Contemporary flower photography demands a pretty good list of gear. You'll need a tripod, a live-view camera, a macro lens or an extension tube, a remote shutter release, a reflector, focus stacking software, a telephoto lens and a wide angle lens. But do you really need all this stuff? The answer lies in what type of pictures you're trying to end up with. If you're like most photographers, you don't really know that until you start shooting, and you see a few that you like among the hundreds of shots you took. But I think it's a better idea to at least get a notion of the end result before you even go outside. That way, you'll save time and aggravation, in addition to ending up with kept shots that are better, and fewer wasted shots.
Most of the aforementioned gear, save the tripod, didn't exist for the first hundred years of photography. Yet people still took beautiful pictures of beautiful plants and flowers. Make no mistake, those shots didn't look anything like what you see today on Pinterest or in magazines.
Here's a shot from 1890, from an unknown photographer. Its color has been added manually, probably within a month of the original shot:
Note how several rules of composition have been followed. Having the subject slightly offset, using a simple background, and adding foreground interest with a blurred depth of field, were applied back then the same way they are now.
The coloring gives it away as being vintage, but the subject could be contemporary. Taking this shot required nothing more expensive than a tripod. (Other than the camera, of course.)
Here's a shot a friend of mine, Greg Schlack, took in 1979, using a standard 50mm lens on a 35mm camera:
|Greg Schlack, 1979|
And here's a shot I took a couple of years ago, using the entire list of equipment from above:
I tried to accomplish some interesting lighting, but since I was so close I needed to rethink the composition rules for the flower as a whole. This shot has a very contemporary look, and would be very appropriate for many uses.
But it may not be the type of shot you're going for. The point is, you can go out in the field with a simple camera and some thought, and get shots that are just as good as anyone else could come up with, as long as you have a vision.
Will you be using these shots for wedding invitations that need a vintage look? You'll be better off going for the vintage look in camera style and composition, rather than just using an Instagram filter. That is, unless the bride-to-be is looking for "that vintage Instagram thing."
Are you trying to sell them to a magazine? In that case, get a macro lens and start going crazy.
Now let's get into a few tips.
The Tips, for Real This Time
1. Focus Everything Manually
Using autofocus can get you into some trouble in this context, as the camera most likely won't pick the same place to focus as you would if doing it yourself. The camera could very well focus on a blade of grass in the foreground, simply because it's trained to focus on the closest object. Or it may focus on the wrong leaf. This becomes very critical when shooting flowers, since the depth of field is so shallow, and focus is very hard to see on the LCD screen or through the viewfinder. Unless you're in complete control, you won't realize your misfortune until you're back home.
Using Live View and zooming the view in all the way will assist you in focusing manually. If you're outside, the flower will be moving even if you don't feel a breeze. If it moves too much, use a couple of clothespins with string tied to them. Clamp the flower stem in the slot of the clothespin so that the stem won't get damaged, and then tie the free end of the string to a more stable plant, or perhaps to a small stake you've brought with you. Do this with two clothespins in two opposing directions, and the flower will be much more stable. You've probably already thought of a couple other stabilizing methods, but don't damage the plant just for the sake of your shot.
2. Remember Composition
Try not to place the flower in the very middle of the shot, unless there's a specific (rare) reason why you would want to. Generally, the object of interest should be offset one direction or another If you're only an inch or two away, the entire frame will be filled, as in my shot above. In that case, you can still compose within those limitations, offsetting the center of the flower, or using light (or shadow) to frame the point of interest.
Most flower shots will be vertical, with a third or so being horizontal. Let the subject and the intended use dictate how you should shoot. This may make it more difficult to place the camera, but that's just the price one pays. You may want to leave some background space above the flower for text on a wedding invitation, or frame a flower vertically that really wanted to be horizontal, leaving a lot of space at the top because you know it's for the cover of a magazine. If you compose for the final use, the end result, with text over a blurred background for example, will look much better than a picture slapped onto an invitation with text on the blank paper.
Do whatever you want, but know why you're doing it.
For the background, of course it will be out of focus, but it may still be too distracting. Take some extra supplies to tie back other plants, and think about taking a sheet along, to drape over unwanted things that you can't get rid of.
3. Why Are You Shooting THIS Flower?
So you've looked over all the flowers and bushes in the location, and here's the one you've settled on. Why? And even more importantly, why should the viewer care? You'll want to highlight that reason so that everyone else will know why this one's so special. Maybe it's the way two leaves poke out away from the rest. If so, keep those in focus, and nothing else. It could be that the stamen look nice at an angle. Retain that angle when shooting. And speaking of angle, look around an entire flower before discounting it. Interesting shapes and shadows peek out when you look from an unusual angle. Get down on the ground and look up at the flowers, then get up on one knee and look at them at eye level. Your shots will automatically be more interesting than if you shoot from a standing position.
4. Take a Reflector
I generally prefer to shoot in a natural lighting environment, but that's not always possible. Much of the flower may be in shadow, and if you don't have a reflector with you, you would pass over an otherwise great shot. Don't let the little things deter you - you can put in some lighting by using a small to medium-sized reflector, giving the eye a very interesting focal point when the light appears to come from underneath the flower. You don't have to use it all the time, but have one with you.
5. Shoot With Manual Settings.
Obviously this isn't a requirement, if you're just out to have fun, or if you want to shoot two hundred flowers in a day. In those cases, don't hassle with settings. You should have the camera do it for you. But when you're going out specifically to get certain shots, and you want to concentrate on a handful of flowers, you'll be better off if you take full control. Keep the ISO low, between 50 and 250. White balance should be at daylight (or shade, if it's overcast), and left there for the whole shoot, so that it will be predictable when you go back for postproduction. If you're going to do any editing at all with the shot, use RAW instead of (or at least in addition to) JPEG. You'll have much more leeway before the shot deteriorates.
Experiment with aperture. Many people will tell you to keep it small by using a large number, like f/22, so that more of the flower is in focus at once. I tend to go the opposite direction, keeping it wide open by selecting a small f-stop number, like f/4.5. This will decrease depth of field, making the background more out of focus. The advantage of doing it this way is that the eye is forced to hone in on one small detail of the flower. But sometimes this technique requires focus stacking to get more of the subject in focus. Focus stacking means taking many shots of the same frame, each focused on a different sliver, and then combining them later.
As before, do it either way, but do it because you decided to for your own reasons.
Now stop reading about it, and get out there and start shooting!