My favorite offshoot of landscape photography is flower photography. It is a bit easier to pursue than landscape, since you needn’t travel very far to get unique and beautiful images. All you have to do is step into your own garden or visit a public garden to find a world of beautiful flowers to photograph. But it takes skill – plus a little something extra – to be able to make really beautiful flower portraits. In this essay, I’d like to share some of my methods with those who are interested in photographing flowers.
The lens you choose for flower photography has to capture good levels of detail, which is true for many options on the market. I have successfully shot flowers using a 50mm lens, but have also used focal lengths up to 300mm with success. Of course, the best lens is the one that you have. You can always make adaptations to get the results you want.
One lens I have tried in the past for flower photography is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 manual focus lens. To capture flowers with that tantalizing f/1.2 is almost impossible to resist. I first used it on my D300s and then tried it on my D800. My experience was, at f/1.2, it is an extremely difficult lens to use for flower photography. The depth of field is very shallow – almost as shallow as using a macro lens and focusing at extreme magnifications. Although I have gotten some lovely flower portraits from the 50mm f/1.2, with an ethereal misty feel to them, my conclusion was that the effort and frustration involved make it a poor choice for a general flower lens.
Depending on your goal, dedicated macro lenses certainly will work. I have used my 105mm macro to shoot flowers. You can get very close up and detailed photos of your flower’s anthers, stamens and pollen with a macro. You can capture bugs on flowers with great detail, highlighting every hair on the bug and every notch on its legs. I sometimes jokingly refer to this level of detail as a flower colonoscopy. I don’t consider my macro as my best choice of flower lens.
Now I come to the type of lens that I think works best for flowers. That is the zoom lens. I’ve worked with 16-85mm, 24-70mm, 24-120mm and 28-300mm. You can get very good results with any of these ranges of zoom. My favorite by far is my Nikkor 28-300, which happens to be my go-to lens that I use for practically everything. I like zooms because they give you a lot of freedom when making your composition. You can zoom out and capture more than the flower, or zoom in and capture only the flower, while standing in one place and seeing what looks best in the viewfinder.
The intuitive choice for aperture is usually going to be a wide open aperture. People generally start off with the largest aperture that their lens has, and it yields great results, too. But one must be careful. Wide apertures have a rather narrow depth of field, and it is tricky to learn how much of your flower will be in focus at your largest setting. Sometimes you have a great composition, but only the front of your flower is in focus. You can compensate for this by backing up a bit and reshooting your picture. More of the flower will be within your depth of field, but often the picture will no longer be as detailed as you wanted it to be.
The next thing to try would be to close down your aperture by a stop or two. Remember my f/1.2 that I spoke of earlier? That aperture caused a lot of deletes, so I tried f/1.4 or f/1.8 and got better results. You still get plenty of detail and bokeh with these apertures, and you get much more of your flower in focus. Now, if your biggest aperture is something like f/3.5 or f/4, as it is on many zoom lenses, just use its widest aperture for the same results.
Some testing is required here. You need to find out how your lens handles, and how your images look at various settings. As with most things, one develops favorite apertures when shooting flowers. If you persevere in this genre, you will eventually develop an instinct for what will work with your chosen lens.
For great detail, you need fast shutter speeds. As most people know, this is where ISO comes in. If your lens is wide open, but you still can’t get a fast enough shutter speed, increase your ISO to give yourself some leeway.
In general for flower photography, a shutter speed of 1/250 will give you the detail you want. A fast speed is always preferable, although there is no use in going to extreme values like 1/5000. Now, that is a bit of hyperbole. I think you’d seldom see one that high, but realistically if your shutter speed is 1/1000 for flower photography you can afford to go slower. A good range is 1/200-1/800. Any shutter speed in that range will give you good detail.
Of course, there are other considerations that will affect how you want to employ your shutter speed, too: your intended brightness for the picture, the potential for blowing out highlights, an ugly background that you don’t particularly want to capture, and so on. All of these things help determine how you want to set your shutter speed. Ditto for aperture, by the way. You must juggle your settings to get the effect you want.
Handheld vs Tripod
I am a handheld person. This cuts me out of the discussion of when to use a tripod. You the reader must decide whether or not to use a tripod; I can offer no advice here. But I will say that tripods work very well for shooting flowers, especially with a macro lens or a big zoom lens that is hard to hold.
Composition is everything. Without good composition, your flower photos will be bad. Good composition is a learned skill. You want to frame your flower pleasantly. If your flower is on a bush, it is usually a good idea to avoid all the other branches that may get in your way. Sometimes, your only option is to clone them out in post processing.
If you have steady hands, you can hold extra branches aside with one hand while you take your picture with the other. But beware of your own shadow! You also want to avoid bright sunlight that peeks through spaces in your branches. These will invariably result in blown highlights, and more often than not ruin your entire photo. A small shift in perspective can often eliminate those bright areas so you don’t have to deal with them at all, which is the best solution.
Sometimes, I will abandon perfect flowers without shooting them, just because of too much sun unavoidably peeking through small spaces in the branches. Those bright areas are picture killers. But if you are photographing flowers that are not on bushes, you won’t run into these issues, since the lighting on your flower will be relatively even.
Another thing to think about is anything behind your flower. An ugly wall, fence, sidewalk or flower pot rim can ruin your beautiful flower photo. So can a busy background. Zooming in helps a lot in these situations. Sometimes, you just have to live with that ugly area of your photo.
The sky while you’re taking pictures is another thing to think about. If the sky is too bright, it can ruin a picture. The same goes for too much sun, which can lead to poor colors and flowers that look too harsh. The opposite is also true – too much shadow can make your photos look dull, without enough contrast.
So, there are about two hours a day in which you can get great flower photos. Okay, I am kidding! But you do need to watch out for the sun when composing a flower picture. High noon is not the best time of day to photograph garden flowers, and neither is a day with too much cloud coverage.
Also, when shooting flowers you want to watch out for dead leaves, drooping petals, dirt on the flower, ants in the flower, black or brown spots, and other unsightly flaws. Many of these flaws can be removed in editing using a clone stamp, but it is always best not to include them in the first place. Learning to use a clone stamp so that the flower looks perfect is another whole area of study. If you don’t do a good job of it, don’t bother at all; ugly editing is as bad as taking bad pictures in the first place.
There is another element to flower photography: artistry. It is that “little something more” that makes the difference between a snapshot of a flower and a portrait of a flower. You should remember that flowers are living things – things that the photographer can interact with and relate to. Without this interaction, you get a snapshot. With it, you capture the essence of the flower.
A more scientific word would be intent. I think that all good photographers interact with whatever they are photographing. That is shooting with intent. I know that this is a necessary element to flower photography. The way I word it to myself is that the flower has to let you in. Some days they just don’t open themselves to you; that’s when you get a snapshot. The next day, a flower will open itself to you, and your picture will take your breath away. Feeling is a big part of flower photography.
It takes time to become really good at flower photography. It can take years to develop the eye for good composition and technique. But the journey is fun! I hope these tips are helpful to anybody who wants to be successful at capturing the beauty of flowers.
Thank you to reader Elaine Lansdown for this guest post, submitted as part of the Photography Life guest post contest! To see more of her flower photography and other work, take a look at Elaine’s website.