How to Photograph Flowers -- Part I

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

www.ronbigelow.com

There are few subjects that draw photographers as much as flowers. Why shouldn’t it be so? After all, flowers seem to offer the photographer so much: striking hues, graceful curves, and dramatic color contrast. It’s no wonder that so many people photograph flowers.

Furthermore, it all seems so easy – just point the camera at one of the beautiful blooms and release the shutter. Unfortunately, the images that result often do not depict the beauty that the eye perceived. The reality is that it is easy to get a picture of a flower; it is not so easy to create an image that portrays the elegance, beauty, and intricate detail that the flower displays.

Like any other area of photography, creating flower images that rise above the ordinary requires knowledge and skill. However, once mastered, the knowledge and skill will lead to dramatic flower images.

This three part article series covers both the technical and artistic aspects of flower photography. Part I of the series covers the technical aspects while Part II and Part III cover the artistic. Now, one might be tempted to think of the technical aspects as boring and want to bypass them in order to go straight to the fun, artistic stuff. This would be a mistake. The technical aspects form the foundation for the artistic work. Without a firm understanding of the basics of equipment; light; white balance; exposure; and wind, the artistic efforts are likely to result in disappointing flower images.

So, in order to create powerful flower images, one must first become a skilled technician (Part I), then, a creative artist (Part II and Part III).

 

Equipment

In addition to a good camera, several pieces of equipment will make photographing flowers more enjoyable and successful.

Tripod: A tripod is essential for flower photography. Often, the light during flower photography is fairly low. This occurs for a couple of reasons. First, flowers are often found in areas of shade (such as the forest). Second, low light levels (such as an overcast sky) often produce the best flower images. Consequently, slower shutter speeds are often required to compensate for the low light levels. In addition, for closer flower shots, smaller apertures will be required (unless a very shallow depth of field is desired). The smaller apertures will require slower shutter speeds. A tripod will allow the use of slower shutter speeds without the blurring that will occur if the camera is hand held (blurring due to wind will be covered later).

Figure 1: Tripod with Legs Spread out

Since most flowers are fairly low to the ground, it is essential that the tripod allow the camera to get very low. There are a couple of ways that this can be done. Some tripods have legs that can be unlocked and spread out (see Figure 1).

Figure 2: Tripod with Center Column Reversed

Additionally, many tripods allow the center column to be reversed (see Figure 2). Of course, the best situation is to own a tripod that can do both.

If much walking or hiking is expected, the tripod weight will become an issue. This results in a problem. Heavy tripods are sturdy, but they are tiring to carry around all day. Light tripods are easy to carry, but many are not very steady. One solution is to use a carbon fiber tripod. Carbon fiber tripods are both sturdy and fairly light weight. The down side is the cost. Carbon fiber tripods are much more expensive than aluminum tripods.

Last, it is preferable to use a tripod that has three section legs. Four section legs allow the tripod to be collapsed to a shorter length, but they are less sturdy than three section legs.

Figure 3: Tripod Head

Tripod Head: Most nature photographers prefer ballheads. It is preferable that the ballhead have panning ability. Also, the ballhead should have one knob for locking down the head and another knob for adjusting the head tension Figure 3).

Of course, the ballhead needs to be sturdy enough to support the weight of the camera and lens. This is particularly true when a longer lens is used.

Lenses: To make the most of a flower excursion, a few lenses will be needed. To capture a field of flowers, a wide angle lens will be needed. A normal lens will be required for those times when a smaller group of flowers are being photographed. Telephoto lenses can be used when it is necessary to compress distances (e.g., to make flowers appear close together). Of course, an alternative is to use a zoom lens that covers all the focal lengths that might be required.

