I call flower pictures my perpetual plan B, at least for 8 months in the year, excluding winter, when flowers aren’t exactly available all over the place.
It is not for me to be at all times in one of the world’s great landscape spots …
And light isn’t always the greatest …
And a day isn’t made up of dawn and dusk alone …
So, what to do when you are so close to home that you’ve shot every spot until the thought of trying again makes you wince? What to do when the weather is bad and it rains, or even simply bathed in a dull gray light?
Flowers! That is what you can do at any time. And that is an opportunity to be reminded that they can be so unspeakably beautiful. Or not …
Now there are many ways to shoot flowers.
The first is called “macro-photography”. True macro, with a typical magnification factor of 1:1, is skilled work. DOF is very, very thin, something like a millimeter or less, so using a tripod is almost mandatory. Getting a tripod-mounted camera in the proper position is not always possible unless you are prepared to cut the flower off first. And, if you want an totally sharp picture, you will need specialised lighting so that you can close the lens down to f:16 or even f:22. And, even then,you may need to focus stack multiple shots, which is hardly a mainstream part of photography.
Below is the one keeper I have of all my flower shots when I needed greater than 2:1 magnification.
So macro-photography is not my plan B. Not true macro anyway, but close-up shots, with a magnification factor of up to 2:1, often less.
Equipment-wise, some macro-designated lenses don’t go beyond 2:1, such as the Zeiss ZE/ZF Makro lenses. But you can also use a tube extender on a non-macro lens (a tube, even a short one, like 12mm, monuted on a normal lens gives you a very high magnification factor, so you are squarely in macro territory), or a helicoid M-Mount-to-E-Mount adapter.
So equipment is easy to come by. How to start?
Well, in my case, contrary to any other type of photography, I choose the background first. Because a flower will be shown against a background, if the background sucks, I just don’t have a shot, end of story.
Here is one example. And yet, the flower itself is gorgeous, the shot I selected is the best of the lot, and I worked at getting the most out of it. But, when you have lemons, the best you can do is make lemonade.
On the other hand, the background can “make” (sort of) your shot. Here is one pictures of pretty ordinary flowers and stems, taken in situ, and processed “normally”, meaning that the black background is not a subsitution to what was there, only a treatment of it. Don’t you think the background is key?
Then, the light. Flower photography can be satisfactory in mid-day light, as you can see from the shot above. No need to wait for the golden hour. If anything, that is not when you want to be shooting flowers, because you need a lot of light to keep your lens stopped down. Now, what if the weather is bad? Actually, that can be a plus, because droplets of water on a flower can be a wonderful ornament. Great photography teacher Scott Kelby recommends going as far as spraying water on flowers that are dry, in order to achieve that effect.
I keep 2 principles in mind, which apply to all other avenues of photography:
Now, once you have selected a scene where you have good background and a worthy subject, how to shoot it?
Wide open, to get maximum bokeh, and preferably with a fast lens, or stopped down to get everything in focus, and preferably ultra-sharp? Well, that depends really, but there are some guidelines:
Look at the 3 pictures above. Everything is the same, except I closed the lens down more, or less, yet the result is, to my eyes, very different. The meaning, the mood, the light, the subject, all seems different.
And you can also single out the part of the flower which you want to be the high point.
OK, so enough with composition, else Pascal will rant and rave that my posts are too long, and back to the gear.
The next question should be: what focal length? Hard-core macro users like long lenses, typically 100mm to 180mm. The typical Canon FF macro is 100mm (the EF 100L f:2.8), and the Nikon 105mm. Zeiss offer 50mm and 100mm, and Sigma are actually into longer focal lengths. My main flower lens is a 60mm (the no longer produced Leica Elmarit R 60mm f:2.8). The advantage you get with a longer lens, for the equivalent magnification factor, is that you don’t need to get your lens quite so close to the subject, making the shot easier to get. On the other hand, your DOF is even thinner, which makes it harder.
