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Updated: 10 Jan 2022

Photography you can do at home: our tips for garden and still-life shots

Your camera doesn't have to gather dust during social distancing. Here's a round-up of our top tips for capturing the beauty already around you

This is a stifling time for photographers, but with resourcefulness and creativity, you can find that there's a lot of material ready to be captured in your homes and gardens.

Taking stock of what's around us can be a good way of lifting our spirits. This might involve capturing rare shots of insects and birds that visit us, or it could be capturing everyday objects with a new perspective that helps us to reappraise our own spaces.

That's why we've put together some tips to help you make the most of this strange period, whether or not you have outside space.

Looking for a new camera? Find out about the different types of digital camera

Take a look at your kit

Cameras excel in different areas, but DSLR and mirrorless cameras pack the most punch in terms of sheer quality. These cameras give you the freedom to use interchangeable lenses to help you pick the right kit for the shot you want. For example, a macro lens will help you to take extreme close-ups (more on this later), while a zoom lens will give you the freedom of adjusting focal lengths.

Take a look at our DSLR and mirrorless camera reviews to find out which cameras we recommend buying and avoiding. We're always testing new models to sort the wheat from the chaff. Recently we tested the Nikon D780, which is claimed to work well in both bright and low-light settings; this is something many cameras fail to achieve, so we put it to the test in our lab.

Compact cameras are best for portability and ease of use, but premium models can have impressive features too. The Lumix DC-TZ95 has a 30x optical zoom, which should make it a good compact camera for distant shots.

And we recently tested the Olympus Pen E-PL10 which, with a 4/3 sensor and 16Mp resolution, gives picture quality beyond smartphones' capabilities.

Capture a still life

A still life is simply a picture of arranged inanimate objects. The materials you use can be ordinary, and the quality of the image depends on your use of lighting and composition. It's a classic genre but also a great way for a photography beginner to get comfortable with their camera. Food, books or house plants are great objects to start with but, with effective framing, you can depict anything.

One of the joys of still-life photography is that it's not resource intensive. They key is lighting, and you'll want to choose an area in your home that basks in natural light. In our lab tests, cameras create their best-quality photos when we take pictures in well-illuminated conditions. This is because the camera's sensor wants to collect as much light as possible to capture an image as it appears.

On a particularly sunny day, you can avoid harsh lighting by putting a thin fabric over the window to diffuse the light. This makes the scene softer. You'll also want to move around your objects so the light reveals their textures, and the shadows fall where you want them to. If you're shooting in the dark, try experimenting with lamps or your camera's flash as light sources. Experimentation is the key.

Garden and wildlife snaps

Red admiral butterfly

As springtime comes back around, blooming flowers and healthy plants inspire us to photograph natural beauty. Visiting insects and birds also challenge us to capture them, sometimes in rare moments, when we have to be sly and agile to get the best shot.

If you're shooting moving animals or insects, then setting a fast shutter speed on your camera will allow you to capture a crisp freeze-frame. Dialling the shutter speed down to a slower setting will increase motion blur, but this can be used to create dynamic images with a sense of movement.If it's a rainy spring day, a lower shutter speed will capture the raindrops as streaks rather than as isolated spots.

If you want to achieve a steadier shot using a slower shutter speed, you'll be able to do so with a tripod.

Macro vs zoom: close-ups and faraway shots

With a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can switch to a macro lens, which lets you get up close to your subject and shoot it in focus. You can capture flowers, bugs or household objects in sharp, crystal-clear quality that fills the frame.

If you're using a point-and-shoot camera, such as a compact, or you don't have a macro lens, check your camera's shooting modes for a macro mode to set yourself up for shooting your subject close up. Although quality varies without a macro lens, you might be surprised at what your camera's capable of achieving.

Use a zoom lens when you need to stay far away your subject, for example when you're shooting wildlife that you can't approach. This will help you to get difficult shots from a distance.

Getting the right depth of field

When you want to focus on your subject and need the background to be blurred, you're looking for a shallow depth of field. This centres all the attention on the subject and means that you don't have to worry too much about the background of your shot, which is ideal for this kind of photography.

Camera modes provide you with presets to achieve the desired depth of field. For example, portrait mode focuses on your subject and leaves the rest unfocused and sometimes blurred, while a landscape setting will provide a deep depth of field that captures everything in the frame with clarity.

For more proficient users, you should adjust the aperture size to vary this effect. A large aperture captures a shallow depth of field and, as you make the aperture smaller, more distant objects become clearer. DSLR and mirrorless users who don't want to shoot entirely manually can select aperture priority mode which lets you control ISO and aperture while the camera automatically gives you the correct exposure setting.

Aperture size is measured as an f-number. Smaller f-numbers mean larger apertures, and larger f-numbers mean smaller apertures. So f/32 would capture a complete landscape in focus, while f/4 would drastically narrow the focus.

Check out our guide to DSLR and mirrorless camera settings for more information.