Groundscape Photography or Ground Macrophotography

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -
the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.

                                                                                                               Rachel Carson

By Dr. Robert Berdan
November 17, 2011



Panel of groundscape photographs by Robert Berdan

Panel of Groundscapes showing a wide variety of colours, patterns and textures.

In 1995 I was invited to Alberta College of Art (ACAD) to lecture on the properties of light to a class of artists being taught by Dalcie Foo Fat. At the class I had an opportunity to see some of Dalcie's paintings which were studies of ground scapes. I was struck with their detail and colour (visit her web site to see examples of her painting) and ever since I have paid more attention to what is at my feet. I have always had a strong interest in macrophotography, but before meeting Dalcie I had never concentrated on shooting small patches of the ground. Sometimes looking at other photographers or artists work can generate ideas to help you improve your own work and this is a case in point. I hope that these photographs will make you take more notice of the ground the next time you are out photographing.

Mushroom on the forest floor - Fly Agaric by  Robert Berdan ©

Mushrooms on the forest floor like this colourful Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria - poisonous) make good subjects for ground scapes. Photographed with a 60 mm macro lens at F16.

Groundscapes can include a wide variety of subjects. Nature offers what appears to be a chaos of elements in the form of plants, leaves, moss, lichen, fungi and of course flowers. Even stones or rock outcroppings can be interesting subjects. All you have to do is look closely at the ground around you. Groundscapes don't shout at you begging your attention you need to take your time and examine them closely. The closer you look the more you will begin to see what is in these microcosms. The detail found in nature is simply amazing - just look closely at the veins in a leaf! Even ground litter mixed with decaying plant material and mushrooms offers a wide variety of subjects to explore. Groundscape photographs look best when they are enlarged in order to draw attention to the details and for this reason I included a couple of zoomify movies below where you can enlarge the photographs.

This type of photography does not require travel to distant places. In most instances you can find groundscapes close to home, your backyard, a park, a field or just short drive into the country. You can even take groundscape photographs in urban areas e.g. a flower growing out of a crack in the sidewalk.

Bunchberry in Autumn by Robert Berdan ©

Bunchberries in Autumn with reddish-purple leaves and bright red berries. In summer these plants display beautiful white flowers. as shown below. I filled the frame so they appear to go on forever.

Bunchberry in summer by Robert Berdan ©

Bunchberries in summer, note the diagonal arrangement of the flowers with the protruding branch to add interest. Photographed on Velvia film with a normal 50 mm lens at F16. A tripod was used to steady the camera.

To photograph groundscapes you can use a variety of lenses - a normal 50 mm lens works fine, a macro lens (60 mm or 100 mm) is ideal and even a telephoto lens with close focusing capability can be used. A tripod is essential if you want sharp pictures as is a cable release to reduce vibration from the camera. If you don't have a cable release you can simply set your camera to shoot with the self timer or use a remote release. I usually shoot at aperture of F11 to F22 and use the slowest ISO speed that is practical i.e. ISO 100-400. A polarizer can help reduce reflections, but isn't necessary. The best light in most cases is soft overcast as it reduces contrast. Generally I shoot RAW files and use Aperture priority mode and set my camera exposure meter to evaluative or matrix mode and then check my histogram to see if my exposures are good. The closer you get to your subject and the more magnification you have the more critical it becomes to use a cable release so your photographs are sharp. At shutter speeds around 1\4 to 1\15 of a second the shake created by the camera's mirror can cause your photographs to become "soft". If you camera also offers a mirror lock up feature you can also use this to further reduce camera vibration.

Roadside stream and moss by Robert Berdan

Small stream I found on the side of a highway while driving in BC near Field. How much you include in your shots can vary widely so long as you don't include the sky.

Coloured leaves around tree stump by Robert Berdan ©

In this photograph I decided to include a tree stump to provide a sense of scale and create an anchor in the photograph.

Groundscapes are everywhere, next time your are out taking nature pictures simply look down at your feet or examine how the grass lies in a field. Study the rocks, stones, and plants. The seashore has an amazing abundance of groundscapes you can discover. If you live near a forest try searching for mushrooms it will make you more aware of other elements on the forest floor. Groundscapes can be photographed all year long. In winter I often hunt for frozen ponds and look for plants or leaves caught within the ice - e.g. see my article on patterns, textures and abstracts for examples.

Stalked polypore mushrooms in ground litter by Robert Berdan ©

Stalked polypore mushrooms form large cups on the ground that collect water in them - Prelude park, NWT 100 mm macro lens at F11.

