fairly unsharp, but with a bonsai photo this detracts much more than with most other images, and they must be carefully sharpened but not over-sharpened. After sharpening, which should be the last thing done, a little clean up at high magnification of the the leaf/needle-background interface is often then required, and then you’re done. For this photo, because I’ve studied and used these tweaks repeatedly for a few years, this whole process took about twelve minutes.

So that’s it. Quick, cheap and easy, and a very nice and usable photo of a tree whose three-dimensionality is hard to capture. This is really all that most people will ever need or want, and it is miles above what most people are capable of producing now. Better equipment, and use of HDR techniques and software (such as I used to great effect in Gnarly Branches, Ancient Trees) - these sorts of things can give some added juice to your images, but such things are really not necessary in order to produce quite impressive photos for a forum.

I hope that helps you with your postings. :)
 

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Tona

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Hey Grouper,
Thanks for the post. I am a terrible photographer and will try your tips out. When taking a picture from 20 feet away, do you then need to crop the picture prior to posting?
Tona
 

grouper52

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When taking a picture from 20 feet away, do you then need to crop the picture prior to posting?
Tona

This depends.

If you have a telephoto lens you can simply zoom in, and if your tripod has the capacity to tilt the camera 90 degrees it will be a nicely shaped rectangle for most trees, requiring little or perhaps no cropping.

20' for cell phone cameras and such, despite the incredible quality they now have, is probably a bit much when it comes to the fine resolution one wants in order to capture the tree's details.

Also, there's nothing sacred about 20', but the general idea is to get some distance so the perspective is accurate. It falls off rather exponentially if you get too close, and yet beyond 20' there is little added benefit. You can see, perhaps, from the photo sequence here, that moving 10' to 20' makes no obvious difference, but it does make a subtle one that people may pick up subconsciously. The trees really do show increasingly well with increased distance, especially more complex trees.

I find that bonsai photos almost always need at least a slight amount of straightening in post-production processing - if not straight, the brain may not pick it up consciously, but will not feel entirely at ease with the photo. Therefore, at least some sort of computer program is very helpful, and all of them will both straighten and crop photos. Even if you do nothing else post-production, these functions should be done, and only take a few seconds.

Hope that helps.
 

fore

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Great post Will! Adobe's Lightroom is an awesome program that's not too spendy. You can adjust the actual exposure if you over/under exposed, adjust color palette, crop and even adjust contrast... A real winner imo.
 

JudyB

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I had read this before, but didn't have enough perspective on photographing my trees at that point for it all to sink in.

So timely to read this new post now, I appreciate you taking the time to update and place it here.
Thanks Will!
 

barrosinc

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Great post Will! Adobe's Lightroom is an awesome program that's not too spendy. You can adjust the actual exposure if you over/under exposed, adjust color palette, crop and even adjust contrast... A real winner imo.

Actually I have 2 copies of lightroom for sale at 70 bucks each. They are closed and sealed. They came with a camera. if anyone wants one... on adobe website it is 80 dollars for the upgrade. (sorry for thread jacking)
 

grouper52

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Two last things . . .

I thought I'd throw a last post in here on this thread.

The first photo, nice in many ways, shows a common mistake - taking the picture from an elevated position. It really obscures the way the tree looks when properly viewed straight on.

The second photo shows one of the many tweaks that can to be done to enhance a tree's photos by using HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography and software. I use Photomatrix Pro. It was my pioneering use of this type of photography to capture Dan Robinson's trees in my book that really made those photos special. The subtle use of this technique here makes a dramatic difference compared to the previous photos. It took me about an extra 1/2 hour of tweaking to produce this one. With the more primitive, early HDR software I used in the book it took me 5-15 hours post-production to produce those photos. :eek:

Enjoy!
 

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j evans

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Great Information with hints and tips that don't take that long but will make a world of difference. Thanks!
 

MidMichBonsai

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Thanks for the post and thanks again for your work on Gnarly Branches. I got a copy from my in-laws for Christmas and it stands as one of my favorite Christmas presents to date. I'm thankful to now know about Dan Robinson and your photography work is stunning. With the work that we put into them, the tree deserve to be shot and viewed in a way that truly communicates their power and beauty and you accomplish that with the best of them. Thanks again for this great contribution to the American Bonsai Community.
 

grouper52

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Great Information with hints and tips that don't take that long but will make a world of difference. Thanks!

You're very welcome.
Thanks for the post and thanks again for your work on Gnarly Branches. I got a copy from my in-laws for Christmas and it stands as one of my favorite Christmas presents to date. I'm thankful to now know about Dan Robinson and your photography work is stunning. With the work that we put into them, the tree deserve to be shot and viewed in a way that truly communicates their power and beauty and you accomplish that with the best of them. Thanks again for this great contribution to the American Bonsai Community.

Thanks so much for your kind words. I'm amazed to have come out of nowhere with the inspiration for and creation of such a book. It still surprises me how well it turned out, and I'm still a bit taken aback - but always deeply touched - when people speak so highly of it.
 

iant

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Thanks for the tips. I never thought about being farther away. I almost always use my cell phone but it wouldn't take that long to get out the SLR. Thanks!
I have one question. What do you think of white or light gray backgrounds? The black background images are beautiful but sometimes I might want a less dramatic photo.
Ian
 

grouper52

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Thanks for the tips. I never thought about being farther away. I almost always use my cell phone but it wouldn't take that long to get out the SLR. Thanks!
I have one question. What do you think of white or light gray backgrounds? The black background images are beautiful but sometimes I might want a less dramatic photo.
Ian

The black works well for me, but lots of people like other backgrounds. Most other colors are hard to do well, however. I seldom see bonsai photos where the other colors and indoor lighting and such is pulled off attractively, even in some famous books. The books from China, if you can get them, and occasionally a Japanese one will get it right, but not often even then. Good luck if you can do it, but the 000 Black is easy to do in photoshop, and with a little work to make every last background pixel 000 Black it looks just perfect as a contrast to accent the tree.
 

leatherback

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Very nice informative post indeed.

Adobe's Lightroom is an awesome program that's not too spendy. You can adjust the actual exposure if you over/under exposed, adjust color palette, crop and even adjust contrast... A real winner imo.

Lightroom is the first software loaded on any new machine I buy. It is great if your camera allows raw-format: You can edit the settings for exposure, contrast etc and always revert to the original raw image.

I use it as archiving tool too. As you can add as many keywords you want to your pictures, you can always find that picture you are looking for. (I typically add the scientific naming, local name, location, tree identity code and any action taken in the key words, e.g., acer, palmatum, japanese, maple, repotting, ahaus, AP_001). Naturally, you do this every time you download the images. Or you do it mid-winter, for all images. But if you are anything like me, you will be spending weeks adding key-words.
 

fore

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LR6 just came out allowing stitching and HDR where you can add 2 exposures, one for highlights and one for shadows, to get one HDR image. Too cool...
 

barrosinc

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You have to watch out with lightroom, keeping all the images in the same catalog only makes the editing slower.
The HDR thing is new, but I had a plugin that did that since like... forever!
I use picasa and photomechanic as archiving tool.
 

leatherback

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ou have to watch out with lightroom, keeping all the images in the same catalog only makes the editing slower.
Interesting.. I have ~65.000 images in one catalogue. Has not slowed down editing on my side!
 
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