Cultivating Beauty: Tips for Photographing Bonsai Trees

Bonsai are beautifully kept small trees, currently decorating homes around the world. Originally hailing from Japan, bonsai make lovely photography subjects (especially to sell as prints to those that may not be able to keep a bonsai in their home). 

However, photographing Bonsai trees is as much an art as keeping them! Because of the cultural significance, it is important to keep that in mind when capturing these lovely greens. As well, making a still life interesting is a secondary challenge to photographing the bonsai. 

What Is a Bonsai Tree?

A Bonsai tree is a small carefully curated plant. They are often kept in small vases or containers. Typically under 4 feet in height, Bonsai are not actually dwarfed plants- any plant species that has a woody stem or trunk and grows true branches can be used to create a Bonsai.

‘Bonsai’ as a word is a Japanese term which translates to “planted in a container”. This art form is derived from an ancient Chinese horticultural practice, which was then further influenced by Japanese Zen Buddhism (which is why the terms ‘zen’ and the religious practice of ‘Buddhism’ are often associated heavily with Bonsai trees). 

Bonsai trees are very deliberate in their shape and require a lot of patience to trim and keep in perfect condition. 

The Cultural Importance of the Bonsai Tree 

The Bonsai is a natural treasure of Japan. The very roots of the art of bonsai are hidden in the Chinese art form Penjing – the Chinese practice of creating entire landscapes where miniature trees are displayed. The Japanese then took this and made it into a highly cherished and widely practiced art form.

As well as this, the Bonsai helps represent something called Wabi-Sabi, which is a philosophical concert that is a very deep part of Japanese culture. Wabi-Sabi is a view of the world based on Japanese cultural perceptions. Wabi-Sabi is the ability to accept imperfection, transience, and fragility. All forms have their flaws. The Bonsai are set to convey a feeling while gazing at the miniature version of a tree that grows large in nature. Wabi-Sabi is all about simplicity and refinement, an easy notion to show in a Bonsai tree. 

How Does This Play into Photography? 

Photographing cultural symbols requires a level of respect from the photographer; respect for the culture, respect for the subject, and respect for its story. As such, understanding the philosophy and importance of the Bonsai aids in capturing the small plant’s true beauty. Accurate representation is key. 

Because the Bonsai represents control, beauty, perfection even- it’s best to photograph a Bonsai without the distractions of things around it. It’s good to illuminate the tree properly, and photograph perfectly trimmed plants. 

Things To Keep In Mind About Photographing Bonsai Trees

Although photographing Bonsai is quite similar to capturing other types of plants, here are five tips to keep in mind at your next Bonsai photo shoot. 

1. The Settings

In regard to camera settings, it really does depend upon your shooting location. What remains universal regardless of location is that you want the images to be as crystal clear as possible, which requires minimal noise

Noise is caused by a high ISO level. The ISO is your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the camera is to light (but the less noise the photograph has). The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light (but the more noise the photograph has). Noise are the obnoxious little specks you see in photographs. To keep noise manageable, try to keep the ISO as low as possible. 

Since you are capturing a still life, shutter speed doesn’t play a major role as long as the camera is still and steady. The shutter speed is how fast your camera takes the photograph. The higher the shutter speed number, the more frozen the action will be (but the photograph will be darker). The lower the shutter speed number, the more motion blur your photograph will have (but the photograph will be lighter). Adjust the shutter speed to accommodate the ISO setting

As for aperture, which controls the depth of field, that depends on the kind of shot you are capturing. If you are doing details, a shallow depth of field is best. For full shots, a deeper depth of field works so that you are able to capture all of the details of the tree. The lower the aperture number, the more light the camera lets in, and the shallower the depth of field. The higher the aperture number, the less light the camera lets in, the deeper the depth of field. 

When it concerns white balance, you want the greenery to be as true green as possible. Adjust the white balance depending upon whether or not you are capturing photographs indoors or if you are capturing photographs outdoors. The main goal is to keep the green rich! 

2. The Lighting 

Bonsai need to be very well lit to show all of the details. 

For outdoor lighting, try to capture Bonsai trees in the shade, during a cloudy or overcast day, or during the sunset or sunrise. You don’t want the sun directly overhead as that causes a lot of contrast (very bright highlights and deep dark shadows). The contrast can distract from the beauty of the tree. 

For indoor photography, if you want to use ambient (available) light, place the bonsai near a window. Capture the plan the same way you would if it were outdoors. 

If you’re using studio or artificial lighting, make sure the Bonsai is lit from all directions. Place a light directly in front, or place multiple lights on all sides. You want a good separation from the background, so make sure there is a distance between the tree and whatever is behind it. 

3. Detail Shots and Full Shots 

Bonsai trees do best with detailed shots of the individual little twigs or plans within it or full shots of the entire tree. Add a mix of these two to your Bonsai shoot and see what works the best. 

5. Keep it Simple 

Don’t overcomplicate the frame! The philosophy associated with Bonsai is simplistic beauty, so try to keep this flowing throughout the image itself. Bonsai look out of place when placed in a cluttered background or location. 

6. Pick the Best Side Compositionally 

The Bonsai tree looks different from all sides. Although each side is an expression of beauty in its own way, since images are still, you need to choose the one that looks the best on camera. Be attentive to leading lines. 

The most effective compositions are the ones in which the viewer looks around the frame and then lands right on the subject. Leading lines are parts of your composition that cause the eye to follow a line all the way around your subject. 

In conclusion, Bonsai makes a lovely subject for a myriad of reasons. But when capturing these delicate trees, keep their purpose in mind! 

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