However, sooner or later, most serious flower photographers want to move in close. This requires some special equipment. Four of the most common approaches to photographing close-up are:

A close-up lens looks more like a filter than a lens. It screws on the front of a regular lens and allows the lens to focus closer. The advantages of a close-up lens are that it is inexpensive, is small and light weight, and does not reduce the amount of light that reaches the lens. The disadvantage of a close up lens is that a close-up lens generally has lower optical quality than a high grade lens. Therefore, the use of a close-up lens will likely degrade image quality somewhat.

An extension tube fits between the lens and the camera body. An extension tube is essentially a hollow tube that contains no lens elements. An extension tube moves the lens farther from the sensor; this allows the lens to focus closer. The advantages of an extension tube are that it is inexpensive, is small and light weight, and will not degrade image quality. The disadvantage of an extension tube is that it will decrease the amount of light that reaches the sensor.

A teleconverter is similar to an extension tube in that it fits between the lens and the camera. However, a teleconverter does contain lens elements. A teleconvertor increases the focal length of a lens, but it does not change the minimum focus distance. This results in an increase in magnification. The advantages of a teleconverter are that it is less expensive than a lens (but more expensive than a close-up lens or an extension tube), is relatively small and light weight, and causes little or no image degradation (at least the high quality ones don’t). The downside is that a teleconverter will decrease the amount of light that reaches the sensor (usually resulting in a one or two stop light lose).

Figure 4: Macro Lens

While close-up lenses, extension tubes, and teleconverters get the job done, the gold standard for close-up work is the macro lens (see Figure 4). A macro lens is a highly corrected lens that is designed to focus very close to the subject. Many macro lenses create a life size (1:1) image on the sensor. However, some specialty macro lenses can focus even closer. The advantage of a macro lens is the very high quality images that it creates. The disadvantages are that a macro lens is larger and heavier than the previously covered options. In addition, a macro lens is generally expensive (a good macro lens can easily cost over $1,000).

One thing to keep in mind when considering a macro lens is that a macro lens around 150mm to 200mm is generally preferred to a shorter macro lens for two reasons. First, a longer macro lens provides more working distance between the lens and the subject. This is particularly important if subjects, such as shy bugs, will be photographed in addition to flowers. Second, a longer macro lens has a shallower depth of field which makes it easier to blur the background so that the background does not distract from the subject.

Shutter Release: Just because a camera is on a tripod doesn't mean that the camera will be steady. The simple act of releasing the shutter can cause vibrations that will cause a loss of sharpness. One problem is that pressing the shutter almost ensures that a certain amount of vibration will be transmitted to the camera. The solution is simple. The shutter needs to be released without the photographer touching the camera at the time of the shutter release.

Figure 5: Remote Switch

The answer is to use a remote switch to release the shutter. A remote switch is a device that allows a photographer to release the shutter, by using a hand held device, without the photographer's hand directly touching the camera. This device triggers the camera shutter by mechanical or electrical means. Some shutter releases attach directly to the camera through a cable. Other devices are wireless and trigger the shutter through the use of electromagnetic waves. Figure 5 shows a remote switch attached to a camera. Remote switches run the gamut from basic, inexpensive units that provide only for the remote release of the shutter to more advanced, expensive units that have electronic functionality that provides for more sophisticated control of the camera.

Polarizer: A polarizer can improve flower images in a couple of ways. First, polarizers can help reduce glare. Second, polarizers can improve the saturation of the flowers and the surrounding environment.
Figure 6: Reflector

Reflector: Small, collapsible reflectors (see Figure 6) are great for reflecting some extra light onto flowers (especially the undersides of the flowers). These reflectors generally come in white, silver, gold, or a combination of these colors. White reflectors reflect a soft light of relatively low intensity. Silver reflectors reflect the brightest, coldest, harshest light. Gold reflectors warm up the light. Reflectors that have a combination of silver and gold reflect a good amount of warm toned light.

Figure 7: Diffuser

Diffuser: A collapsible diffuser looks very much like a reflector (see Figure 7). The difference is that a diffuser allows a portion of the light to pass through. The light is diffused in the process resulting in a much softer light. This is especially important for those times when the flowers are in direct sunlight.

