How to Photograph Flowers
by Robert Berdan
July 20, 2010
(prepared for Olds College HORT Week - Download Notes PDF format)
Download Free Slide Show (PDF format 17 MB - 1920 x 1080 High Definition )
I believe we are attracted to flowers because of their beautiful colours and sensuous shapes. Flowers are colourful because they need to attract pollinators like insects and humming birds which in turn feed on their nectar and pollinate the flowers. New photographers are also often attracted to flower photography but soon discover that taking great pictures of flowers can be challenging. While the flowers won't run away, they bend and move in the wind and the closer you get with your camera the more evident any kind of movement becomes. Most serious or professional photographers will use digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras with a macro lens and a tripod either in the field or in a studio to take flower photographs. Digital compact cameras however have one advantage, most of them permit the photographer to get close without requiring a special macro lens - the cameras simply need to be set to macro mode. This short article will feature some ideas, tips and suggestions on how to take better pictures of flowers with the emphasis on garden flowers though some of the pictures are of wild flowers. For those interested in wild flowers and more information about macrophotography in general please see my article on Wildflower photography in the Canadian Rockies and you can view a slide show on macrophotography basics . This article will discuss 1) Composition 2) Lighting 3) Exposure and 4) Ideas for creative flower photography.
Photograph of Oriental Lily taken in my Garden - you don't have to travel far to find beautiful flowers.
Composition refers to the placement of elements in a photograph or artwork. Good composition occurs when all the elements within the picture provide a sense of unity or sense of belonging where each picture element supports the main subject. To achieve this we must organize the elements so the picture appears as a whole and anything that does not belong in the picture is eliminated. Many new photographers tend to include too much in their images. By removing elements and simplifying the image anyone can make their flower compositions more effective.
Most photographers use cameras that have a rectangular frame with proportions of 3:2 or 4:3 with a few photographers using a square picture frame. As a result most photographs taken are usually in the horizontal format. One simple way to take more interesting photographs of flowers is to include vertical compositions. Consider shooting both both horizontal and vertical pictures for maximum flexibility.
Provide a sense of Unity or belonging in your picture through Dominance
After deciding whether to shoot vertically or horizontally, you need to decide what the main element in your picture should be and what other elements to include. Eliminate anything from the picture that does not support the main element. Check that there are no distracting elements or bright spots in the background. Check that nothing is creeping into the side of the frame that might distract a viewer. As for placing the flower in the frame this will vary - sometimes the center is the best place, sometimes slightly off to one side. The rule of thirds (see my article on composition) which is often useful for landscapes, portraits and wildlife photography often doesn't work well with flowers in my experience. Instead I would like to suggest some alternative ideas for flower composition based on dominance and subordination. The dominant element is simply the one that a viewer is likely to see first, then they will explore the subordinate elements which should support or in someway make the dominant element more interesting to the viewer and in this regard provides unity where all the elements have a sense of belonging.
Dominance in a photograph can be achieved by making the main element stand out or be more noticeable. This can be achieved by:
1) Size - make the dominant element the largest element in the picture with other supporting elements smaller.
2) The most dominant element can simply be the most colourful element in a picture.
3) Another way to achieve dominance is to arrange the elements so the most important element is in focus while other elements are out of focus i.e. using selective focus.
After composition, good light is an essential element in flower photography. Generally bright sunlight is not suitable for flower photography though there are exceptions. Bright sunlight usually results in dark blocked up shadows and hot spots or bright areas in the image that are distracting and unattractive. Most flowers will look their best in soft diffused light that occurs in the shade or can be created artificially with an umbrella or diffusion reflector. In some instances the use of a flash can make the colours of a flower appear more saturated when the background becomes black as the light falls of rapidly behind the flower as in the glacier lilly above. Back light and side light can also enhance the shape of a flower and light up the leaves and petals
Above Robert using a diffuser to soften the light the reflector can also be used to block wind
A simple umbrella can also be used to create shade and soft light - a white umbrella is best to avoid adding coloured light.
Backlighting or side lighting can also add drama. To reflect some light back onto the flower bring a small piece of tin
foil with your to use as a reflector or you can use your fill flash (set to slow sync in SLR).
Using a Flash can often make for a sharper picture as it will help stop movement of the flower caused by wind. If there is nothing behind the flower and you are parallel to the ground the flash will often result in a black background as the light falls off in intensity. With flash you may need to adjust your exposure compensation so the flower is not over exposed as the camera will see a large black background and try to compensate the exposure by making the image lighter. Bottom line is experiment with flash and adjust the exposure until the flower is properly exposed.
In the picture on the left the Flash revealed a busy distracting background, one way to simply your background is to put a black card or cloth behind the flower and it should be out of focus. The background can be made of coloured paper or cloth.
