Shooting flowers is an often underrated segment of photography. There are many reasons for this. One being that we have all seen so many ultrasharp magnified flower pictures that we are thoroughly unable to enjoy any more of them. Another one, that one needs special equipment: macro lens, plus rails, plus lighting, plus bags of time. And so on….
I, on the other hand, feel that there is much to be said for flower pictures. First, that is one of the few things that can still be gratifying when the weather is really totally unco-operative. As has been the case these last months in France (I definitely can’t refer to this period as anything even remotely resembling spring). Then, they are easy to find, and/or buy, anywhere, anytime, which cannot be said for really great landscapes. Also shooting flowers can really teach us lessons which are very useful for other types of photography.
Lesson 1. Photography is not about perfection. What is supremely beautiful in real life may not be so in a picture, and vice versa. Here is one picture. The flower is almost totally gone. Only one petal is still hanging there, just. As a flower, useless. As a picture, I find it quite interesting. I call it “the last gasp”.
Which suggests: look at flowers with an open mind. Don’t look (only) for the beautiful ones. Don’t look (only) for the flower, but also for the background. Don’t look (only) for the whole flower, but also for the parts of it. Look at those poppies. Not one is perfect, far from it. But each one, to my mind, is definitely worth a few Mb of memory.
Lesson 2. Put the elements on your side. Flowers can be terribly banal, but with the right light, become quite interesting. Add a sprinkling of water, droplets of which have a perfect shape, and catch countless reflections and colours, and they will look great. If it hasn’t been raining, don’t be shy, and sprinkle them with water yourself! First two examples of similar flowers, one with common lighting, one not. Then another shot where the light comes to my help. And one where lovely droplets add their special brand of poetry…
Unfortunately, the effect of this picture wears off rather quickly, because there is nothing more to it than meets the eye at first glance. So, not only should we keep an open mind as to which flowers to show, but also let’s us imagine how to show it in less in-your-face, everything-is-sharp-and-in-focus ways. Such as intereacting with the background:
Lesson 4. Flower photography is not necessarily microscopy. Of course, most pictures (though not all) will be in focus, and, preferably, at least reasonably sharp. But going for ultimate sharpness and detail may produce spectacular results early on, but not ones that we would like to see on our wall for a few years, for fear of being all too quickly bored.
Yes, some pictures, like the ones above, are about detail, and best produced with lenses (Leica R 60mm Makro Elmarit) that let you get really close. But, unless you shoot the flower(s) really tight, there will be some background, and then you need to look at the quality of the bokeh. Which is not necessarily the strong suit of many macro lenses.
The opposite is true of the shot above, where the full structure of the background is still eminently “readable” in colour, shape and texture. Needless to say, I used very different lenses for both shots. Which brings me to lesson n°5: gear.
Lesson n°5: Gear. With today’s equipment, buying special equipment just for flowers is no longer necessary unless you are going to dive deep into really hard shots. Many lenses (except rangefinders) let you get reasonably close up, around 40cm. Some even closer than that, such as the wonderful Zeiss ZE/ZF 35 f:1.4
Then, all the flower pictures shown on this post were shot handheld, without tripod, rails, or lighting. Which doesn’t say that they have no use, just that not having them doesn’t disqualify one from shooting flowers. Then, obviously, you need to choose the proper focal length. Many macro lenses are of tele length, from 50mm to 180mm. But actually, a shorter focal length will give you greter DOF, which can be desirable in certain cases. Here are two shots, taken at close interval, of the same flower. One, with a 24mm, gives you a lot of DOF, and you can feel the “volume” of the petals. The other one is a 50mm. It looks sharper (apparent sharpness tends to increase with focal length), but depth and perspective are somewhat flattened, again in proportion to increasing focal length.
Which leads me to a bit of advice. As a shorter focal length gives you more depth-of-field (DOF), it is less important for short lenses (35mm and less) to be fast when shooting flowers, because opening them wide to take advantage of their speed will only counteract the deep DOF you get from a short focal length. On the other hand, with a longer lens, a wider aperture will let you get the thin-DOF/blurred background that can be attractive.
And now it is already time to say goodbye, because I am over my quota of pictures per post. Pascal has decided that any picture above that, and he can confiscate and appropriate one of my lenses for each picture above the limit. And he does covet my Makro Elmar, a super sharp lens to use with his super-high-resolution D800E. Just, I can’t resist making that last picture one of a flower well on its way to the rotting heap. And with some droplets, too…. But still a thing of beauty, if not of perfection…