Light

One of the most important factors in creating great flower images is the light. Without the proper lighting conditions, it will be very difficult to get impressive looking flower shots.

Light has four main properties:

Quality: Light can be either soft or hard.

Soft light is a very diffused and flattering light. Soft light has low contrast. The bright areas and shadow areas tend to blend together easily. The transitions between sunlight and shadow tend to be gradual.

Soft light usually has decent shadow detail. This is due to the fact that soft light has a smaller dynamic range than hard light. Under soft light conditions, a photographer has a good chance of capturing the entire dynamic range of the scene.

In addition to the gentile blending of light and shadow and more manageable dynamic range, soft light usually produces more saturated colors than hard light.

Soft light is created by a large or filtered light source. A hazy or cloudy sky will produce soft light. This is one of the reasons that cloudy or even rainy days are good for flower photography. Light reflected off of a surface (e.g., a white reflector) often becomes soft. Light that is filtered by a lot of atmosphere is soft.
Figure 8: Flower Shot in Soft Light

Figure 8 shows a flower that was photographed in soft light. It can be seen that the tonal transitions are gentle and pleasing.

Hard light is a very direct, harsh, and often unflattering light. Hard light has a very high contrast, and the transitions between light and shadow are usually rather abrupt.

Hard light often lacks shadow detail. This lack of shadow detail is related to the large dynamic range of hard light. In hard light conditions, either the highlights or shadows may lose detail when photographed.

Figure 9:  Flower Shot in Hard Light

Hard light generally creates a stark or severe feeling. This can work to the detriment of the flower photographer. A beautiful flower shot in hard light conditions will, likely, not look very attractive. Part of this is due to the harsh contrast. Another factor is that hard light tends to desaturate colors. So, a flower shot in hard light will have washed out colors. This is demonstrated in Figure 9 that shows a flower shot in hard light. As can be seen, the shadows are harsh and the color desaturated.

By now, it should be obvious that soft light is highly desirable for most flower photography.

Color: Visible light is composed of a mixture of colors. Neutral light is composed of an equal amount of each of these colors. However, light is not always neutral. Often, the color balance of the light has been altered. Most frequently, this occurs because one or more of the colors have been, at least partially, filtered out of the light. When this happens, the color of the light changes. Because of this, the light is constantly changing color all day long, and this affects the color balance of images that are taken.

This is an issue because color affects the mood of an image. Consequently, the color of the light that illuminates a scene will impact the mood of the image and its ability to impart what the photographer wanted to communicate to the viewer of the image. This works to great advantage for the knowledgeable photographer that uses knowledge of light color to capture images where the color of the light is in harmony with the mood that the photographer wishes to create in the image. Conversely, the light often works to the detriment of the less knowledgeable photographer to contradict the mood that was intended.

Luckily, the color of light can be simplified down to three basic categories of color: neutral light (no strong hue), warm light (tinted with yellow, orange, and red), and cool light (tinted with blue). We can simplify color down to these three categories because each of these categories has a different effect on how people respond to an image.

Neutral light, which has no strong hue, is best used when a photographer wants the natural color of the objects to shine forth. Neutral light is found away from both ends of the day (neither in very early morning nor in late afternoon). Light from a direct, overhead sun on a clear day may have a fairly neutral color.

Photographers that wish to use neutral light need to beware of certain conditions. Heavy cloud cover will likely shift the color of the light toward blue. Also, shadows generally have a bluish hue. Light that is filtered or reflected in any way may pick up a hue. For instance, a photographer standing in a forest will, likely, find that the light has picked up a green hue from the leaves overhead. A photographer in a canyon with light reflected off the canyon walls will likely find that the light has picked up a color from the walls (probably a warm tone).

Warm light is good for creating inviting, dreamy moods in an image. People tend to associate warm light with feelings of comfort, friendship, and romance. Warm light is best found just after sunrise or just before sunset.

