Flower photography certainly isn't rocket-science, however, it does require a series of simple steps and guidelines to ensure that you will capture the best possible shot. You will definitely need a sturdy tripod, a shutter-release cord, and a quality tack sharp lens. Plus there's the optimal shooting conditions to think about. The correct lighting, a calm weather situation, good composition, and of course having a great looking subject matter.
OK, let's take a look at these elements individually in a bit more detail.
A sturdy tripod is an absolute must here simply to eliminate camera shake and to assist in obtaining a great composition. It's just not possible to capture the greater 'depth of field' (DOF) required without one. The larger flowers such as roses, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, dahlias, magnolias (and also many tropicals), etc., all have very deep blooms which need a small aperture setting (ie: f/22) in order to get a high quality shot with a lot of critical detail right across the entire plant.
A tripod that has a horizontal arm feature is also extremely useful. I use the Manfrotto 055XPROB model (shown here) which has a unique centre column that can be quickly swung around into the horizontal position without removing it. This rather nifty ergonomic function is really simple to use and allows me to get right over a flower and take those close up shots with ease.
Also, with regard to composition, a tripod allows the photographer to take their time, carefully assess the scene, step back, relax and comfortably make those necessary small adjustments needed to create the very best shot.
Today, I would not even consider taking a flower photograph without using a tripod.
Using a high quality (pro) lens does make a difference. Yes, I realize that today's consumer grade lenses do take good pictures. However, when you hit that sweet-spot and get all the various elements right, using a professional level piece of glass will just make your pictures that much better, especially with regard to flower or plant photography which often involves a lot of critical detail that needs to be very sharp. I personally use the Nikon 105mm 2.8 VR Micro and 17-55mm 2.8 lenses which are both excellent optics and allow me to capture all the closeup and macro images that I want.
Please Note*- most close up flower pics are considered just that 'close up' they are not macro shots which would require a proper 1:1 (or 2:1) ratio macro lens. Regular flower photography isn't macro - unless one is shooting extremely near to the plant, ie: the stamens or centres, etc. I tend to think of flower shots as being very similar to portraits. So, with that in mind I would recommend using either a 17-55mm or 24-70mm zoom lens which will give you the digital equivalent of the older 'traditional' portrait 85mm to 110mm focal range in the film era days. Today's small pro zooms offer great build quality, good functionality, and the focal length flexability that you need for this kind of project.
The next piece of equipment that I think is essential is the shutter-release cord which simply enables the photographer to be completely hands-off camera when taking the shot. This is the 2nd step in assuring that an absolute minimum amount of shake is present. I use the Nikon MC36 (as shown) that allows me to put all my focus & attention into the shot at hand and not have to even think about touching my D300 when the shutter is fired. Not only does this totally minimize any possible camera movement, but once again, helps me to relax, compose the frame, and affords a far more comfortable overall shooting experience. Also, if any slight 'breeze' does happen to be a factor...it's far easier to release the shutter using the MC36 at just the right moment - than it would be by actually pressing the camera button with a finger. Plus, this type of unit also has all the usual "timer" related functionality and can be programmed to operate as a full intervalometer if desired.
There are quite a number of shutter-release models on the market these days so finding one to fit your camera and meet your needs shouldn't be a problem.
Now onto shooting conditons, which like anything else cannot be rushed and needs to be at an optimum.
First off, the weather has to be just right, and this is where patience really is the key. Don't be easily tempted into taking pictures when the conditions are not at their best. You can always come back another day, and plan ahead to get the best possible shot. The wind is the most annoying factor by far, and even the slightest breeze can ruin a potentially great photograph. Calm, windless conditions will of course create the best results.
Sometimes I have gone back to that same location 3 or 4 days in a row just to shoot a particular flower when the local thermal currents have proven to be too strong. Often small micro-climates will exist and it can be quite still when leaving the house but later on full of little wind tunnels when you arrive at the scene. Delicate, or tiny flowers will need extra attention in this regard. Even larger plants tend to gently sway, back n forth in a very light wind. Not noticeable, until you actually start to get down to business.
As a rule I usually find that mid-mornings are generally more calm and tranquil than during the afternoon. This will naturally vary depending upon your own specific location, etc - however, having lived in many different places I've found this to be a common theme. I also prefer the 'light' at this time of day, it's more gentle, softer, but new and alive, as apposed to a 'waining' or diminishing type of light, experienced later on, towards the end of the day.
So, this brings us onto lighting conditons which, in turn can make or break a photograph. As shooting flowers is mostly an outdoors based scenario - then this is also closely related to the weather aspect. The best situation is to shoot flowers on a bright, but cloudy day. A partial sun/cloud mix is OK too, so long as there is no direct sunlight falling upon the flower itself, or in close proximity to it, ie: creating a harsh looking background, etc. IF I had to choose between the two I would always pick the bright cloudy option, simply because it has a better overall contrast/luminosity balance. Shooting in the shade (to avoid direct sunlight) on a sunny day can often produce a strong shadow effect, and/or a dimished colour representation. I know it's a very natural emotional reaction to WANT to take pictures on a lovely sunny day. However, in reality ole Mother Nature didn't have our photography in mind when she came up with the flowers and sunshine combination. Unfortunately, they just don't jive together very well. Direct sunlight will always create a harsh shooting environment. Colours become washed-out with a high saturation loss, foilage & flora in general will look faded, burnt, streaked and very unappealing. So, again be patient - do yourself a big favour and wait for the right weather & light conditions, it will make all the difference to the final result. Your pictures will look so much richer and better for it. Plus, it will be much easier to prevent any over-exposure problems, or blow-outs, etc.
