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Photographing flowers is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding types of photography around. Yet it can be surprisingly difficult, even for more seasoned photographers. Getting strong flower images often requires new settings, new lighting, and new gear, not to mention a new approach to your subjects.
In this article, you will learn the ins-and-outs of flower photography. Starting off with a discussion of flower photography gear and camera settings. Then moving into flower photography lighting, focusing primarily on the best types of natural light. Finally, you’ll get few guidelines for strong flower photography compositions.
There are a few types of flower photography gear to think about: cameras, lenses, and accessories (such as flashes and tripods).
My camera recommendation is straightforward: the best cameras for photographing flowers are DSLRs. They offer great flexibility in terms of settings and have a huge array of excellent lenses available.
Which DSLR camera should you use? Especially if you are a beginner, it matters little. Most DSLRs allow for outstanding quality images, whether marketed for professionals or consumers.
Mirrorless cameras are another option. However, the macro lens line-up is still fairly limited. So at least for the time being, I’d go with a DSLR.
First, take note: It is possible to get good images of flowers using any lens, macro or non-macro, wide-angle or telephoto. I have taken some of my best flower images using a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens.
On the other hand, the higher your lens’s magnification capabilities, the more opportunities you’ll have. You can make intimate and detailed images of flowers. You can also experiment with more abstract photography techniques.
This is why I generally recommend a dedicated macro lens for flower photography. Such a lens usually offers life-size magnification, pin-sharp images, and excellent bokeh. Some of these are available for a decent price, and I have written previously about choosing the perfect macro lens.
Another option is to use a regular lens (often a telephoto lens) plus extension tubes. Extension tubes are a cheap way of reducing your lens’s minimum focusing distance, therefore allowing for you to shoot at higher magnifications. The primary downside to extension tubes is flexibility.
When mounted between your camera and lens, extension tubes greatly decrease your maximum focusing distance, preventing you from quickly changing your point of focus. That is, with extension tubes mounted, you cannot take images of distant objects; you are restricted to only subjects within a few feet.
A third way of doing inexpensive flower photography is to freelens. By detaching the lens and placing it in front of the camera body, you can increase magnification (while also generating some interesting effects). I often do this with my Canon 50mm lens and backup body, because there is a risk of getting dust in the sensor.
Flower photographers often like to use artificial lighting (e.g., flashes or ringlights). These can be both bulky and costly. I prefer natural lighting, but a flash can be especially useful in situations when the natural light isn’t ideal; for instance, bright, midday sun.
Flower photographers rarely leave home without a tripod. This is where I’m going to break with the prevailing opinion and say – you don’t need a tripod.
Let me qualify that statement. You don’t necessarily need a tripod for photographing flowers. You can shoot all kinds of pleasing flower images while handholding your camera. But there are certain techniques that do require a tripod. I will discuss those below.
Flower photographers generally aim for one of two looks: sharp throughout the frame or shallow focus.
Sharp throughout the frame requires a very narrow aperture, especially at higher magnifications, often at f/16 or beyond. This is where a tripod is necessary, as this is difficult to do without one. It may also require special techniques (i.e., focus stacking) in order to prevent the diffraction that comes from higher apertures.
However, my personal preference is shallow-focus macro photography. This requires no extra equipment, no flashes, and no tripod. Instead, you use a wide aperture (in the f/2.8-f/7.1 range) to render a small portion of the flower in focus.
The rest of the image is blown out of focus which can produce unique and stunning effects.
In both cases, it is the aperture that is important. The shutter speed and ISO should be adjusted in response to the aperture (though I wouldn’t recommend dropping your shutter speed below 1/160th or so unless you have very steady hands or some form of image stabilization).
I am going to primarily discuss natural light for photographing flowers. This is not because artificial light in flower photography is useless, but because I think it’s much more enjoyable to experiment with the light that’s available.
My first piece of lighting advice is to shoot on overcast days. When the sky is cloudy, the light becomes diffused. The flower will be evenly lit, and the soft light makes colorful petals pop.
My second piece of lighting advice is to shoot in the morning or evening when the sunlight is golden. This prevents strong sunlight from falling on the flower and can generate some outstanding images.
I also like to shoot in the shade with the sun behind me, so that the bright sunlight is falling behind the flower (but not on it directly). One way to ensure this lighting is to find a flower that is in the shadow of a tree. Another is to cast the shadow yourself, by using your head, arm, or even your camera bag.
A final aspect of flower photography to consider is the composition. This may seem daunting for the beginner, but there are a few simple compositional guidelines that will help you take better flower photographs instantly.
In flower photography, you rarely want to have a lot of empty space in your frame. More empty space means more opportunities for distraction, for confusion, and for loss of impact. So instead of leaving space around the flower, move in closer to fill the frame as much as you can.
When photographing flowers, you often have a whole palette of colors right in front of you. Use it to your advantage!
Put color in the background by placing another flower behind your main subject. Add color to the foreground by shooting through several other flowers.
In flower photography (or any type of photography, really), it’s important to have a point of emphasis (or a focal point). This can be the edge of a petal, the flower itself, the flower plus its environment, but regardless, you must ensure that the viewer’s eye is drawn to this spot.
One of the easiest ways to guarantee a strong point of focus is simply to have little else but that point of focus. I hope this sounds simple because it is. Hence, before taking a photograph, rid your potential composition of all distracting elements. This includes out-of-focus stems, as well as bright colors or dark spots in the background that don’t fit the image as a whole.
By following this guide, you should be on your way to becoming an excellent flower photographer. While there are a number of elements to consider—gear, settings, lighting, and composition—I feel confident that you’ll be taking strong flower photographs in no time.
Any questions about photographing flowers? Let’s discuss them in the comments!