An Hour With A Flower: A Creative Challenge

California poppy photographed with Tamron 18-400mm at 185mm.
California poppy photographed with Tamron 18-400mm at 185mm.

Story & photos by Alyce Bender

Flowers have long been a subject of study within the art world and many photographers feature them in their images. Landscapers look for floral details to bring pops of color to their grand landscape images. Portrait photographers often use flowers to set the seasonal tone. Wildlife photographers understand that flowers also provide a food source for insects and birds while providing a nice background for their subjects.

But when was the last time you took a flower, in and of itself, as the full subject of your frame? When did you spend time approaching that flower as you would a landscape or animal subject when looking for compositions? When was the last time you took an hour with a flower?

If you can’t easily answer that question, now is the perfect time to try this photography challenge. Not only will it provide you with something to photograph, but it will have you thinking outside the box in ways that can be used with other subjects. If your pre-COVID-19 compositions were mostly wide angle or telephoto images, this exercise can help you focus on seeing all the details.

Where to Start

Well, the first step is obvious: find a flower or two. Thankfully, these are subjects that are easily found in your neighborhood and along footpaths or they can be purchased at the local grocery store. Delivery of flowers is as easy as picking up your phone. So, what are you waiting for? Find yourself a flower subject.

Once you have that, get the obligatory full-frame flower images out of the way. In no way am I saying these can’t be creative or beautiful. They are just the most obvious shots that many consider when looking at flowers. Taking these photos can help clear those straightforward compositions out of your mental shot list and open your mind to seeing other potential shots. As you’re shooting, though, use this time to really see the flower: the details, the light, textures, lines, and background.

A straightforward image of a tulip converted to black and white to highlight how the light falls on the subject.
A straightforward image of a tulip converted to black and white to highlight how the light falls on the subject.

NOTE ON GEAR: I highly suggest using a macro lens for this genre of photography. I used a Tamron 90mm macro lens for all the examples in this article, unless otherwise noted. However, mid-range telephotos can also be used with great results and I have included a few examples of that as well.

The Creativity

This is where things get fun! At no point should this be a stressful endeavor. It is all about playing with photography. There is no failure here! You’re just learning what works and what doesn’t for your personal artistic tastes, while challenging yourself to find as many compositions as possible with a single subject.

         For me, I like to start with the details: the pistils, stamens, and petals. Experiment with depth of field and camera position to find pleasing, almost abstract compositions. Depending on the flower used, the background can play a big role in drawing attention to those details. For example, having a shaded background and using a shallow depth of field in these images really helped the viewer understand that the flowers’ pistils were the focus of the image.

Close up of a violet
Violet
Purple cluster flower
Purple cluster flower

Details also include the stems, leaves, and all angles of the flower in front of you. Many times, I will rotate subjects slowly, seeing what I can find at each small turn. Here, I really loved the way the colors transitioned from stem to petal on the back of this orchid.

Photo of the back of a yellow orchid
Back of a yellow orchid

From the details, I move on to the colors. I mean, that’s what attracts us to flowers in the first place most of the time, right? So, I study how the colors relate to each other or how petals and leaves overlap. The background also plays into this. If your subject is portable (like cut flowers in a vase or potted flowers), try moving it to different locations or setting it on a table and working your way around it to see how the various backgrounds change. Focus your images to capture the essence of those colors rather than the flower as a whole.

Many times, this leads me to play with intentional camera movement (ICM). ICM is a great way to showcase the colors and lines of a scene over the actual details and realism of the scene. In the example below, my subject was a tulip and I used vertical movement during a longer shutter speed in order to create the image. Other types of creative techniques that can be used are defocusing or long exposures while the subject is moving, such as in the wind or with the help of a fan when indoors.

A tulip photographed using in-camera vertical Intentional Camera Movement.
A tulip photographed using in-camera vertical Intentional Camera Movement.
Same tulip photographed from a different angle using defocusing technique.
Same tulip photographed from a different angle using defocusing technique.

Especially when working with wildflowers outside, I love using the shoot-through method to help create very soft fore and backgrounds. The pop of sharp detail in an otherwise soft frame is very pleasing to many. To do this I position myself with other plants (grasses or flowers) very close to the lens and focus on my subject, which is further back. Manual focus may be necessary if your autofocus has a hard time locking on to your intended subject. Using a shallow depth of field creates visual depth, a sharp point of interest, and creamy framing.

California poppies photographed last year using the Tamron 18-400mm at 400mm while shooting through other wildflowers.
California poppies photographed last year using the Tamron 18-400mm at 400mm while shooting through other wildflowers.

Lastly, or at least the last suggestion I will make here, if you start running out of compositions when working with just the flower as is, try adding “rain.” A gentle mist bottle or even an eye dropper to place a precarious droplet adds a whole new dimension to the scene. No longer is the flower the main subject, but a supporting element. Water drops work better on some flowers than others and you will learn which tend to bead rather than run off the longer you experiment with different varieties. This is also why; early morning is a wonderful time to shoot as natural dew or overnight rain will leave drops on the wildflowers.

A tulip petal with a strategically placed drop and another tulip  placed in the background to reflect in the droplet.
A tulip petal with a strategically placed drop and another tulip placed in the background to reflect in the droplet.
Wild lupine with natural dew clinging to the petals early one morning.
Wild lupine with natural dew clinging to the petals early one morning.

There are so many ways to look at a subject and I hope this has provided a starting point from which you can explore and grow in your own photography. Skills challenges, such as this, help us refine our craft while trying techniques we might not have otherwise considered. I hope that you will consider trying this in your own home and sharing the results. If you are on Instagram, I welcome you to use the hashtag #hourwithaflower .

Alyce Bender, a Tamron Ambassador, roams the globe, exploring Earth’s natural beauty. Happiest in the field, Bender uses photography to connect people to wildlife and environments from across the world. She leads tours, publishes articles, and hosts workshops promoting exploration, creativity, and ethical nature photography. Her work has been recognized nationally and internationally. See more of her work at her website, https://www.abenderphotography.com/, and on Instagram @abenderphoto.