Who doesn’t love springtime? Okay, maybe allergy sufferers, but it’s a treat for those of us who love flower photography. There are some tricks and tips to get better flower photos, to bring out the beauty you see. Sure, the uniqueness and color of each flower will make a pretty picture, but to have others see its profound beauty takes a bit more than just getting the flower in the frame. Flowers are one of my favorite subjects. I’d rather shoot a flower than cut it. Cut flowers last only days, a beautiful flower photo is a treasure for a lifetime.
You can get great flower photos from any kind of camera. Many smart phones allow you to get very close and point and shoot cameras have a macro mode. Some cameras even have “focus stacking” to get the whole flower in focus.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, wildflower season starts in late April and moves up the mountains where flowers bloom in higher elevations in late July. Wildflowers add life and color to the majestic landscapes here, turning a good shot into an extraordinary photo. Note: If you shooting wildflowers, please be respectful and stay on the trails or away from budding plants so as not to trample the wildflowers.
Perhaps you aren’t seeking out wildflowers on trails but want to capture the beauty of the flowers you grow in the garden (or in public gardens). There are amazing, fine art shots to be made from your favorite flowers.
Before you go—what you may need for better flower photos
Something for the ground—You will be getting down on the ground a lot when shooting flowers. I know photographers who wear knee pads or have a gardening pad to get down low enough to get good angles of flowers. I use my always-with-me poncho or a contact sheet that I fold up under my knees.
Rubber or waterproof boots for muddy fields — spring time can bring showers. If the area has had recent rains, or threatens to rain, bring along your rain boots. You can play in the mud like a kid knowing you won’t be ruining your shoes.
A Macro lens — Not a necessity unless you have a DSLR and want to get in close, or get a macro lens accessory for your phone.
A tripod— because you want to keep the ISO low so you don’t get noise, you may need a slower shutter speed than you are able to hold. Bring a tripod that can get very low to the ground. A tripod is also good for keeping focus when blurring moving flowers and for doing focus stacking. I’ve also found that when working with small objects like flowers, it helps to keep the camera securely in one spot as the focus can alter if you move even an inch or two.
A tilt-shift lens— I’m still dreaming of getting this lens for my landscape photos. A tilt-shift lens is a specialty lens that makes it possible to shoot so everything is in focus– the nearby foreground subjects as well as the mountains in the distance. They are pricey lenses but there are a few other features that might interest you.
Basic Tips for Taking Better Flower Photos
Unless you are telling a story of imperfection or dying flowers, look for the best subjects (best looking flowers) you can find. Pay attention to browned petals with holes, missing petals etc. Brown spots can be fixed in editing but predominately spent and dying flowers in a shot where you are trying to show their beauty and vibrance will be at the very least, distracting.
What’s your story? —yes, I write this tip every time because it makes for a better photograph that communicates what moved you to take the picture. I want to drill it into your head until it becomes a mantra every time you look to take a photo. Ask yourself “Why am I taking this photo? What is it about this flower (or scene) that stirs me, inspires me?” Is it the detail in the petals? It’s color? The flow and pattern of the petals? The pattern of multiple flowers? That it livens up a scene?
Once you determine why you are taking the picture, work to compose the photo so you cut out anything that doesn’t bring the viewer’s eye to that which inspired you.
Exposure for the better flower photos
Watch out for bright spots — When shooting on a sunny day, there are often spots on the petals that get “blown out” (become bright white with no details). Avoid this at all costs. Once the whites are overexposed, you can’t recover detail.
To eliminate blown out highlights for better flower photos:
Shoot on a cloudy day. Direct sun makes it harder for your camera to balance the shadows and highlights.
Shade the flower with a hat, magazine or other object. The best choice is a sheer white fabric so sun comes through.
Meter for the highlights. Set your exposure mode to spot metering. Meter the brightest part of the flower. This may underexpose the photo and make it dark, but you can edit it in any app to bring up the shadows. (Another benefit of underexposing is that it often will make the background dark so it isolates the flower in the photo.)
Exposure compensation- Use a program exposure mode and add exposure compensation of -1 or more stops (you may need to test and try a couple of shots, reducing to -2 or -3 to get it right).
Underexpose red flowers and deep purple flowers. Digital cameras can have a hard time recording reds and purples to look like they do in real life. Often the red that inspired you, comes out orangey or blah. Underexpose the photo until you get the right color for the flowers then bring up the shadows in editing
Focus tips for the best flower photos.
Back Button Focusing and Focus lock— When you are getting in close to flowers, or deciding to focus on a specific part of a flower, you don’t want the focus to change once you’ve decided what to focus on. If your camera focuses when you depress the shutter half way (the default of all cameras), the focus will change if you recompose the photo and shoot the picture.
When using a DSLR, the best way to insure that what you want will be in focus is to set up back button focusing. Google or look in your camera’s owner’s manual for directions on how to set it up on your camera model. The advantage of back button focusing is that you press a designated button on the back of the camera and then can recompose the photo knowing that part of the picture will stay in focus.
