How to Photograph Flowers -- Part II

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

www.ronbigelow.com

Now that the technical aspects of flower photography have been mastered, it is time to delve into the artistic side.

Pristine with Character

Suppose that a chef wanted to create a great meal for a special guest. How successful would he be if he started out with poor ingredients? If his vegetables were not fresh and the bread was moldy, it would be pretty much impossible to create an enticing gourmet meal. For a great meal, it is imperative that the chef start with the proper components.

It is no different with flower photography. In order to create great flower images, one must start with the proper components. In this case, the proper components are the flowers. However, not just any flower will do. The flowers must meet two criteria. The first criterion is that the flowers must be in pristine condition. This means that the flowers must be physically perfect. Flowers that are not perfectly fresh, have marks, or have been partially eaten by bugs should not be used.

Figure 1: Flower not in Pristine Condition

Figure 1 illustrates this point. At first, this flower might seem like a good choice for a flower image. Nonetheless, a closer examination of the flower shows the flower has aged. The tip of the top petal has started to dry up.

Figure 2: Close-up of Dried Up Portion of Flower
This can be seen in the close-up crop in Figure 2. Thus, this flower is not acceptable for flower photography

Having a pristine flower is a start, but it is not enough, by itself, to guarantee a great flower image. Thus, the second criterion is that the flower must have character. Now, character is a bit hard to define. Perhaps, the best way to describe character is that it is something that grabs one’s attention.

Figure 3: Flower with no Character

Figures 3 and 4 demonstrate this concept. Figure 3 shows a flower. Now, the flower might be nice to look at, but it is kind of ordinary. There is nothing about this flower that particularly grabs one’s attention.

Figure 4: Flower with Character
Figure 4 also shows a flower. However, this flower has some character. It is much more likely to grab a person’s attention than the previous flower. Thus, this flower would make a much better subject for a flower image.

Center of Interest

Figure 5: Center of Interest

Most good flower images have a strong center of interest (COI). The COI is the thing that grabs the attention of the viewer. This can be seen in Figure 5. The bug on the flower clearly demands the viewer’s attention. Clearly, the bug is the COI in this image.

This image also demonstrates a couple of important points about the COI. First, the COI is the object around which the rest of the image revolves. What this means is that the purpose of the rest of the image is to support and enhance the COI. This is clearly seen in Figure 5. The yellow color of the flower strongly contrasts with the green color of the insect which helps the insect to stand out. In addition, the center of the flower provides a simple pattern that contrasts with the lines of the insect which further makes the insect prominent in the image. Clearly, the rest of the image serves to bring attention to the insect and make if the most important part of the image.

The second point is that the viewer’s attention is constantly drawn back to the COI. As one views Figure 5, one will usually first notice the insect. After viewing the insect, the viewer’s eye will tend to examine the rest of the flower. However, the viewer’s eye will repeatedly return to the insect. This shows that the COI not only grabs the viewer’s attention, it also serves as a comfortable resting place for the viewer’s attention. This is a very important point because, without a strong COI, the viewer’s attention randomly roams around the image looking for something of interest; finding nothing, the viewer quickly looses interest in the image.

Figure 6: Subtle Center of Interest

Sometimes, the COI is fairly obvious such as with the insect in Figure 5. However, at other times, the COI can be more subtle. This is show in Figure 6.

At first, one might think that there is no COI in this image. However, after viewing the image for a little while, it becomes obvious that the viewer’s attention keeps coming back to the graceful curve of the petal that works its way to the top of the image. Furthermore, the rest of the image supports this curve. The portion of the image directly behind the curved petal provides a dark blue contrast to the light tone of the curved petal. The bright yellow on the lower petal serves as a leading line that leads the eye into the curved petal. It becomes obvious that the curved petal is the COI of this image. Consequently, while the COI of this image may be more subtle, the image still has a good COI.

Composition

Composition consists of how the objects in an image are arranged with respect to each other. Now, there are many components of composition. A comprehensive coverage of the components of composition is beyond the scope of this article series. However, two basic aspects of composition will be covered:

Figure 7: Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds states that an image should be divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The COI should be placed at one of the intersections of the dividing lines. Figure 7 demonstrates application of the rule of thirds. The COI, the flower, is placed at the intersection of the red, dividing lines.

