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Flowers

Tips for shooting nature's blossoms


Diffuse the light and use shallow depth of field.
Diffuse the light and use shallow depth of field.

GARDEN FLOWERS

The tranquil beauty of a flower garden is one of nature’s most pleasing tableaus. Translating that tableau and its individual occupants into prize-winning photos will be much easier if you keep these few tips in mind:

LIGHT

Some photographers believe that direct sunlight is generally not very flattering when shooting flowers and other plants. They feel delicate flowers look better in softer light that is typical of an overcast day. There is another school of thought that the textures and shadows revealed by strong lighting show flowers at their best. We have seen beautiful flower pictures using both kinds of lighting.

If you like the softer, evenly-lit look, but can’t wait for a day when the light is diffused by cloud cover, place a diffuser of your own between the sun and the scene. There are many commercial diffusers available, but a “homespun” diffuser can be improvised from any pale, translucent material, from a white bedsheet to waxed paper. White nylon parachute material makes an excellent light diffuser.


In the absence of a diffuser, flowers can also be photographed in bright shade away from the direct light of the sun. A piece of light-colored paper or aluminum foil attached to cardboard can be used to reflect a modest amount of light onto your scene to soften shadows, lighten up the background and add a sense of depth and three-dimensionality.

In darker shade, a reflector placed in nearby sunlight or fill flash (direct for strong lighting or bounced for softer illumination) can be used to illuminate your floral subject. If there is a slight breeze, try using fill flash. A small amount of after-flash blur can look effective if you use a slow shutter speed. If your flash is built into your camera, placing a white handkerchief over the flash will diffuse its light and reduce its intensity, helping to achieve proper exposure for a close-up.

When you wish to shoot a flower in the shade without supplementing the light, you will have to open up your lens (reducing depth of field) while still retaining a sufficiently-fast shutter speed for hand-holding your camera or to offset the effect of any breeze. At a wide aperture, the background will likely be thrown out of focus, especially when you are close to the flower or using a telephoto lens. This technique can sometimes turn an unpleasant-looking background into a soft jumble of light and shade that improves the image.

A tripod or mini-pod should be used to avoid camera shake when using slow shutter speeds.

Backlighting from the sun makes this look lit from within
Backlighting from the sun makes this look lit from within

 The same shot with a front reflector brings out detail
The same shot with a front reflector brings out detail

If you are photographing flowers in bright sunlight, select blossoms that are sidelit or backlit to give them a dimensionality unavailable from straight-on sunlight, which tends to make anything look flat and featureless. When shooting flowers with the sun behind them, be careful not to underexpose the image. You may need to open your aperture by a half or full-stop. Backlighting will sometimes provide a pleasing fringe or halo effect. Strong sunlight can also shine through translucent petals so they appear to have a light of their own, glowing from within.

Fill flash is useful to soften harsh shadows when the sun strikes the flower from the side or the back. Bouncing your flash off a white surface will generally produce a softer effect than direct flash.

Experimenting with different light treatments and comparing the resulting photographs will provide you with invaluable experience. Once you hit on a combination that is pleasing to you, you can use it over and over with different flowers and predictable results.


CHOOSING A SUBJECT

Choose a good floral subject, one that is representative of the flower species at its best. Creative lighting and camera work can occasionally hide minor flaws, but selecting a fresh, just-right blossom will save you from worrying about how to disguise that nasty blemish. If the flaw is a stained petal or insect-eaten leaf that can be pruned, then take it off, being careful not to leave an unsightly tear or stub. If there is more severe pruning to do, be sure the natural look of the flower can be retained before you remove too much. Focus on growth - buds, new leaves - for a fresh-looking image.

BACKGROUND AND SETTING

If you have a choice of several suitable flowers, look for the one that has the most-pleasing setting and is in the best light. A background that is comprised of greenery with a mixture of light and shade is usually the most pleasant. Select a shooting angle that places the flower against a contrasting backdrop, for example, a dark background for a light-colored flower. Use a low angle to place blooms against a sky background when the color of the flower contrasts with the sky. Lie on a waterproof matt if you need to get really low. Take pictures when bees or other insects are visiting the blossoms to add interest.

Delicate spring blossoms sidelit by the sun
Delicate spring blossoms sidelit by the sun

 Sidelighting against a dark background creates a sense of drama
Sidelighting against a dark background creates a sense of drama

If the background is distracting or inappropriate, or if you simply want a dramatic look, place a black card or poster board behind your subject. Any color of poster board or art paper can be used as a backdrop, but be sure to either hold it far enough away or at an angle to the sun so that there is no shadow cast on it from the flower.

CLEAN UP THE AREA

A little good gardening practice goes a long way. Clean up your frame by removing twigs, debris, dead leaves, etc. Just don't go overboard and make the area look sterile and unnatural.

DEPTH OF FIELD

Experiment with depth of field. Using a large aperture, which some flower photographers insist is the only way to go, will allow you to direct attention to the one blossom you want to highlight, leaving others in the foreground and background out of focus, particularly if you are close to the subject or using a telephoto lens.


FILL THE FRAME

Don’t just stand four feet away and shoot your picture. The flower you are after will be small in the frame and quite probably lost in its surroundings. Move in close and fill the frame with your subject. This may require a close-up lens or attachment for smaller varieties, or switching to your camera's macro mode. Select a pleasing angle, check to be sure the background is not cluttered and shoot the flower’s “best side.”

WATER DROPS FOR FRESHNESS APPEAL

Water droplets can add both pleasing highlights and a sense of freshness to your flower pictures. Flowers photographed after a rain, with morning dew on them or even during a light drizzle seem to have special appeal.

If the weather has been dry, and if you are not too much of a purist, don’t be shy about adding homemade “dew” with a judicious bit of spritzing. Just be careful not to overdo it and weight the flower down with too much moisture. You don't want it to keel over.

Filling the frame with tiny blossoms requires a close-up lens or attachment
Filling the frame with tiny blossoms requires a close-up lens or attachment
Further information...

Wildflowers

Flowers in the studio
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Fill flash