I like to photograph flowers. In fact, I love to photograph flowers! It turns out that I’m in good photographic company. Flowers are a subject that many people want to photograph. However, photographers often don’t know how to approach flowers and macros in a creative way that will show the true beauty of their floral models.
Some folks are worried about photographing flowers because they’re concerned their images will be cliché. I’m here to tell you: It doesn’t have to be that way. Flowers are riotously beautiful. They’re also the epitome of variety in terms of colors, shapes and forms. You don’t need a model release to photograph a flower, and if you follow these tips, an entire arena of creative possibilities will open for you in the world of a single flower.
Photograph A Flower From An Unusual Angle
We’re used to seeing flowers from the front, straight on. In fact, that’s the way the creatures most important to flowers, their pollinators, usually see them. But, often, the most interesting floral shapes occur when a flower is viewed in profile rather than head-on. Take the time to really study a flower before you start photographing it. You may be surprised at the many possibilities that aren’t initially apparent.
Control The Areas Of Focus
When looking at a photo, the viewer tends to first be attracted to the color and then to the areas in the photo that are in focus. So the parts of the flower that are in focus are very important to your overall composition. Keep this in mind as you control selective focus through your use of aperture and with camera positioning. The more parallel the camera is to the plane of focus, the less depth-of-field problems you’ll have.
If You Don’t Have A Macro Lens, Improvise By Using An Extension Tube
An extension tube is a relatively inexpensive tube that fits between your lens and the camera. Using an extension tube makes most lenses able to focus closer and produces images that have a greater effective magnification. I’ve created very good professional-quality macro photos of flowers using extension tubes and a zoom lens instead of a macro lens.
Keep Your Photos Sharp By Using A Tripod
I use a tripod for most of my macro flower photography. You want a tripod model that lets you maneuver easily close to the flower and a ballhead for variable camera positioning. Be sure to use a remote release with the tripod (or use the self-timer) rather than pressing the shutter yourself to avoid causing camera movement. In most cases, image stabilization should be turned off when the camera is on a tripod. Locking up your mirror can add significant sharpness at shutter speeds between 1/60 sec. and 2 sec.
Deliberately Throw Your Lens Out Of Focus
Experiment with throwing your lens way out of focus on purpose (you’ll need to take your lens off autofocus to do this). Out-of-focus flower images can be hugely colorful and wildly evocative. Generally, this works best with a telephoto lens and a wide-open aperture. If your photo is out of focus, you want people to know that you did it on purpose and not think that it might be simply a mistake.
Shoot On A Mirror
One of my most used props for flower photography is a mirror. This is inexpensive and easy to find. Go to any window-repair store and order a piece of mirror-backed plate glass. A small shooting surface (18×24 inches) should cost less than $20.
Many flowers and their petals are translucent. This means they’re excellent candidates for backlighting, where the primary light source comes from behind the flower rather than being reflected from the flower’s “face.” You can backlight a flower in the studio, and this also occurs naturally when you’re shooting through the flower toward the sun. Some of my best flower “portraits” are shot using backlight.
Keep a piece of black velvet handy. My favorite way to isolate flowers is to drape a black cloth behind them. You can do this in the studio, in a garden or with wildflowers. Black velvet works best because it’s very light-absorbent and doesn’t have an obvious pattern or nap. You can buy black velvet inexpensively by the yard at any fabric store.
Use A Light Tent
A light tent is a standard and inexpensive way to provide overall diffuse lighting, most often used in product photography. It can be a great starting point for lighting flower photos.
Flowers are still beautiful after their first bloom. Don’t throw your flowers away just because they have started to fade. Sometimes flowers in decay are more beautiful than they were originally, and if you ignore flowers in decay, you’re missing a tremendous opportunity. In Japanese art, enjoyment of the beauty of something that’s past its prime is called wabi-sabi, and I always look for wabi-sabi possibilities in my flower photography.
Paint Sunflowers Like Vincent van Gogh
Take advantage of the free Pixel Bender filters from Adobe Labs, and use the Oil Paint filter to create flowers that look as if van Gogh had painted them. If you have Photoshop, the software is free, and you don’t even have to give up an ear! Go to labs.adobe.com/technologies/pixelbenderplugin/.
Shoot Flowers For Black-And-White
Flowers are inherently colorful, but their shapes, lines and forms are graceful and interesting visually. Consider setting up flower compositions that emphasize the compositional aspects of your flower photograph and are presented in monochrome.
Shoot Flowers On A Lightbox For Transparency
Lightboxes used for artist tracing or art presentation are available from many sources fairly inexpensively. These can be used as a backlight source for creating images of flowers where the flowers seem translucent. As I explain in my book Photographing Flowers, it works best if you shoot for a high-key result with the camera on a tripod and combine several exposures, starting with an overexposed, bright image for the background. I then “paint” the petals of the flower in using layers and layer masks in Photoshop.
Harold Davis is an award-winning professional photographer and the author of many best-selling photography books, including “Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis” (Focal Press). Davis is also a Moab Paper Printmaking Master. His images are widely collected and commissioned, and his popular workshops are often sold out. He lives in Berkeley, Calif., with his wife, Phyllis Davis, and their four children. Learn more about Davis and his photography at photoblog2.com.