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There may be several things that tempt you to take a photo of a flower, whether it’s the vivid color, elegant form, or the striking patterns of its petals or leaves. However, all too often the results turn out to be disappointing. It’s easy to end up with a lackluster snapshot—a record shot—with little artistic merit. How can you avoid that? This article aims to improve your flower photos and increase your chances of an occasional masterpiece.
Perhaps we should discuss artistic merit in relation to flower photography. Many people look at flowers and admire them, and a lot of people photograph them, so what can you do to make your flower photos stand out? The biggest mistake you can make with flowers is assuming they’ll automatically make a good photo. Some subjects have more potential than others, obviously, but you still need to find a way of taking an effective picture.
To create a satisfying flower portrait, think about what it is that’s drawn you to the subject. Then set about emphasizing its qualities. Keep the composition simple and avoid any extraneous detail. Even with this careful approach, you’ll often be disappointed with the results, but it gives you a fighting chance of something special. Spend time with your subject and take several pictures. That will help your ideas evolve and your photos to improve. Try not to be rushed.
The only thing you ideally need for flower portraits is some form of a close-up capability. I survived for ages at a serious garden photography level, armed with little more than one or two SLR bodies (crop-sensor or full-frame), a 90mm macro lens, and a tripod. I sometimes used other lenses, but 70-80% of my horticultural photos were of plants taken with that one macro lens.
Be aware that manufacturers misuse the term “macro” for marketing purposes. A true macro lens usually offers 1:1 magnification. Which is to say that, at its closest focusing distance, the lens will produce a life-size image on the film or imaging sensor.
About crop sensor versus full frame cameras; if you were to take an identical flower photo with a full frame and crop sensor camera, you’d have to be farther away from the subject with the crop-sensor camera to achieve the same composition. Since the camera-to-subject distance affects depth of field, this means you effectively get more depth of field with a crop sensor camera. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just a real-world difference between one camera type and another.
There are cheaper ways of taking flower close-ups than buying dedicated macro lenses. Close-up filters, extension tubes, and reverse-mounted lenses are all options. Most compact cameras and Smartphones also allow close-up shooting. The only downside is that this is nearly always at a wide angle, which distorts the subject and doesn’t give much control over the background. Still, you can take flower photos with any camera. Specialist gear will broaden your creative palette, but it isn’t essential for good photos.
The last piece of advice I’d give on gear would be to invest in a tripod if you can afford it. This isn’t compulsory by any means, but carrying a tripod is a bit like carrying another two or three lenses. It gives you more artistic choice and improves the technical quality of your photos.
Don’t be intimidated by using a tripod in public places. Once you’ve set up, you’ll start to lose any inhibitions and begin to concentrate on taking photos. Sometimes you’ll need a permit to use a tripod in botanical or horticultural society gardens, so always check to see what’s possible before visiting such places.
Choice of subject is an important aspect of flower photography that many casual photographers overlook. A pro garden photographer will never just stroll up to a flowerbed and start snapping away.
Instead, there is a careful process of looking for a good specimen to photograph, which means the flower is not badly damaged or decaying. Minor damage to a flower can be “repaired” in Photoshop, but it helps to look carefully at your subject before setting up a picture. Some species do not stay at their best for long and will present you with more difficulty than others in this respect.
Rules are made to be broken, but generally, when photographing a flower, focus on the stamen. This is a bit like the rule about focusing on the eyes in a human or animal portrait. It works well most of the time but isn’t by any means mandatory.
I can’t emphasize enough how important the background is to a successful flower portrait. It has the power to make or break your photo. You’ve always got to watch and control it when composing a flower photo.
There are various ways to control the background of a flower portrait:
A shallow depth of field blurs the background and makes it less distracting, though you must still watch for bright highlights or attention-grabbing colors. A preview button on your camera enables you to see the depth of field and its effect on your composition before taking the photo. You can adjust the aperture of your lens while holding this button down to optimize depth of field (ideally this needs the camera to be on a tripod).
Note: Mirrorless cameras show the preview live on the LCD screen, exactly as your image will be captured when you press the shutter button.
A longer lens has a narrower field of view, which makes it useful for picking out a plain background. A wide-angle lens gives you less control over the background. This is fine for taking a picture of a flower in its environment, but it’s not so good for an isolated portrait.
