My wife is an avid gardener and for more years than I can remember, I have accompanied her on a wide range of garden tours and other such outings. While gardening is of little interest to me per se, I do find some enjoyment in capturing images of flowers and foliage. And, on the odd occasion I have shot videos of private and public gardens.
From a still photography standpoint my technique is rather simple. I shoot handheld with a telephoto lens, most often my Nikkor 70-200 f/4 VR with my D800, sometimes even adding my TC-17E II teleconverter for extra reach when needed. If I am out with my Nikon 1 V2, I usually use the 1 Nikon 30-110 f/3.8-5.6.
I always try and shoot with white balance set for direct sunlight, cloudy, or shade depending on the individual conditions. I never use a flash or drag a tripod around with me. I also never manually adjust the position of any flowers or plants, trying instead to find the exact right viewing angle, background and lighting conditions that appeal to my sense of color and balance. I prefer using my D800, because of its incredible resolving power and good low-light capability, as it is often difficult to shoot at low ISOs. That’s not to say that one should never use a tripod and a proper macro setup – ideally, that’s what you want to use to get the best results.
My setup works for me, because it gives me flexibility to move around and change angles very quickly – crouching, lying on my belly, and sometimes putting myself in contortionist-like positions are often required in order for me to get the shot I want. Also, since I am often on private property during a garden tour, it is inappropriate to bring a tripod, blocking pathways, and otherwise inconveniencing homeowners and other visitors to their gardens.
One of my favorite times to do this type of photography is right after a light rain when colors can be very intense and the plants still have water droplets on them to add some additional interest. Partially cloudy or overcast days are much preferred over bright, sunny ones.
I find using a long telephoto lens helps me better isolate individual flowers that may be buried towards the back of a flower bed or in a similarly awkward position, which makes them inaccessible to photograph with a shorter lens. Using a telephoto lens makes this type of photography faster to do, and much more discreet. Image stabilization / vibration reduction obviously helps a great deal when shooting hand-held.
As we are getting into much warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere, I would encourage our readers to experiment with some flower photography using telephoto lenses. It will teach you a great deal about distance, depth of field and subject isolation capabilities of your setup. Start out with a very basic setup – it does not have to be expensive. A 55-200mm or a 70-300mm lens would be very suitable for this type of photography. Lenses with a short “minimum focus distance” are ideal, because they allow you to get very close, while still maintaining the ability to focus.
Get close to the flower you are about to photograph, set the focal length of the lens as long as possible for shallow depth of field. Next, set your camera to Aperture Priority mode with the lens aperture set to the smallest f number like f/3.5 (might be f/5.6 at long focal lengths), turn Auto ISO on, turn on Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction and you should be ready to go!
At very close distances and long focal lengths, you might find large apertures to create very shallow depth of field, which might only bring a very small portion of the flower in focus. If you want more in focus while still keeping the background blurry and smooth, make sure that the background is clear of other flowers / objects, or they are in the distance. Next, start increasing your f number (say from f/5.6 to f/11) and that should do the trick. If you are very close at “macro” distances, you might need to increase the f number even more!
If you have experimented with photographing flowers before, please feel free to share a link to your gallery or photos below!
Article and all images are Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved, no use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.