Composing groundscapes is harder then it appears. You are often looking at a complex mixture of elements that can only be described as chaos. The trick is to try and organize some of the chaos into interesting arrangements, but don't try to create too much order and avoid trying to manipulate and arrange nature - it usually doesn't look natural. However, I will occasionally remove a blade of grass or a bright stick that calls attention to itself. Ask yourself what do you find interesting or attractive about the scene and try to capture it. I am fascinated by textures that some plants display. Other times its specific colours that grab my attention in particular brilliant reds, yellows and greens. I often look for diagonal lines or try to arrange the main elements such as mushrooms into groups of three.

Fireweed by Robert Berdan ©

Fireweed leaves in Autumn turn bright red and stand out in the forest floor

Plantain - groundscape by Robert Berdan ©

This sun shaped plantain grabbed my attention as it grew out of the rocks in the Canadian Shield.

Mushrooms by Robert Berdan ©

Cluster of mushrooms - to correctly identify many mushrooms you usually need to view the undersides and examine
whether they have gills or pores.

Dog tongue lichen (Peltigera canina) - form thick blades in moist forests. This plant was used for treating rabies in medieval times.

Red bearberry, granite, lichen and cranberry plants on tundra by Robert Berdan ©

Red bearberry leaves, granite, cranberry and reindeer lichen - NWT

Aspen leaves and cranberries by Robert Berdan

Aspen leaves and cranberries - NWT

Reindeer lichen, cranberry and leaf litter by Robert Berdan ©

Reindeer lichen, cranberry and leaf litter

Evergreen shrub on rock side covered with lichen - Yellowknife, NWT. To appreciate the detail in this photograph one has
to examine a larger image. Try the zoomify movie below.

Zoomify movie - move the slider to zoom in and then drag the image around with your mouse pointer to explore the scene.

Granite boulder covered in lichen and surrounded by lichen and moss NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Granite boulder covered in sunburst lichen and surrounded by moss and reindeer lichen - Prelude Park, NWT

Small Chanterell mushrooms in leaf litter by Robert Berdan ©

Small Chanterell mushrooms surrounded by leaf litter - Midland, Ontario.

Lichen on wet rocks, Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario.

Lichen on red sandstone - Red Rock coulee


Zoomify movie - zoom into and drag the image to explore the lichen patterns on the rock

Edge of a lake in Northern Ontario by Robert Berdan ©

Edge of lake in Northern Ontario.

Ground litter, mushrooms, bunch berries and horsetail. Photographed next to Slave Lake NWT .

This group of colourful plants was found along a roadside in Ontario.

Mix of lichens, mushrooms, moss and cranberry - f orest floor in Prelude park, Northwest Territories

Fireweed surrounds an old stump near Bow Lake, AB in fall.

Stones on a lake or sea shore, snow melting in the grass, cracked mud or seaweed lying on the beach can all make for interesting groundscapes. Ferns, spider webs and red bunchberry leaves also make attractive elements.

Decidours forest in Autumn by Robert Berdan

Above shows a typical forest in Ontario in Autumn filled with subjects that you could spend all day photographing and still not exhaust the possibilities. Below are some extracted images from this forest.

Ferns with autumn leaves by Robert Berdan ©

Group of bracken ferns with autumn leaves - get closer to the ferns and you will discover more patterns.

Moss by Robert Berdan ©

Moss (Polytrichum sp) - there are about 9,000 species of moss alone.

Ground Pine by Robert Berdan ©

Ground Pine - (Lycopodium obscurum)

The next time you go for a walk in the forest look down at your feet and I think you will be amazed at the discoveries you will find. You don't have to travel to far off places to find interesting things to photograph. Also read up and learn as much as possible about your subjects and it will make you more aware of what is there and generally more observant. RB


Links & Additional Resources

Recommended Reading


Freeman Patterson - Photography of Natural Things. Van Nostrand Reinhold, Toronto. ISBN 0-7706-0022-0
Freeman Patterson - Photographing the World Around You, Key Porter Books, Toronto. ISBN 1-55013-590-2
Freeman Patterson - Photography for the joy of it, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Toronto. ISBN 0-442-29893-5.
Rachel Carson - The Sense of Wonder photographs by Nick Kelsh, Haper Collins 1st Ed, ISBN 0-06-757520-X
I. M Brodo et al - Lichens of North America, Yale University Press, New Haven. ISBN 9 780300-082494


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