Cool light is good for creating feelings of calm or cold. People tend to think of deep, calm lakes as being blue. A calm sky is usually blue. On the other hand, people also associate blue with cold: ice may have a blue hue as does the light of an early, winter morning.

Cool light can often be found in the time between the first light of day and sunrise as well as between sunset and darkness. These twilight times often cast a soft, dim, bluish light over the terrain. Blue light can also be found under cloudy skies and in shadows.

For the photographer, the issue becomes one of matching the color of the light to the mood that the photographer wishes to create.

Figure 10: Saturated Colors

Saturation: The next aspect of color that is important to the photographer is saturation. From the photographer's point of view, saturation refers to the intensity of the color. A color that is very vivid is a saturated color (see Figure 10).

Figure 11: Unsaturated Colors

Colors that appear dull or washed out are unsaturated colors (see Figure 11). From a technical viewpoint, saturation refers to how much white light is mixed in with the color. Saturated colors contain very little white light. That is why they are very vivid. Unsaturated colors have been diluted by the addition of white light.

Since color affects the mood and impact of an image, saturation becomes important. Often, photographers want rich, saturated colors. Therefore, photographers need to understand what factors can be used to control saturation.

One of the biggest factors that affects saturation is the time of day. Early morning and late afternoon generally provide more saturated colors than mid-day.

A polarizer filter is another way that can be used, in many situations, to increase the saturation of colors. Part of the light that dilutes saturation is polarized light. A polarizer can reduce the amount of polarized light and improve the saturation of the colors. However, a polarizer is not equally effective under all circumstances. A polarizer has the greatest affect when the camera is pointed at right angles (perpendicular) to the direction of the sunlight.

Direction: The last characteristic of light is direction. Specifically, it is the direction of the light with respect to the direction of the line from the camera to the object being photographed. There are three primary directions of light: front, side, and back. Each of these directions of light has its own characteristics and has an impact on the mood that an image projects.

Frontlight hits images head on (from the front or overhead). It is less used in good flower photography and more frequently used in bad. Frontlighting is often found mid day. At that time, the sun is overhead and tends to hit objects in a rather direct manner.

Sidelight is low angle light that hits objects from the side. It can be a very dramatic light.

Sidelight is great for those times when a photographer wants to emphasize texture or shape. Sidelight also has an interesting affect on shadows; it causes the shadows to become very long. In some cases, these elongated shadows can be used to add drama or emphasize a flower's shape. In other cases, the shadows themselves become the center of interest.

Sidelight occurs when the sun is low on the horizon. This means that photographers can take advantage of sidelight early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Figure 12 shows an example of sidelight.

Figure 12: Sidelight

Backlight hits objects from behind so that the light is shining toward the camera lens.

Figure 13: Backlighting

Figure 13 shows an example of a backlit image. In this case, the photographer chose an object of interest that was translucent. Part of the light was able to penetrate the leaf. This produced a leaf that seems to glow from within. This light accentuated both the veins of the leaf and the contrasting colors.

Backlighting is great for creating images with a touch of the dramatic. In the case of silhouettes, form often takes on more importance than detail.

Like sidelight, backlight usually occurs when the sun is low on the horizon, but backlight has the additional restriction that the light must be shining toward the camera. This can cause a couple of problems for photographers. First, light shining into the lens can create flair. This occurs when some of the light bounces around between the lens or filter elements. If the camera has a filter on it, removing the filter may reduce the flair. Second, the large dynamic range of backlit scenes may prevent the photographer from capturing detail in parts of the scene where detail is desired. In this case, the photographer may resort to one of the many methods used to handle large dynamic ranges (e.g., fill flash or digital blending of images taken at different exposures).

Okay, so how can all this information about light be put together? Probably, the best way is to look at some different types of light

Overcast Light: Overcast light is great for flower photography.

