The first plant that Gerardo Torres photographed with his mobile phone was an anemone hybrid. They were followed by daffodils, sundews, azaleas, tillandsias, evening primroses, lotus flowers, ferns, bignonias… A gardener by profession, Torres has worked for 12 years at the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid as manager of the collections of orchids, bromeliads, epiphytic plants and carnivores. And, in his spare time, he takes photos with his mobile.
“When I started working as a gardener in the Andean region of Trujillo, in my native Venezuela, I was always interested in knowing what plants I was growing. I turned to the books, but most of the time the pictures didn’t show what I wanted to see. So they lent me a camera and I began to photograph already identified plants”, he explains. This hobby, originally documentary and as a work archive, gradually awakened an artistic sensibility in the gardener’s eyes. He began to see plants in a different way.
The gardens provided him with an infinite sample of motifs to photograph, different every day, inexhaustible. He went on to control both the aperture of the diaphragm and the shutter speed as well as pinching a plant or amending clay soil: “I got beyond the idea of taking realistic photos to strive to capture only what I wanted and needed to see.” And one fine day he changed the SLR for the mobile.
The phone camera that we all carry in our pockets today has given Gerardo Torres’ plant images an astonishingly poetic dimension. Even having switched from the manual mode of the camera to the automatic mode of the mobile, he has achieved an interesting personal style, minimalist and stripped of everything anecdotal. A style that, due to the profusion of details, is reminiscent of macro photography, neat and at the same time effective, where the only ornament is the plant itself. Emulating his technique is possible by following some very basic rules.
1. Choose a seductive motif
When choosing the plant, flower or fruit to be photographed, the guideline is to be carried away by the attraction at first sight. A crush may be the best selection criteria. “Shapes, textures, colors… I always keep in mind what the photograph I want is and, let’s say, I force what I imagine and what I see to end up shaking hands”, says Torres.
2. Use a pure black background
“To highlight the figure, I use a black background. I use a blanket attached to a stick that I have tuned for this purpose”, reveals the artist. Textile is a perfect background material because it does not generate reflections or cause light to bounce. It could also be worth a non-glossy cardboard or a plush paper.
3. Follow the rule of thirds
“When framing, I try to maintain a proportionality between the object and the contour that surrounds it. I am guided by the rule of thirds”, explains the photographer. This composition guideline is based on the golden ratio. You have to mentally draw two parallel horizontal lines and two vertical ones in the space of the photograph, and place the motif you want to highlight —the corolla of the flower, the brightest petal or the leaf with the most beautiful structure— in the points where these imaginary lines intersect.
4. Let the format adjust to the plant, not the other way around
“The composition is dictated by what I want to photograph. You don’t have to force the motif to fit it into the plane. For example, a rose always asks for a vertical format so that not only the flower can be seen, but also the leaves and stem, ”she reasons. Placing the elongated plants diagonally is a gesture that always works. If you are going to portray more than one specimen in the same snapshot, you must always choose an odd pattern (3, 5, 7…), since the odd ones subliminally transmit organic connotations, such as nature, as opposed to the artificiality of the even ones. Thus the result is more harmonious.
5. Point and shoot
“The application I use is Snapseed, from Google, which is free to download. This tool is very simple and intuitive to use. I always work automatically, adjusting the focus and exposure, tapping on the mobile screen just before shooting”, he recommends.
6. Choose a soft light
“I always use natural light,” he stresses. The result is much more uniform and the textures are more plastic and defined. “The best is the morning and evening light, which are softer and do not cast harsh shadows. The difference between one and the other is the temperature, colder at dawn and warmer at sunset”, explains the gardener.
7. Adjust Exposure, Hue, and Saturation
Once the photo is taken, parameters must be adjusted to achieve the desired finish. In retouching, less is always more. “You have to be very careful, because excessively manipulating parameters such as contrast can play a trick on you,” she warns. “After editing with Snapseed, if necessary, I do a final touch up with the phone’s native editor. In the final edit I adjust the exposure, hue, saturation factor, and blacks.”
8. Embrace the unique
“Pursuing the perfect utopian image can give very plastic results, but empty of narrative. The perfection of a plant resides in its very imperfection, in what it has in particular”, says Gerardo Torres. A foreshortening of the stem, a slightly curled leaf or the subtle gradations of color within the same petal. The phone that we all carry in our pockets is capable of capturing everything.
9. Every day there can be a memorable photo
For the photographer, each season has its charm. “In spring there is an explosion of blooms, colors and shapes. In summer there are spectacular new blooms, as well as very photogenic plants in the vegetative stage. Autumn is perfect for portraying warm, earthy colors and more diffused lights. In winter, the structures of the bare trees make it possible to play with the contrasts of solids and voids and suggest sinuous and ambiguous figures”.
When looking for inspiration, it works for Torres to go on Instagram and look at the label #shadowhunter; that is, shadow seeker. Backlights, projected shadows and silhouetted shapes between clarity and the purest blacks nourish his gaze with references on which to explore new approaches to the plant kingdom through the mobile camera. “My job as a gardener puts me every day in front of important challenges, such as achieving the survival of plants classified as critically endangered species,” he says. “It’s the most altruistic thing I know how to do.” Then he turns off the phone and returns with his hands to the ground. So that the prodigy of a snowdonia, a Venus flytrap, a rhizanthella or a lady’s shoe does not remain for posterity only on his mobile phone reel and on his Instagram wall.