With larger flowers, it’s easy to fill the frame with the subject and miss out the background altogether. This is an easy remedy to background problems and often makes for a dramatic photo. People like to see close-up detail in flower photos since it’s something they wouldn’t necessarily appreciate or be able to see for themselves.
The possibility always exists of introducing your own background in the form of a piece of colored card or similar. This is more practical when photographing flowers in your own studio or garden, where you can take more time and space in setting the shot up.
The shape of a flower will affect the way you approach and shoot it. A daffodil, for instance, which has a lot of depth, is difficult to photograph close-up from the front. Doing so results in much of the flower being out of focus, which normally looks like a mistake. Taking the same subject from the side gives a cross-section of the flower in sharp focus and is generally more effective.
But, a relatively flat flower like a daisy can be photographed head-on without a problem. Even in that instance, you might want to take the picture from an angle to include the stem. Flower portraits without the stem sometimes look odd, creating a floating effect that seems unnatural.
This whole issue becomes less critical when you step back from the subject and increase the depth of field, in which case you also include more background detail.
In garden photography, a bright day with a thin veil of cloud cover is ideal. The light should be diffused. A hot day and a cloudless sky might be great for visiting a garden, but the resulting harsh light creates a lot of contrast and reflections, which aren’t great for showing off a flower’s color. On the other hand, you can use direct sunlight to your advantage if you look for backlit subjects. Backlighting emphasizes form, so look for subjects with interesting or delicate shapes.
There are tools you can use to control light in the field. One of these is a diffusion panel, which counteracts the adverse effects of harsh light. The diffuser comes in the same format as a reflector, except the material is translucent so light passes through it. This is something you can try to make yourself using a semi-opaque material like baking paper or muslin.
Small reflectors are also useful in flower photography. They help cast light onto the shaded side of a subject to soften contrast and show more detail. Use everyday items like tin-foil cartons or food packaging to save money (smoked salmon is usually backed by reflective card).
Flash is another potential tool in flower photography. In my early days of close-up photography, I attached two small manual flashguns to the front of a macro lens. The extra light enabled me to use more depth of field while maintaining a fast enough shutter speed for handheld photography. Later, I used a fancier TTL speedlight to achieve the same, but eventually abandoned these techniques and stuck to natural light and a tripod.
There are always photos you could create with different gear, but the trick is to make the most of what you have. Even a little pop-up flash is sometimes useful for fill light, lifting the color and detail of a flower that is lying in shade.
The worst enemy of the outdoor flower photographer in terms of weather is, of course, the wind. Perhaps you’ve carefully framed a photo with the camera on a tripod, only for the subject to be constantly gusted right out of the frame. It is frustrating, but I rarely dealt with it in any other way than waiting for the breeze to stop.
In windy conditions, it’s always worth taking multiple photos to increase the likelihood of you getting a sharp picture. You can preview image sharpness on the camera’s LCD (zoom all the way in), but technical differences between photos are more obvious when viewed later at 100% on a monitor.
There are also techniques you can employ to combat the wind. For a start, it’s reasonable to just freeze the moving subject with a fast shutter speed. The only thing wrong with this plan is that picture-taking descends into a ridiculous game of trying to capture the flower in mid-flight. Plus, you can’t focus accurately enough on a moving subject for 1:1 macro photos.
Other ways of combating the wind include:
A beautiful aspect of garden photography is that it gives you a reason to be outside and enjoy nature. Nevertheless, you’ll gain control over every aspect of flower photography if you shoot inside a studio. Not least, you don’t have to fight the weather. Simple backgrounds can be made from colored card or other materials, and you have unlimited time to get the picture right.
Once you get your flower portraits into Lightroom, Photoshop, or a similar editing program, it’s tempting to boost the color saturation. However, you need to be aware that if you overdo this, you’ll “clip” color and lose textural detail in the subject. You’re likely to be doing this if you see the levels data banking up on the far right side of a histogram.
Luckily, there is now a Vibrance control in many editing programs. This focuses most of a saturation adjustment on less saturated pixels and is more refined than a regular saturation adjustment. Nonetheless, it’s still wise to pay attention to the histogram and the effects of your edits.
Many thanks for reading this article, which I hope has been of some use to you. Ask me any questions you like on flower or garden photography and I’ll do my best to answer them.
Please share your own flower photos in the comments below as well.