White balance refers to the colour of light or how blue or yellow it is. If you are shooting .JPG files you white balance setting is important. Either set your camera white balance to Auto or select the setting to match the kind of light under which you are photographing. For example shade tends to have a blue cast so set your camera to the shade setting. Shooting under artificial light or flash also alters the colour of the light and tends to make the picture more yellow.
The icons at the top of the picture refer to the different light sources and for best results you usually want to set your camera to the white balance setting for the conditions under which you are shooting. Custom setting is usually used for studio work. If you shoot with RAW files you can modify the white balance afterwards in post image processing using Photoshop.
Photographic exposure is determined by a combination of your Camera's ISO speed, F-stop used and the shutter speed used. On many compact cameras you may not have the ability to alter F-shop or Shutter speed directly. On SLR cameras of course you can control these items and it's the main reason more serious photographers choose an SLR camera. Correct exposure is one where the photograph shows the maximum detail and offers the most flattering view of your flower. In terms of the picture it represents how light or dark the subject is. Some photographers may prefer the picture being slightly lighter or darker and you need to understand that while a bad exposure is obviously too dark or too light, the perfect exposure will be different for different photographers. No matter what type of digital camera you use, evaluating exposure outside in bright sunlight by viewing the liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor can be difficult. For this reason most cameras offer the ability to preview or see a histogram of the picture. The histogram has two axis. On the bottom or X-axis represents tonal values that vary from pure black on the left to pure white on the right with intermediate tones in between. The Y-axis or height of the histogram represents the number of pixels in the image that have a particular tone. In an ideal exposure most of the pixels fall within the two ends of the x-axis with no peaks at either the black (left) or white (right) side. When pixels bunch up on the right or left this indicates that the image is either over or under exposed and information is missing or being clipped. Images with pixels piled up on the right side mean that parts of the image are overexposed and this is the worse thing a digital photographer can do to an image. If this occurs you should override the camera's exposure to shift the exposure more to the left (darker) using your camera's exposure compensation button. If your cameras has different types of light metering, most of the time leave it in auto mode. On Nikon they call it matrix and on Canon evaluative mode. Adjust the histogram so you there is a minimum of clipping on the right or left of the histogram.
The histogram on the left shows an under exposed image, the middle correct exposure and the right histogram shows the picture has been over exposed. The shape of the curve will vary with the subject and type of lighting you are shooting under. The best photograph in this case is the one in the middle. The photo on the right has no detail in the light areas and this is very difficult to fix even if the image is post processed in a program like Adobe Photoshop. The image on the left can be improved by post processing, but the dark areas will tend to have digital noise and appear grainy.
The pictures above show three different exposures - all of them are good, it depends on what the photographer prefers. To vary exposure find the exposure compensation button or menu on your camera and experiment with making your pictures slightly lighter or darker to fine tune the exposure.
Compact digital cameras are capable of taking great pictures though they don't offer the fliexibility or control that you would have with a Digital SLR camera.
Photograph of Daisys and water drops taken with Compact Digital Camera (Pentax Optio) .
4. Ideas for more Creative Flower Photography
If you are not a photoshop user you can control the saturation of your pictures and make black and white or sepia toned images with some cameras by modifying the settings in your camera menu. If you do use photoshop, I recommend that you always shoot in colour and for maximum flexibility shoot RAW files and then modify your images later in post processing.
To create soft out of focus blurs, use the telephoto setting on your camera and post ion your camera close to other flowers
and shoot through them. You can even have the flowers touch the front of the lens - experiment.
A more extreme example is when other flowers touch the front of your lens to create a soft vignette effect.
Another interesting technique is to create water droplets on a branch, pine needle or flower stem and then get really close so the water droplets act like small lenses. In practice the water droplets need to be the right distance from the background and you need to be in pretty tight or close. When you are in this close the slightest breeze or movement can cause the flower to go out of focus - but it can result in some spectacular photos.See the article on water drop photography by Steve Wall.
In this picture I placed the water drops on a blade of grass with an eye dropper. The blade of grass was held by another small tripod that I could move back and forth to focus on the water lenses. I used a 100 mm macro lens, F5.6 and 36 mm extension tube attached to a Nikon D300 camera on a second tripod.
Water drop technique - 100 mm macro lens, 36 mm extension tube, Nikon D300.
Even the common Dandelion can be interesting when you get in tight - sepia toned image.
Finally my last recommendation for more interesting flower photos is simply to get close, get really close. The insides of flowers can appear like volcanoes exploding with the multicoloured stamens and pistol. The good news is that you can find flowers though out the summer and many botanical gardens or greenhouses all year long. It's a great way to play with your camera and if you get more adventurous you can try your luck with wildflowers.
Want to learn more about Macrophotography techiques? View Slide Show in PDF format.
LInks to More Resources on Flower Photography
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