Taking Pictures of Flower Beds and Plantings
If you missed Part 1 of this article, you should read it first.
When you are photographing a number of flowers, as in a bed or garden image, the techniques are much like those for general landscapes. But repetition helps us learn, so here they are again!
Tip 1: Get it all in Focus
You will probably want most or all of the picture to be in focus. The background is part of the overall image and you will need to make sure that it adds to the overall effect without clutter or distraction.
To achieve a wide depth of field (everything in focus), you will need to use a small aperture (or a small sensor – advantage to the point-and-shoot cameras!). This will usually mean an even slower shutter speed, which means you need lots of light or a tripod to keep a sharp focus.
Tip 2: Composition
Find a path for the eye to follow into and through the frame. Ideally, the flow should be from left to right because that’s the way we read and our eye tends to explore a picture the same way. Think of the picture as a story (remember — it’s equivalent to 1000 words!) or an environment to be “explored”. The more there is to explore or to think about, the longer the eye “lingers” and the more appealing the photograph is considered. That’s why a winding path is more appealing than a straight one, because it takes longer to “follow”.
Consider the “Rule of Thirds” when deciding where to place objects within the frame. For example: the horizon (if it appears at all) should normally be in the upper half of the picture, since the flowers are the emphasis. The main foreground object might best be located one-third or two-thirds of the way across the picture.
As for close-ups, look for contrasting colors or patterns to emphasize. A well-designed garden should provide many patterns of color or texture to explore.
Tip 3: Make it Unique
Change the perspective from the normal eye-level – Try to get higher or lower. When near water, look for reflections — this is true whether the water is in a lake or just a drop!
Tip 4: Consider the Lighting
There’s one more thing you should always think of when taking a picture. Now, what was it? Oh yeah: Lighting! Be aware of shadows and consider using early morning or evening light to add interest in the sky and to get softer, more even light with more emotional color (cool in the morning and warm in the evening).
Almost any camera can take good pictures, but the right equipment can make a big difference, especially for close-ups. The camera I use is a Canon Rebel XTi. If you don’t have this camera, then you should immediately go buy one if you want to take the kind of pictures I take. (Just kidding – there are many cameras that will take pictures just as good and there are a number of cameras that can do far better!) You can even use a simple point-and-shoot, but you may be limited in the ability to blur the background (due to the small sensor).
I use two lenses: an 18-55mm wide-angle and a 50-250mm telephoto lens. The telephoto also has image stabilization, which is VERY helpful in allowing handheld use. In addition, I have a UV circular polarization filter, which reduces glare and increases saturation (e.g. “makes the sky bluer”). I also have a set of three extension tubes which fit between the camera body and the lens, to reduce the minimum focal distance of the lens.
My typical starting-point for a flower close-up is the telephoto lens combined with a 12mm extension tube. This combination allows me to focus as close as a foot from the subject (but no further than about ten feet). The telephoto also has the image stabilization which allows me to get a good focus without using a tripod (which I really don’t like to mess with). I use aperture priority with the f-stop set to f/8 as a nominal value. This allows most or all of the flower to be in focus while giving a nicely blurred background. I’m more interested in showing the emotion the flower brings out in me than a clear photo to use for identification, so I’m not concerned if the entire flower isn’t in sharp focus. If the flower has a lot of depth and you want to show all of it in focus, you will have to use a higher f-stop number.
Although I set the ISO to 100 (the “slowest” setting on my camera), I capture my images in the RAW format, which allows me to change the exposure (effective ISO setting) on the computer when processing the image. Sometimes, I will take a picture I know is underexposed (because the shutter speed is too fast for the available light and I’m not using a tripod or the butterfly won’t hold still) in the field and “push” it in post processing to get a properly exposed image. Using RAW also allows me to modify many other parameters (like color temperature) that are “frozen” in a JPG image file. It takes more memory to store these larger files, but the post processing flexibility is worth it!
After The Shot – The Digital Darkroom
That brings us to the final step in making a great photograph – post processing. This is one of the advantages of digital photography – the computer becomes the darkroom. I use Photoshop Elements and other photo-editing software to process my images on the computer after uploading from my camera. This allows me to convert the raw image into a processed JPG file with additional editing as needed to remove unwanted image elements. Sometimes you may want to further deemphasize the background by making it much darker or completely black. You can also make your picture look like a painting, if you want. Post processing is as important as all the steps preceding it; this final step can make the difference between a common image and a real eye-catcher!
Another interesting thing about digital photography is that the image file usually contains metadata that remembers all kinds of image information, including how the picture was taken (even if a flash was used or not!). I used this information in the accompanying slideshows for this article to give you exact settings for each image. This can be an interesting learning exercise: go back and look at the pictures you have taken that you like best and then see what settings were used to take the picture (whether you manually chose them or not). This will help reinforce what settings work best in different situations.
Well, there you have it! I have given you all of my “secrets” to taking great flower pictures. If you’ve read my other article on taking pictures, you will notice a lot of overlap. I told you: Focus, composition, uniqueness, and lighting are important in ANY photograph. I hope you’ve learned something new and will add some of these suggestions to your own bag of tricks. I’d love to see your pictures. Happy shooting! And if this seems like too much trouble, just visit my website at mikeoberg.smugmug.com or look at my slideshows on AC (you can easily sort them by clicking on the “slideshow” tab on my profile page). There is also a slideshow to illustrate these ideas here.