Choice of evils…
But you should also keep in mind the use of wide lenses. On my NEX 7, I made lots of flower shots with my Leica Elmar M 24mm f:3.8, and now with my Leica Elmarit R 28mm f:2.8 on my A7R. Before that, I loved shoting flowers with my Canon 5D II and Zeiss ZE 35 f:1.4. Hereunder are two such pictures the first one with the Canon/Zeiss combo, the second one with the Sony NEX/Leica. So much for the “wide lenses don’t have good bokeh” legend…
Wider lenses usually have a much shorter minimum focusing distance (mfd) than longer lenses, so you can fill the picture wth a large flower without resorting to tubes or any other specialised gear. So, how to choose? The answer is, a wider lens will give you much more DOF, meaning much more of the flower will be in focus. If you want to “paint with focus”, or draw attention to the creamy background bokeh, as mentioned above, don’t go for a wide lens. But if you want to record the incredibly gracious curves of petals, then a wide lens is your tool of choice.
OK, last point (there are many things to say, but I have to humor Pascal’s Thought Police, and my tenure here is only as good as his mood, so…), what NOT to do.
The problem with flowers is that they are naturally incredibly beautiful. In the extraordinary words of Angelus Silesius: “a rose is without a “why”. Beautiful because it is beautiful”. That means, it is just so easy to get a technically good shot of a beautiful subject. But the result could be boring, boring, boring….
When I look back at my early flower shots, boy! have I been down that road… a flat-ish flower, fully in focus, with nothing contributed by the background or the light. I re-did a couple of those just for you, to say: don’t do this, be better than I was. With this, I must leave. And, just to show you how this is done, this last picture was shot 100m from where I live, on a rainy afternoon. I walk past there every day, and that day had nothing special. Except that, because I chose to have my gear with me, and because I know that undisguished flowers in uninspiring weather can still yield worthwhile results, I took something away that will keep me warm in winter months.
Oh, and one last thing. Shooting flowers is not for the impatient and the easily satisfied. Because the focusing distance is short, any small mistake will look big, and kill your shot. So do not be disappointed if you keeper rate is low. Similarly, because you will be painting with focus and light, try many approaches. I rarely take more than 10 pictures of the same landscape shot. But I am easily drawn to 30 or 40 shots of the same flower, and very rarely only keep more than 1. This morning I went to to get some pics of the last flowers for this summer season. I took 60 pictures, 50 of them concentrated on just 2 flowers. meaning, if I get 1 really nice shot, and 2 that are OK, I will be fulfilled. Ok, this is what I have to show for 90mn’s early Saturday. Worth it? Let me know what you think
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Hi Philippe, thanks for the great article. I like the “check your background first” approach. It’s always tempting, as a photographer, to focus all our attention on a subject rather than on the pleasing aspect of the whole frame.
I also think flowers are a particularly important aspect of travel photography. As are windows, mail boxes, doors, cars … Tourists often flock to the popular sites and return disappointed by their images of icons we have all seems thousands of times on the web, often shot by highly talented pros with incredible settings, that lack surprise and emotion. Real travel photography is about local culture, about how the “local familiar” is different from our own familiar. If you hone you flower photo skills at home, your flower photos in exotic lands will be very powerful images and souvenirs. Much more so than the average snapshop of Big Ben.
About my ranting 😉 As a content marketing pro, my feeling is that an article is only too long when it dilutes information and entertainment. No so here, and your tenure is quite safe 😉 And don’t let my particular gear neurosis impact your writing. Flowers are more important than lenses 🙂
Wonderful article! Thanks for all your insight. You have help me validate some of my techniques. Lately I’ve taken to shooting with my Canon 14mm f/2.8 lens (originally planned for architecture) and I’m,loving many of the results I get. Some may think there is not enough creaminess in the bokeh But I like both creamy and circular bokeh.
Appreciate your article!