Taking photos of cannabis can be hard. I’ve been a photographer for the better part of a decade, during which I studied product photography for part of my degree, and I’ve used my education to develop techniques for taking clear, detailed and accurate photos of weed. So, to pay it forward this holiday season, I wanted to share some of this knowledge, and potentially save this community from spending their cash on photography classes.
Why Is Taking Photos of Weed Difficult?
Cannabis is quite unusual as a photography subject. It’s amorphous in shape, the tones and hues of the different parts of the plant are difficult to capture, the frosty trichomes on the bud and jagged edges of the nugs are tricky for cameras to focus on, and it can be hard to control lighting.
While the rules for taking photos of other subjects apply to weed, like even lighting, wide field of view and proper composition, here are some other techniques that will up your game — even if it’s just for sending pictures of your bud to your buds.
Beginner Tips for Great Bud Pics
If you’re a beginner photographer, odds are you’re using your cell phone camera. Any cell phone from the last few years will have a camera that’s more than good enough for taking photos of your weed. If you have an older consumer camera, you may be tempted to use that, but your smartphone camera might be easier and more accessible.
Cell phone cameras excel in one specific area: under daylight. Taking photos during the day near a window is the easiest way to get even natural light, regardless of how bright the sunlight is. To get even lighting on your subject, angle the bud to the point where the light reflects off it evenly and there are few hard shadows on the part of the buds facing you, similar to a full moon. This is also easiest against a solid background like a wall, door or table.
To focus, make sure you’re using the primary camera (the 1x on most devices) and hold your camera at the minimum focusing distance. If your viewfinder shows the bud out of focus, the lens might be too close to the bud. You’ll get more detail from using the primary camera and cropping the photo later rather than zooming in or using the telephoto/macro lens. Ultimately, you should get a relatively detailed and vibrant shot of your bud that you can crop, lighten or retouch later that’s also suitable for sharing right away.
Leveling Up Your Bud Photography
Maybe you’ve snapped some great family photos, or you took a film photography class back in the day. The point is, you feel confident about taking photos of your bud and want to level up from the tips above. Two big things you’ll be taking more control of at this step are backdrop and lighting.
For a backdrop, many professionals, including myself, use a roll of construction paper on a spool and clamp the loose end to create a covered surface and backdrop. You could also strategically place printer paper to create a pure white background for your photo, which makes the shot easy to crop and retouch later. You can get perfectly even lighting with an internally lit soft box, but that’s an extra space constraint for your camera. Instead, a ring lamp is a good option for constant light from many angles on your bud.
If you’re using a dedicated camera for this, especially a DSLR, a tripod and shutter remote are recommended. To capture the most even lighting and consistent focus, you should set your DSLR camera to a high aperture setting (closed iris, f/13 or higher) which you must compensate with a show shutter speed. The tripod and remote reduce vibrations in your image and help you capture the clearest shot.
Once you’ve captured your photo, you can use a program like Apple Photos, GIMP, Lightroom or Photoshop to retouch the shot. If you’re shooting on a white background, this makes retouching white balance easy. You can also adjust the overall brightness, contract, vibrance framing and color balance for your shot.
Look at You, Expert Shutterbug!
If you’re at the point where you’re shooting your photos with a DSLR or mirrorless camera and editing them in image-processing software, then you should really start thinking about lighting and set composition. Some techniques require more expensive tools, but you can potentially get everything you need for $100 if you search hard enough.
For lighting, you want your lamp to be diffused in some way, ideally in a softbox, to keep as much light directed at your subject as possible. A softbox is made of translucent cloth and attached to a light source (usually a studio strobe or speedlight) on a light stand. The cheapest lights will usually be constant lights rather than strobe lights, but the tradeoff is that the lights aren’t as bright and your environment will get much warmer. I recommend using a two or three point lighting setup with the lights pointing at the bud at level height. I use a black construction paper backdrop, and I also lay the flower on two stacked panes of glass to shoot from overhead.
Angle the lights and try many configurations until you can find the one that lights your flower with the shadow shape you’re looking for. I like to think of it as “sculpting” the light. A photographer friend of mine who shoots dispensary products in Southern Cali also uses a large overhead floodlight strobe that helps him capture the most detail.
Lastly, because cannabis is so weirdly shaped and textured, I like to stack the focus from many photos before flattening the composite and making additional changes. To do this, you take anywhere from 3 to 200 photos at various focal distances and render the stack with an automated software like Helicon Focus or the script in newer versions of Adobe Photoshop. I find that these focus stacks give the best sense of shape and structure from the buds, which makes it easier to mask and darken the background, retouch the shadows and highlights and return the proper vibrance from to the nug that is flattened by your camera’s log profile.
All of these tips put together are only half the battle to becoming an expert cannabis photographer. As with any art form, what takes you to the next level is practice and feedback from a trusted friend/mentor.
As cannabis becomes more widely decriminalized and socially accepted, taking photos of your bud can be a fun way to document your flavor journey, socialize with other cannabis enthusiasts or make art out of something you’re passionate about. I started taking cannabis photos when I started writing reviews almost a year ago, and it feels fulfilling to me because I spent a lot of time and money learning these skills that many might consider useless. Cannabis culture has had a rocky history of documentation with a greater frequency of secondhand accounts as opposed to primary sources. Even though more documentation is a tad risky, it can help the community learn and grow. Have fun taking photos of your weed!