One of the most useful – and underutilized – tools we have as bonsai artists is the camera. While it’s gotten pretty common in this age of smart phones to take photos of our trees, how often do we use the results to help us with our styling? I’ve made a conscious effort over the past several years to: 1) get better at taking photos representative of my trees’ actual appearance; and 2) make use of the photos to improve them.

There will, of course, be quite a bit of variation in how well your camera represents what your eye is seeing. What’s vital in getting your photos to properly reflect your trees is to learn the characteristics of your own equipment. One thing it took me a while to learn is that the closer I get to my subject the more it gets distorted in the frame. So when the photo gets loaded up for cropping and various adjustments, it doesn’t quite look like what I saw when observing the tree on the bench. Here are a couple of examples:

SweetgumforesttoocloseThis is an eleven tree sweetgum forest I put together this past May. Now, if you look closely and count up the trees you probably only see ten. Why? Because one of them is hiding behind another one. Did I plant them that way? No. I do my best to follow the rules of forest plantings, a key one of which is that no trunk obscures the view of another. So what happened?

Well, as it turns out it was all in the photography. I took this shot from as close a vantage point as possible, and when taking it I was actually able to distinguish all eleven trunks. But that’s not what the camera saw and dutifully recorded.

SweetgumforestbetterviewHere’s my second effort at photographing this forest. If you count the trunks again, you’ll see there are indeed eleven. Yet when you compare the photos, they don’t really look all that different in how they’re framed. But take a closer look, and you’ll see there’s just a little more space between each tree in the second shot – or at least there appears to be more space between each, since they’re in exactly the same spots as before. The closer shot somehow ended up bringing them in toward each other, ever so slightly. I take it that the curvature of the camera lense was responsible for this bit of optical illusion, an effect that was mitigated by retaking the shot from a few feet farther away.




This bald cypress was photographed from three different perspectives. In this first shot, the camera is positioned relatively close to the tree but below the center of the trunk, in order to keep the pot profile on a more horizontal plane. From this angle, the “flat top” doesn’t look particularly flat; rather, it’s taken on a rounded shape (which, by the way, was not the way the tree actually looked).









Same tree, same distance from tree to camera, but now the flat top looks like a flat top, right? It’s not hard to see how this was possible. The photo was taken from a position above center-trunk. Now it appears we’re looking down at the pot. Yet I can tell you that in taking each of these photos, I was not able to see what the camera ended up recording. They appeared pretty much similar to the eye.










This final shot shows how to solve the problem of camera position distortion (which is more apparent in taller trees, by the way). You simply step back four to six feet, and take the shot a little below center-trunk. This keeps the pot on the horizontal plane while not distorting the appearance of the crown by “looking” up into it. In the case of this cypress, I’ve preserved the feel of the flat-top while also keeping the distance-perspective intact.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll show you how to use photos to improve the design and appearance of your bonsai.