How to Photograph Flowers
Story and photos by Doug Diekema
Spring and summer are prime wildflower season in Washington. Flowers pose unique photographic challenges, and capturing a good photo requires attention to light, focus and composition, with special consideration given to the elimination of distracting elements.
Optimal lighting is essential to a good flower photo. Direct sunlight is a nonstarter, casting hard shadows and causing blown-out highlights. Indirect light, on the other hand, works really well. Overcast or rainy days (or shooting in shadows) will diffuse the light, eliminate shadows and increase color saturation. Shooting at the beginning and end of the day provides soft, even light that minimizes contrast and harsh shadows. If your only option is to shoot in the middle of a sunny day, look for flowers in shaded areas or wait for a cloud to cover the sun.
The primary subject of your photo must be sharp. That may be a single flower, an entire field or something in between, but make sure that your camera is focused on every part of the scene that you want to be sharp. This can be a challenge with close-ups shot with a telephoto lens, so make sure the sensor in your camera is parallel to the flower’s most important plane and decrease the size of your aperture a bit (by increasing the f-stop number) if you need more of the subject in focus. Using a tripod and waiting until the wind has stopped will also help.
In general, your photography will use flowers in one of two ways: either as a foreground element in a bigger landscape or in a flower “portrait” where one or more flowers become the primary subject. These two types of photos generally require different camera settings and offer unique compositional challenges.
Flowers can be used to create a colorful foreground in a dramatic landscape. For a particularly strong composition, make sure there are some larger flowers in the foreground. Landscape photos that include flowers will require a wide-angle lens with an aperture in the f/16 or f/22 range to assure that everything from the foreground elements to the distant landscape is in focus. On the other hand, there may be times where you want the distant landscape to be blurred, so don’t be afraid to experiment with depth of field to create the effect you’re after.
When your entire photo features a single flower, that flower needs to be nearly perfect, so spend some time finding the best specimen. At the same time, plan your composition to eliminate almost everything else from the scene. Look carefully for distracting elements, like stray branches, blades of grass or even other flowers. Try to find a background that draws attention to the main subject and complements the flower in terms of color and contrast. Just don’t stomp all over the vegetation or damage the foliage to do it! Finally, the careful use of focus to isolate your subject, so that everything else becomes an indistinct blur, is what often sets a photo apart. (See sidebar on bokeh for more tips.)
What is bokeh?
Bokeh is the effect created when the background of a photo is blurred into a soft, indistinct palette of color, and it’s an essential technique for creating great flower portraits. Bokeh isolates your portrait subject while blurring the background to reduce distractions and ideally provide a backdrop that complements the main subject. This isolating effect is best achieved by using a wide aperture (you’ll need to take control of the camera and place it in aperture-priority or manual mode, using something like f/2 or f/2.8). To maximize the effect, use a telephoto lens that can focus at 5 feet or less, maximize the distance between the subject and the background, and minimize the distance between the camera and the subject. If your camera has a macro function (allowing it to focus at a short distance), that can prove helpful. Alternatively, many cameras have a “flower” function, which is designed for shooting flower close-ups (don’t use this for wide-angle landscapes that feature flowers).