What's the rush - right? :-)
The polarizing filter. Some folks on the internet say that polarizers help improve flower photography...in so much as they intensify the colour of foilage, leaves and help reduce things like blue skylight reflection off of berries or small blooms, etc.
Well, I've experimented with one for a number of years and I'm not convinced that they actually offer any true benefits. In fact, often I find that the polarizer will change the "colour hue" of the bloom somewhat and create a different, or even fake looking tone. My Nikon Polarizer II filter works great for things like skies, water, glass and other outdoor or landscape type situations, but I've chosen not to use it with any of my flower shots, simply because I have not liked the effect it produces. However, as I only shoot on a bright/cloudy day, I don't find reflections or glare to be an issue.
Composition and crop are both very important aspects of flower photography. Having a good 'eye' is always a great skill to have...but then again, this would apply to any subject matter, not just plants. I'm not sure if one can actually teach others to have a 'good eye', it's probably an inherent natural ability that one simply has - or doesn't have. All I can suggest here is that people photograph things that they feel a very strong emotional connection with. That way, I believe, there is more likelihood that this inner, latent, subjective, talent will float to the surface and ultimately create a work of art, rather than merely record an event, object or whatever.
With regard to composition I like to use the Manfrotto 410 Mini Geared Head with my tripod. It has a very smooth action and allows me to get the camera into just about any position I want. Whether one uses a ball head, geared head or 3 way head is just a personal preference. I find this unit works well for me and the included quick release plate is a handy safety feature that I couldn't do without. It's also quick to operate. In just 15-20 seconds I'm usually good to go for the shot...or at least in the relaxed position, before spending a bit more time on the final touches, etc. Combined with the 0X55PROB it only weighs about 6 lbs in total, which is a breeze (excuse the pun) to lug around outdoors. There are smaller heads out there but I like this one coz it's got that nice solid feel to it. The same applies to my tripod, I specifically chose an aluminium one, instead of carbon fibre, because I wanted a somewhat heavier, more rugged piece of kit. Something that won't blow away in a sudden gust of wind :-)
My approach is to generally shoot quite close, especially with the larger flowers. Like I said, I view the bloom as the 'face' of a portrait. It's the main character profile, so it needs to be centre stage. Upon analyzing my entire flower collection (using ExposurePlot) I see that the majority of my shots are in the 70mm - 85mm (35mm film equiv) focal range. I never use anything close to the 17mm wide angle on my DX format zoom lens for flower pics. It's portrait style most of the time, except for things like delicate arrangements or spring blossoms, which do require a slightly wider frame or further distance from the subject.
As you can see with my Tree Peony photo here, it's a full on, heads up, kind of persona. A very large, deep bloom, so I will nearly always use an f/22 to obtain the greatest DOF possible. The crop is evenly balanced, creating a uniform framing effect around the picture. Flowers don't have to always be centered of course (just like with my rose shot at the top of this blog) by using the popular standard rule of thirds, quadrant, or diagonal guidelines many unique, different and interesting combinations can be achieved.
However, whatever route you choose to take, do be careful to "balance" the overall frame well. Don't chop off leaves or petals abruptly, let the photograph breathe. I also like to incorporate the 'almost square' viewing ratio, instead of a more traditional portrait ot landscape format. This is because it brings the flower more up front and creates a greater binocular sensory presence.
Many people seem to like the 'blurred bokeh' (background) effect with flower photographs. I too prefer this on occasion, although not always. This is of course merely a human-created visual effect, as everything in the universe is actually 'sharp' unto it's own self. In reality there is no 'depth of field' - this is just how our species perceives the outside world.
The one conundrum that often arises in flower shots is when we want to obtain a large DOF across a flower/plant but also wish to create that very desirable 'blurred' background as well. Ie: a 'separation' effect. IF we use a small aperture (say f/11 to f/22 ) in order to capture a good depth across the entire subject, we then also need to position ourself so that the background will be a considerable distance away (say 20-30 feet) from the plant. Also, it's better to use a longer lens (preferably something like a 300mm f/4)...plus, shoot back from the subject a sufficient amount to optimize the correct balance between the two desired parameters. This way both a deep DOF across the flower and a blurred bokeh can be obtained.
In the Orange Honeysuckle example here (shot @ f/11) we can see this. The bloom itself is very sharp with plenty of critical detail, and the background is blurred adequately enough to create an appealing isolation effect.
One more important thing to consider is optimal subject quality. Always make sure to take pictures when the flowers, leaves, foliage, plants, etc., are looking their very best. This is usually when the flowers are fresh, newly blossomed and in full season.
You wouldn't take a portrait of someone who just crawled out of bed, or who was disheveled, dirty, or had their clothes all messed up, so why consider taking a flower shot in the same manner.
Also, just one more thing before I sign off for now. Prior to pressing the shutter, do carefully survey the complete frame in the viewfinder for any unwanted funky stuff, ie: dead leaves, dried up bits of plant, or even things like dog hairs, litter, and other such items that will just spoil the picture. We are all probably guilty of not doing this at times but a little extra effort sure goes a long way, and it's always a lot easier to fix it right there in real time (in-camera) than afterwards in Photoshop.
© Kev Vincent Photography. Copyright 2012. All Rights Reserved.