Just after Sunrise or Just before Sunset: This light often tends to be very good for warm toned flowers.

Mid-Day, Direct Light: This light is horrible for flower photography. This light should be used only if a diffuser is being used to soften the light.

In summary, the best light for flower photography occurs in overcast conditions, just after sunrise, or just before sunset.

White Balance

Photography is basically painting with light. The film or sensor is the canvas, the camera is the brush, and light is the paint. However, as covered above, the light that a photographer paints with often has a color to it. Film and sensor capture this color which then affects the quality and mood of the image.

To create an image that accurately depicts what a photographer intended, the photographer must be aware of the color of light and must make adjustments when necessary. The subject of the color of light, and the techniques of dealing with it, are referred to as white balance.

To manage the color of light, photographers have three options:

With auto white balance, the camera attempts to determine the color of the light and automatically adjust for that color. Many people just leave the camera set to auto white balance all the time. This is certainly the easiest option. Auto white balance works reasonably well under the following conditions:

Unfortunately, auto white balance is a very poor choice for flower photography. One of the main reasons that photographers photograph flowers is to capture the beautiful colors. So, the last thing that a flower photographer wants is poor color accuracy. Furthermore, flower images generally have a strong preponderance of one or two colors. This will tend to exacerbate the problem and cause further color accuracy problems. Last, if a photographer is shooting just after sunrise or before sunset, auto white balance will tend to remove the warm tones of the light. This will desaturate warm toned flowers.

With preset white balance, the color temperature is assigned by a photographer, prior to a shot being taken, by selecting one of the preset white balance options. Many cameras have multiple preset white balance options. For instance, a camera may have settings for bright sunny outdoors, cloudy outdoors, shady outdoors, tungsten, fluorescent, and flash. Preset white balance works well when:

One advantage of preset white balance is that it is not fooled if there is a lot of one color in the scene. So, an orange poppy will not cause problems with the white balance when the proper preset is used. However, using a preset white balance is not the most accurate method of handling white balance. This is because the light might not perfectly match the preset. In other words, the light of a sunny day might not perfectly match the color of the sunny outdoors preset on the camera.

Rather than make assumptions about the color temperature of light (auto white balance) or fixing the color temperature at a given value (preset white balance), custom white balance actually uses the camera to measure the color of the light hitting the sensor. To measure the color of the light, a photographer must use a neutral gray or white object to establish the white balance. Typically, a photographer will photograph a gray card, or similar object, and use that to establish the white balance.

The advantage of the custom white balance is that it accurately records the color of objects as they would appear if the objects were photographed in neutral light. Furthermore, custom white balance sets the white balance much more accurately than either the auto white balance or the preset white balances. Therefore, custom white balance is the best option when:

It was just mentioned that one of the advantages of custom white balance is that it accurately records the color of objects as they would appear if the objects were photographed in neutral light. On the other hand, this is also one of the disadvantages of custom white balance. In other words, accurate color according to how the colors would appear in neutral light can be either a good or a bad thing. For instance, custom white balance is generally the best choice when photographing warm toned flowers in overcast light as the custom white balance will remove the blue cast of the light. However, when photographing warm toned flowers just after sunrise or before sunset the warm tone of the light greatly enhances the color of the flowers. In this case, a custom white balance should not be used as it will desaturate the warm toned flowers. A better choice would be to use a daylight preset white balance.

Exposure

There are many ways to determine proper exposure. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to cover the various methods. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that flowers can often fool a camera’s exposure meter. For instance, a white flower can fool the camera into thinking that there is more light than there really is -- resulting in an underexposed image. Thus, whatever method is used to determine the exposure, a test shot should be taken and the histogram on the camera screen checked to ensure that the exposure was really accurate.

Wind

Wind is a perpetual problem for flower photography. Nevertheless, there are ways to minimize the wind’s affect.

Part II

Part II of this article series will begin the look into the artistic side of flower photography.

Articles

Flowers -- Part II