My Particular Brand of Bonsai Photography

My Particular Brand of Bonsai Photography

If you follow me on Instagram (@ericschraderbonsai) then you’ve seen my feed of photos – most of them contain a light grey backdrop with a gradient on it and a single tree lit from the left side. I’ve had quite a few people ask how I create these images so here are the basics and a bit of background.

I think it was 2008 when my long-time teacher, Boon Manakativipart asked if I would take all the exhibit photos for the annual Bay Island Bonsai show. I was a new-ish member and flattered that I had the opportunity. At the time, I had been friends with a couple full-time studio photographers who enjoyed bonsai for a while, and had worked as a photographer from 1998-2004 at the now-defunct Bay Meadows race track. I was also the photo editor for the Cornellian – the yearbook of Cornell University during which time I gained a lot of experience with photography, but little with studio lighting. A big thanks to Bernard Marque for showing me the basics of studio setups.

Boon’s setup for the show photos had changed a few times over the years, first with non-other than Jonas Duipuich taking the images on white backgrounds, then a black felt backdrop, and then me, and later David Campbell, a well-known and accomplished food photographer. I learned a lot from David when we shot together for three consecutive years at Boon’s shows.

I had minimal studio equipment at the time he asked me, but in 2010 I invested in some equipment from Calumet because I was also shooting images professionally for textbook publishers. But, even that combination of experience didn’t allow me to develop the lighting setup I use now; it was only through blogging and needing better images that I eventually landed on this formula. The good news is that it couldn’t be much simpler; and that’s partly because everything I shoot is in a small 2-car garage (1-car actually, as the second side has no door.) The same space also serves as my bonsai work area, my wood shop, and my general storage area.


Note the following in this photo: The softbox is facing away from the backdrop and work table, pointing directly at the portable whiteboard. Oh, and just ignore all those bags of soil and seedling flats, nothing to see here.

Equipment List

1. 9′ Seemless backdrop (paper)
2. Ceiling Mounted Backdrop holder (allows for the background to be rolled up so I can get to my pot shelves.)
3. Calumet 400W strobe head (any strobe head will work, and most that are more powerful will easily stop down.) This one is self-contained, so the power cord goes up to the strobe head from the wall, not from a power pack.
4. 24×36″ soft box diffuser over the strobe head (like this one, but from Calumet)
5. C-stand for holding the strobe head and soft box cover
6. A portable whiteboard…yep.
7. Canon EOS 50D. (I need a newer camera!)
8. 60MM macro EOS lense.
9. Wireless strobe trigger (don’t get a wire, they break quickly, and you trip on them.)

Setup Discussion

This is my standard setup, but shot with a 17mm lens to show all the surroundings, etc. I normally use a 60mm macro lens. There is no ambient light being captured even though the lighting in the garage is on. The strobe head is pointing away from the background, but the shadow line between some of the light falling on it and only reflected light is obvious. The whiteboard that I use as a reflector is at right, about three feet away from the tree.

Unedited and zoomed in to 70mm to show the result. The background gradient is a bit too soft, the shadow on the right side of the tree is too dark and the deadwood at top is not getting enough light either. Solution: move the whiteboard closer to open up more details by balancing the light more.

Whiteboard moved right next to the tree but no other changes.

Resulting change in the image is brighter deadwood, more overall light and better contrast in the backdrop.

Rotating the strobe head slightly toward or slightly away from the backdrop changes the amount of light hitting the tree, and it moves the gradient line on the backdrop. I tend to move it gently until the center of the gradient is right behind the tree.

Back to the first shot – the head position is about right, but the whiteboard reflector is not close enough. This position of the light would work but we can also improve the gradient position a little by rotating the strobe/softbox.

Here, the softbox is pointed nearly directly at the tree, the result is too much light on the background and harsh light on the tree.

Here the softbox is pointed too far away – some light is falling on the tree, but the gradient has disappeared and the image is flat. You could stop open the camera to capture more light, but it will just look muddy.

The final shot setup – the gradient is better placed relative to the tree and the whiteboard is reflecting enough light into the right side to show more details. I would use this shot if it had been cropped in-camera by using the macro lens. Ready for IG!

I also use the editing tools on the IG app on my phone to tweak contrast, slightly lighten or darken and help with the gradient – mainly by using the “vignette” slider.

Some Features and Suggestions

In case you like these photos as much as I do, but can’t put your finger on why, let me suggest a few features that are not immediately apparent.

Depth – Depth is an issue on bonsai photos – trees have depth, but photos can easily lack them – white backgrounds show all the back branching but give it too much emphasis. Black backdrops tend to lose the back branching and depth altogether and just show a flat tree. The gradient is a happy middle ground, with some details of the depth of the tree showing but not making them overly bright.

Contrast – this setup inherently provides better contrast while not flattening the tree –  the brightest lit areas of the tree on the left of the photo are in front of the darkest part of the gradient and the lightest part of the gradient is behind the darker shadowed foliage on the right side. In both areas you get good contrast without the dull monotony of a monotone backdrop.

Trunk shape – As long as the foliage is not blocking the light, trunk shapes are particularly well defined in this light, and since bonsai is all about the trunk, this is to great advantage.

Some Shortcomings

This setup is by no means perfect, and if I had more space I would probably be using a bit larger equipment and a bit more complicated setup. Here are some things I’ve noticed over the past couple years of using it:

1. The gradient sharpness is not controllable – for tiny trees it can look flat, and for large trees it often looks very sharp. I’ve just learned to live with this, accepting the variation as reasonable.
2. Some trees with unusual shapes or unusual flow can block light to key areas of the composition and there is nothing that can fix it with this simple setup. You can try a mirror, or a second reflector, but it’s difficult sometimes to get light into cavities or darkly shaded bark.
3. Some trees would be better lit from the opposite direction – but again, it’s not generally worth hours of effort to switch the entire setup around.
4. Deciduous trees in winter silhouette can look odd sometimes – I normally try to fix this by moving the softbox to point farther away from the background slightly – allowing light to fall on the tree but not as much on the background. Moving the tree farther away from the background allows more light on the tree at the same time as less on the background (default distance is about 3-4 feet).
5. I often can’t get the whiteboard close enough to reflect quite as much light as I might want because it would then be in the frame of the image.
6. Very large trees are harder to shoot because the softbox is not large enough to light them evenly.

Good luck, and tag me on IG is you want some feedback of photos you’ve posted!

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