How I photograph bonsai

A recent discussion about cameras brought up conversation about taking good bonsai photos. For me, more important than the camera itself, is getting the right camera distance and angle. I have found that the right distance and angle is standing 5-10 feet back, and shooting with the lens at the soil level.

Below is the example; one that will be familiar. The stand is 47″ high and the tree is 17″ tall.

I took photos at 3′, 5′ and 10′ of distance; at too low, too high, and at soil level. It is interesting to see that standing farther back reduces the impact of shooting from too high or too low, while standing closer really distorts the intended image of the tree.

At 3′ back; far too close to capture the image without a distorted effect. First, with no zoom:

IMG_8173.JPG
Now, at 3′ back, zoomed in to frame the tree, camera too low, shot from a kneeling position:

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At 3′ back, zoomed in to frame the tree, camera too high, shot from overhead camera position:

IMG_8171.JPG
And, at 3′ back, zoomed in, and with the lens at soil-level, notice how the fence, while easily 8″ taller than the top of the tree, fails to provide an adequate backdrop? Also notice how the tree appears distorted, with the center appearing much thicker, with the tree bowed out in the center and somewhat fish bowling away at the edges. Not flattering. It’s subtle, but compare this to the the final photo in the post and it will be apparent:

IMG_8173-0.JPG

Second, at 5′ back. An improvement is immediately noticed. First, without zoom, the fence appears high enough to provide a full backdrop:

IMG_8166.JPG
Now, at 5′ back, zoomed in to frame the tree, camera too low, shot from a kneeling position:

IMG_8167.JPG
At 5′ back, zoomed in to frame the tree, camera too high, shot from overhead camera position:

IMG_8168.JPG
And, at 5′ back, zoomed in, and with the lens at soil-level. Already the distortion is reduced just by backing up a couple feet:

IMG_8169.JPG

At 10′ back, no zoom, camera at soil-level, notice the height of the fence behind the tree. Clearly the fence is higher than the top of the bonsai:

IMG_8162.JPG
Now, 10′ back, zoomed in, camera too low, shot from a kneeling position:

IMG_8163.JPG
At 10′ back, zoomed in, camera too high, shot from overhead camera position. Notice how the some of the back rim of the pot is visibile? A sign the camera is too high.

IMG_8164.JPG
And, at 10′ back, zoomed in, and with the lens at soil-level:

IMG_8165.JPG

When you have found the best angle and distance, night shots can become a lot of fun. Light backgrounds draw attention to branch structure/ramification, while dark backgrounds highlight the profile/silouhette. I use a flash, and take lots of photos; maintaining a consistent camera angle, and modifying my distance until the flash lights up the tree in a pleasing manner…not so bright it’s washed out, not so dim it’s hard to see. This is when I’m particularly grateful we’ve progressed from film to digital cameras, because I tend to take many and delete most photos.
3′ back:

IMG_8261.JPG
5′ back:

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7′ back:

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9′ back:

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10′ back:

IMG_8256.JPG

In this case, I’d opt for 7 feet back…not too dark, nor too washed out.

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2 thoughts on “How I photograph bonsai

  1. Excellent info. Embarrassed to say I taught art for 35 years and I can draw a tree better than I can photo one. This will help.

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