If you are using a smart phone, tap and hold the part of the photo that you want to stay in focus (and lock exposure), until you see something like “AELock” displayed, then recompose.
Composition for Better Flower Photos
Nothing makes a flower photo look ordinary faster than bad composition. You want the viewer’s eye to hone in on what inspired you or the photo will look flat and uninteresting.
Get in close—Not necessarily macro-close, but fill the frame with the beautiful flower.
Isolate the flower(s)- Unless the photo is about the flowers in a landscape or scene, you want the viewer’s eye to stay on the flower. Along with getting in close, you can make the flower stand out from the background using either exposure or focus.
Bend down weeds and flowers. Often when shooting photos of flowers, a weed, grass or another flower gets in the way. I believe in not disturbing nature to the best of my ability. When this happens, I bend down the intruder to my photo or hold it aside with a wire or under a light rock, careful to not smash or break the plant. At times, this is a benefit of using a tripod where you can set the camera for a two second self-timer delay as you hold the plants aside outside the photo’s frame.
Blur the background. With a shallow Depth of Field the background will blur. Use a longer lens (100mm or longer) with a wide aperture f4 or a smaller number, to focus on the flower. If the whole flower isn’t in focus, you may want to step back and using a smaller aperture of 5.6. Experiment with it. Again, get down to flower height.
Let the background go dark. If you are exposing for the highlights, or underexposing a photo, the whites will have details but often the background (especially the ground in shadow) will go dark. You can further accentuate this by darkening the shadows when you edit the photo.
Try more angles. Don’t always shoot down at flowers, get way down to the height of the flower (bring ground cover to kneel or lie on) or down on the ground and shoot up.
In scenes or landscapes, get down low or angle so the flowers in the foreground loom larger. You may want to try different angles.
Juxtapose colors—the world of flowers is generous. Often orange poppies grown next the complimentary colored purple lupine. Get both in a shot for more drama. Bright colors against a blue sky also makes for a stunning use of color. You may have to get down very low to the ground to shoot upward and get sky in the background. Also consider shooting that odd-ball flower—the one that is a color or shape different from those around it.
Juxtapose textures—one of my favorite examples of juxtaposition of textures is to shoot wildflowers coming up around fallen logs. The soft petals against the rugged decaying bark tells the story of the circle of life in a lovely way.
Look for flowing lines and shapes—one thing that inspires me about flowers is how the petals can create undulating lines, and soft shapes. Cutting out the background and filling the frame with almost abstract lines of the flowers can make for a soothing photo of the beauty of flowers
Look for patterns — whether it’s a field of wild flowers or several flowers planted in a row, repeating shapes filling the frame makes for interesting photos.
You don’t have to stay home in bad weather
Windy days are their own story – I know a lot of photographers who bemoan the wind when shooting flowers. While it may put a damper on getting sharp macro shots, it can be handled with a faster shutter speed and faster ISO. If the wind is so strong that a shutter speed of 1/1000 (and a fast ISO) doesn’t stop the action of the flower, you probably should pack up and go sailing instead.
Another option is to use the wind to tell its story. Put your camera on a tripod so that steady objects like trees or buildings are in focus as it is important to have some parts of the photo in focus. Slow your shutter speed down to 1/20 or slower (try different speeds to see which effect you like best).
Rainy days — Bright colored flower stand out against dark skies. When the clouds part, the sun peeks out for a lovely quality of light. Puddles can reflect flowers. Closeups and macro photos of drops on leaves can even show small images of the surroundings.
If you shoot on rainy days, be sure to have a poncho and rain boots. I carry my camera(s) on my shoulder under the poncho so if the rain starts, they are protected. (You may want to seek shelter if it becomes a downpour.). I’ll even shoot in a light rain by holding the poncho over the camera when I take a shot. If you shoot in the Pacific Northwest, you might want to invest in a rainproof camera cover for extra protection.
Macro Flower Photography
Macro photos —When the beauty is in the details and you want to fill the frame with a flower petal, pistil, or stamen, or to shoot small flowers, you might want to take a macro photo. Some point and shoot cameras have a macro scene mode that allows the camera to focus very close to the lens. DSLR’s often require a macro lens to get an extreme close up.
When you shoot a macro photo your Dept of Field (the part of the photo that is in focus) is miniscule. That is, the tip of a petal might be in focus but the rest of the petal and flower might be blurred. This is an effect that you may like to isolate a part of a flower.
To get a macro photo—such as an extreme close up of a flower —so that all of the flower is in focus requires a technique called “focus stacking.” Focus stacking is a process where you take several photos focusing at various distances, then combine the photos using software to make one photo. To do it right takes precision and technique beyond what I’ll cover here. Recent point-and-shoot cameras have added a feature where you can turn on focus stacking and it will do it in the camera. I hope to try it soon.