While I have been taking landscape pictures for most of my life and some of these included flowers, it has only been in the last year that I have started “specializing” in flower pictures and especially in close-up or macro photographs of flowers. I began selling prints of my pictures last year and soon found that my flower pictures were very popular. So, while I still photograph landscapes and other subjects, I have come to develop a passion for flower photography. Several people have asked me in person or online if I taught classes or had any articles written on this subject. Well, I do now!
Taking Flower Close-ups
As I said before, my passion is close-up or macro photographs of flowers. As in other areas of photography, there are specific techniques that will result in the most appealing result. These techniques are a subset or an extension to those of photography in general. If you haven’t already read my article on taking better pictures, I would recommend you read it first. It will help introduce you to some of the concepts mentioned below.
Tip 1: Emphasize the subject — Get close and blur the background
In flower close-ups, the subject is usually only one or just a few blooms. The emphasis is on just the bloom(s) and the background is normally a distraction and should be “out of focus”. To accomplish this, use a moderate to wide-open aperture (F-stop numbers up to F/11). You can make the effect even more pronounced by using a telephoto lens. Use of a macro lens or an extension tube to allow focusing close to the subject is also desirable. You can always “digitally zoom” in post-processing by cropping the image, but resolution will suffer. You can even blur the background on the computer, but it takes time and the result may not appear as natural.
Tip 2: Control the Background
With the background a blur, the only important quality is its color and breadth. Try to get a contrasting color in the background – other flowers, greenery, sky, water, etc. And try to get the same background throughout the frame. This may force you to use a different point of view than normal, which is also good because it can add interest to the resulting image. Just ignore the people staring at you, lying on the ground to take a picture. They will never be the award-winning photographer that you are (at least, that’s what I think to myself)!
Tip 3: Get a Sharp Focus
Since you have set the aperture to get the desired “depth of field” (You DID read the other article like I told you?!), you will have to let the shutter speed adjust to get the proper exposure. This may cause the camera to decide to use a relatively slow shutter speed. What does this mean? If the shutter speed is slower than you can hand-hold you will need to use a tripod or other stabilization method (like built-in image stabilization offered on some cameras and some lens) to keep a sharp focus. Or you can use a higher ISO setting (at the expense of image quality).
Of course the camera has to be relatively still when you take a picture. But, ideally, so does the subject! I’ve found that the wind will always start up just as you get ready to take a picture. Either wait for the wind to stop or take several shots with a faster shutter speed. Using a tripod doesn’t help much in this situation and I generally don’t use one when I’m taking flower close-ups outdoors.
Tip 4: Create a Pleasing Composition
Try to keep from being symmetrical, unless that is important to picture (e.g. reflections in water or a symmetrical pattern you want to emphasize). Use the “rule of thirds” and crop close to emphasize part of flower – petals, center, edge of petals, etc. I look for an “artistic” presentation of the flower that produces an emotional response, not an image to be used in a horticultural book for classification. Think of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers – as large as they were, the edges of the flowers often overflow the frame.
Tip 5: Be Unique
To make your photo standout, you must give the viewer something new to consider. So try shooting across the flower instead of looking down – a different perspective adds interest. You might even consider shooting the BACK of flower (especially in backlight). Even though we are talking about photographing flowers, don’t forget the rest of the plant! Leaves can have attractive patterns and colors as well.
Tip 6: Prepare the Subject
Pick the best example to shoot and make the flower look its best before photographing: brush off debris, pick off dead blooms, etc. Look for flowers with a “visitor”: Butterflies, dragonflies, bees, even ants, etc. Or find flowers with water drops or mist (or bring your own supply to spray on).
Tip 7: Use the Best Lighting
The best lighting is usually even, without harsh shadows. Overcast days can provide a nice even light or a diffusing screen or a sunshade can be used to filter the light on a flower. Or you can take advantage of the sun and use it to backlight your flower for a dramatic effect. If the shadows aren’t too harsh, you can use fill-in flash or reflectors to add light in the shaded areas. Be aware of your shadow! You can use it to shade the flower when you want, but otherwise make sure part of the flower isn’t shaded by your shadow.
Part 2 of this article discusses photographing flower beds and gardens and continues with a discussion of post-processing and the equipment I use. I also have a slideshow that illustrates many of these tips for flower close-ups.