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Digital Cameras for Garden Photography

How to choose a digital camera for taking pictures of your garden.

It used to be that placing flowers between layers of newsprint and inserting them in Hortus Third for a good pressing was the best way to keep a souvenir of your garden. But these days, digital cameras offer you a more dramatic and lifelike rendition of your garden than a flattened viola ever will.

Digital cameras, once the tools of scientists and high-end photographers, are now accessible, and affordable, for the rest of us. And this is good news indeed for gardeners, because digital cameras are the most efficient and cost-effective way to capture your garden, flower by flower and season by season.

It didn't used to be so, but digital cameras can now produce images that rival the quality of film prints. Plus, once you've made the initial investment of albeit costly equipment (camera, computer, printer), taking digital photos is an excellent and inexpensive way to document your garden's growth, add design enhancements, and devise your own garden database. You can photograph your garden, then catalog, store, file, and cross-reference your digital photos using any number of photo album software programs. A digital format also makes your garden photos a great bragging tool (you can e-mail them to garden club members and other trowel-pals).

Digital cameras offer a wide range of options that used to be the exclusive domain of the 35mm SLR (single-lens reflex camera). All digital cameras have an automatic setting that focuses, sets exposure, balances the color (white balance), and adds a flash if needed. You simply point at the unfurling petals of your ‘Mr. Lincoln’ rose and click. But many digital cameras also allow you to control the shutter speed and exposure so that you can experiment with how the photo looks. As with an SLR camera, a fast shutter speed allows you to catch a hummingbird midsip at a trumpet vine blossom. Setting the aperture (or f-stop) of your digital camera allows you to control the focus and depth of field (a shallow depth of field can make part of a subject stand out against a blurred background). Through experimentation with aperture and shutter settings, you can create garden shots on the fly, review them, make camera-setting adjustments, and shoot again. The ability to view what you have shot a second after shooting it allows you to fine tune your photography skills over a matter of minutes as opposed to a matter of weeks or months (or years) with your 35mm SLR. And you can keep taking the shot until you get it right.

Once you take the photos, you have expanded photo-tuning possibilities. Using software programs such as PhotoShop, you can further enhance your photo by color-correcting it or changing its appearance in a wide variety of ways. For example, you can transform a color photograph to black and white, change colors, and add additional images, or copy.

Digital cameras range in price from a little more than $100 to $1,000 and upward. Resolution, or how many pixels are used to capture an image, is the reason for the wide variation in cost. The higher the resolution, the sharper and more detailed the photo—and the more expensive the camera. In close-up garden photography, good resolution is especially important.

Assuming that you intend to use your digital camera not only for taking snapshots, but also for record-keeping (such as stages of plant growth), there are certain options to look for in a camera. The ability to change between automatic and manual focus settings allows you to control the point of focus or alter the depth of field. Your digital camera should also include a macro feature that allows you to take close-up flower shots.

The great thing about digital cameras is that you don't have the expense of film or film processing. Photos are saved on the camera's internal memory and addable external memory chips. For the byte-challenged, SanDisk offers memory cards that tell you exactly how many photos you can store on them (cards are now available with capacities ranging from 128 megabytes to one gigabyte). Digital cameras allow you to download, or empty, your camera's memory card through a media reader device. Most cameras connect to your computer so that you can move your photos from your camera's memory to your computer easily. There are also printing options that don't require a computer, such as Epson's Picture-Mate.

If all you want to do is to snap some shots of your snapdragons to e-mail to a friend or to post to a Web site, a 640-by-480-pixel digital photo will deliver a serviceable (but not totally crisp) photograph; you can achieve this quality of photograph from a 1-megapixel camera. But if you want to make print photos larger than a standard 5-by-7-inch photo, you'll need a camera with more than two megapixels. In short, if you want bigger photos, you need bigger resolution.

Storing your images is another consideration. New computers come with adequate memory to download your flower photos, because most photos are around three MB (megabytes) or less (if image compression is used), you could store more than 330 full-sized images on one GB (gigabyte) of space on the hard drive. Once you've transferred the photos from camera to computer, you can move them to a directory on your hard drive, attach them to an e-mail, print them, or burn them onto a CD for storage. Photos on your hard drive can be organized into a database by garden, by season, or by the method of your choice.

As for using your photos as a design tool, the possibilities are endless. Use a shot of your spring garden to document where your bulbs are blooming as a guide for fall planting. Create a slide show by season, or multiple seasons, so you can see in a series of photographs just how your garden grows.

But the biggest advantage I find of taking digital photos and cataloging them by date is that on a cold, depressing gray, January Iowa day, when I'm fighting the urge to eat chocolate chip cookie dough, I can watch a slide show of what my garden looked like on the first day of summer last year. And that's worth a lot.