Figure 8: Golden Triangle

An alternative approach is the golden triangle. Figure 8 demonstrates the golden triangle. When using the golden triangle, a diagonal is drawn from one corner of the image to the opposing corner. Then, lines are drawn from the other two corners such that they intersect perpendicularly with the first diagonal. The COI is placed near one of the intersections of these lines.

Application of the rule of thirds or golden triangle helps make an image more dynamic and balanced. In fact, research has shown that people’s eyes tend to gravitate to the areas of an image located at the intersections of the dividing lines of the rule of thirds and golden triangle. In contrast, placing the COI at the dead center of the image can make the image have a very static feel. Placing the image at other locations can often make the image appear unbalanced.

That said, these rules are not absolutes. There are times when the rules should be broken. However, when the rules are broken, it should be because breaking the rules strengthens the image.

SGD

Each person has her own style when shooting flowers. I have developed a style that I call SGD: simple, graceful, and dynamic. These are essentially the goals for which I strive when setting up a flower shot. These goals are defined as follows:

Each of these three goals is addressed by specific techniques.

Simple

Simple Definition: To create a simple composition that directs the attention to the COI and eliminates all distracting detail that does not support the COI.

The simple goal is addressed with five techniques:

Subtraction: Perhaps, the best way to describe subtraction is by a story about Michelangelo. Supposedly, when Michelangelo was asked how he had made the magnificent statue of David, he replied, “I just removed everything that wasn’t David”.

Similarly, when applied to flower photography, the art of subtraction involves removing everything that does not support the COI. Why is this so important? Any element of a flower image that does not support the COI will distract the viewer’s attention from the COI to weaker elements of the image or may even lead the viewer’s eye out of the image entirely. This results in a weak image and is obviously undesirable.

Figure 9: Distracting Detail

This concept is shown in Figures 9 and 10. Figure 9 shows a field of wildflowers. While the wildflowers are beautiful, there is a lot of distracting detail: mountains, a dead tree, and bushes. The viewer’s eye has a hard time determining what is of importance.

Figure 10: Simple

Figure 10 shows the same field of flowers except the simple concept was applied. A COI was identified, the white flower. Then, everything that did not support the COI was eliminated. The only things that were left are the other flowers that provide a contrast for the white flower and make it stand out.

Move in Close: Moving in close helps to make the COI larger and more dominant, and it also removes unnecessary detail along the edges of the image.

Figure 11: Moving in Close

Figure 11 shows this concept applied to a rose. The COI of this image is the center of the rose. By moving in close, the center of the rose is much bigger and more dominant than would have been the case if the camera had been farther away. The only details that are left are the curves of the petals that provide a shape contrast to the diagonal lines of the center.

Selective Focus: Selective focus uses a very narrow depth of field such that the COI is in focus, but everything else is out of focus. The result is that the viewer’s eye is naturally directed to the COI.

Figure 12: Selective Focus

Figure 12 shows the selective focus concept. A very narrow depth of field was used so that everything but the tip of the leaf was left out of focus. This removed any distracting detail and draws the viewer’s attention directly to the tip of the leaf.

Blurred Background: This technique is similar to selective focus. The difference is that only the background is blurred with this technique. Once the background is blurred, any background detail is eliminated. Then, the COI naturally stands out.

Figure 13: Blurred Background

Figure 13 shows an application of a blurred background. As can be seen, the entire flower is in focus, but the background is not.

Contrasting Background: The contrasting background technique minimizes the background detail and strengthens the COI by utilizing a background that contrasts with the flower. The contrast can be of tone, color, or pattern.

Figure 14: Contrasting Background

Figure 14 shows a flower image with a contrasting background. With this image, the contrast is one of tone. The dark background really makes the flower stand out.

Graceful

Graceful Definition: To use compositional elements that emphasize the grace or elegance of the flower.

The nature of flowers is one of grace and beauty. Much of this comes from the lines and curves of the flowers. So, the intent here is to use the lines and curves of the flowers to help communicate that grace to the viewer of an image.

The graceful goal is addressed with two techniques:

Leading Lines: This is a very powerful technique. Leading lines actually do two things simultaneously. They strongly direct the viewer’s eye to the COI, and they emphasis the graceful nature of the flower in an image.

Figure 15: Leading Lines

Figure 15 shows an image that uses leading lines. This image actually has two different sets of leading lines. First, the dominant leading lines are the bright yellow lines that lead directly to the COI at the center of the flower. The second set of leading lines is formed by the edges of the flower petals that also lead to the COI.

These leading lines function as mentioned. They lead the viewer’s eye to the COI, and they also exhibit the graceful nature of this flower.

Curves: Curves sole function is to display the graceful nature of flowers. They do not point to the COI like leading lines.

Figure 16: Curves

Figure 16 illustrates the use of curves. There are several green curves receding into the background. These curves display the elegant shape of the leaves, but they do not lead to any specific point in the image.

Dynamic

Dynamic Definition: To use compositional elements that strongly attract and hold the attention of the viewer.

The dynamic goal is addressed with three techniques:

Saturated Colors: Color is probably the strongest reason that people are attracted to flowers. The more saturated the color, the more dynamic the flowers appear to us and the more we are drawn to the flowers. So, it is not surprising that using saturated colors would be a technique that increases the dynamic nature of flower images.

Figure 17: Saturated Colors

Figure 17 shows an image that derives its dynamic nature from the use of saturated color.

Of course, the question of how to capture saturated colors now becomes very important. There are two primary answers to this question. First, the right flower must be found. Second, the flower must be shot in the correct light.

This flower was shot during a break in a rainstorm. As covered in the section on light in Part I of this series, overcast skies enhance color saturation .Thus, the heavily overcast sky enhanced the colors of this flower and made the image possible. Had this flower been shot in bright sunlight, the image would not have been very successful.

Contrasting Colors: Our attention is strongly drawn to color contrast. Furthermore, this is not just a psychological phenomenon. It is actually build into our sensory/perceptual systems. In other words, from a nervous system point of view, we are hard wired to respond to color contrast. As photographers, we can use this to our advantage by seeking out subjects of high color contrast and photographing them in such a way as to emphasize the color contrast.

Figure 18: Color Contrast

Figure 18 depends on color contrast for much of its impact. When setting up this shot, a search was performed to find a flower that would allow the camera to be situated such that the background was the solid, luminous green of the spring vegetation. This provided the necessary color contrast that makes the flower stand out from its background.

Had a different position been chosen such that the background of the image was the brown rock wall from which this flower grew, the image would have lost most of its impact.

Contrasting Lines: Contrasting lines can also add a dynamic touch to a flower image.

Figure 19: Contrasting Lines

Figure 19 illustrates the use of contrasting lines. Actually, this image uses both contrasting colors and contrasting lines. This serves to make the COI, the flower stalk, stand out from the background.

Wrapping Up the SGD Approach

Now, in demonstrating this approach, one image was shown for each technique, and an explanation of how the technique improved the image was presented. However, when out in the field, multiple techniques can be used with a single shot.

Figure 20: Multiple Techniques

This can be seen in the Tiger Lilly image shown in Figure 18. This image is shown again in Figure 20. When first shown, this image was used to show how color contrast can enhance an image. On the other hand, multiple techniques were used with this image.

Simple: Subtraction was used with this image to eliminate all distracting detail. Moving in close and using a contrasting background were also used.

Graceful: The stem of the flower serves as a powerful leading line that leads to the COI. In addition, the petals serve as curves that display the graceful nature of the flower.

Dynamic: In addition to contrasting colors, saturated colors were used.

In short, this image used most of the techniques presented in this article. In general, the more techniques that are used with an image, the more likely that the image will be successful.

Part III

Part III of this series will introduce some other techniques that can be used to create great flower images.

Articles

Flowers -- Part I     Flowers -- Part III