Back to the Basics: Flower Photography Tips

Cluster of Darwin hybrid tulips
Cluster of Darwin hybrid tulips

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

At the time of this writing, every state in the country has now either partially or completely reopened. Although we are far from being out of the woods with the COVID-19 crisis, more and more people are starting to venture out to enjoy what’s left of this summer. After last winter and the extended lockdown, I’m sure some photographers haven’t touched their cameras in months. I had originally planned to run this article at the beginning of spring, but I postponed it due to the lockdowns – and the unlikelihood that many people would be able to enjoy the outdoors. With things slowly beginning to return to a “new-normal,” I figured now would be a much better time for an article about photographing flowers outdoors.

I initially geared this article toward photographing flowers that bloom in the spring, but these techniques can effectively be applied to all types of flowers. Also, the techniques I discuss basic (hence, the title) and do not require the use of any special equipment or extensive knowledge of digital editing.

Eliminate Distractions

When faced with an over-abundance of subject matter, the natural inclination is to take it all in as a whole. The photo below is a perfect example. Although it shows a beautiful tulip garden, there’s no real point of focus and the foreground and background add absolutely nothing to the shot. An important question you should always ask yourself is, “What was it about this scene that initially caught my attention?” Once you determine that, compose your shot around it and eliminate all other irrelevant and distracting objects. The opening photo of this article is a much better representation of this garden. I just changed my position and used a longer focal length lens. Remember, less is more. Even though I just focused on a solitary bloom, it’s clearly evident that it’s within a much larger group. It’s not necessary to show every single flower in the garden to get that point across. Instead of getting lost in a confusing crowd, that crowd now serves as a decorative color wash. Avoid the tendency to point, shoot and move on. It takes time to carefully compose a shot and weed out distractions. Sometimes, I’ll spend hours shooting one little area, but the end results are often well worth the effort.

Quick “grab shot” of a tulip garden
Quick “grab shot” of a tulip garden

For the record, I didn’t shoot the photo above as a “stand-alone” photo. I shot it for the sole purpose of using it (or, more specifically, portions of it) in special effect image compilations in the future. Therefore, I was completely unconcerned with all of the distractions it contained. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shooting an entire garden. Tulips are usually planted in very regimented formations, which are quite visually striking. I shot the photo below in Bowling Green – a small, historic park in New York City. I used my fisheye lens to emphasize the circular garden. Rather than distractions, the surrounding elements provided aesthetic elements to the overall scene.

Bowling Green tulip display
Bowling Green tulip display

Come in Close

This sort of goes hand-in-hand with eliminating distractions. But, even if there aren’t any out of place distractions surrounding your subject, tighter shots simply give you more options to work with. The cherry blossoms in the two photos below were growing on two different trees in very picturesque locations of the New York Botanical Garden. Including their surroundings would not have added distractions, but how many shots can you take of a couple of trees? Coming in for tight, intimate close-ups opens up a vast array of new compositions. Collectively, I spent over three hours shooting dozens of different compositions at just these two trees alone.

Japanese Cherry Blossoms
Japanese Cherry Blossoms
Japanese Flowering Cherry Blossoms Prunus “Kanzan” Rosaceae Brooklyn Botanic Garden Brooklyn, NY

Shoot at Low Angles

Eye-level view of a daffodil field
Eye-level view of a daffodil field

The image above of a daffodil field was shot at eye-level. There’s nothing wrong with shooting from this level. It’s a comfortable position for many of us, but it doesn’t really produce the most compelling views when it comes to flowers. Quality nature photography is a physically demanding activity. In order to get the most unique images, don’t be afraid to get a little uncomfortable and dirty. A simple change in altitude can dramatically alter the look of your flower photos. I laid flat on the ground to shoot the photo below. It’s unique because you don’t often see flowers shot from this angle.

Low-angle view of a daffodil field
Low-angle view of a daffodil field

Ground-level work offers other advantages as well. It’s much easier to incorporate the sun in your shots from this angle. The inclusion of the rising sun added a dynamic point of interest to the cluster of daffodils below.

While shooting low, try including the sun in the shot
While shooting low, try including the sun in the shot

Benefits of Shooting on Sunny Days

You’ve probably heard that it’s best to shoot flowers on cloudy days. The flat, even lighting really helps to saturate their natural colors. That type of lighting works really well with flowers, and it’s a necessity for certain subjects like forest scenes, which would be riddled with patches of high-contrast areas on a sunny day. However, as beautiful as flat-lighting is on flowers, the lack of contrast can also lead to a lack of interest. Harsh, high-contrast lighting doesn’t have to be taboo. In fact, I find myself seeking it out more and more. It’s absolutely essential for certain types of special effects I like to do. But it is necessary to use a flash and/or a reflector to reduce the heavy shadows. A lens hood may also needed if you’re shooting in the general direction of the sun, but not directly at it. Of course, the shadows will never be completely removed, but it’s precisely this manageable amount of contrast that gives an image a dynamic “pop” that’s impossible to obtain in overcast light.

Front-lit Daffodils  (left) and Backlit Daffodils (right).
Front-lit Daffodils (left) and Backlit Daffodils (right).

The daffodils (above) on the left were shot with standard front-lighting. The contrast provides some depth, but what really makes them pop is the backlighting. By shooting toward the sun, the petals take on a translucent quality – a beautiful effect that cannot be created on a cloudy day.

Sunny days also offer opportunities to include highlights for great bokeh effects. I shot the shrub roses (below) on a very sunny morning. I used a flash and a reflector to knock down the shadows. At 200mm, the direct sunlight hitting the background transformed the highlights into a sea of bokeh. The bright light forced me to shoot at f/11, so the highlights weren’t perfectly rounded. I could have used an ND filter to force a larger aperture, but I was satisfied with the resulting bokeh. The most important thing is to control the contrast on the flowers. Once that issue is successfully dealt with, you may actually prefer shooting in “bad” light.

Scrub roses shot in direct sunlight
Scrub roses shot in direct sunlight

Create Your Own Background

One of the things that can ruin an otherwise perfect flower portrait is the background. Ideally, you would want to use a long focal-length lens at a large aperture to render an ugly background as a soft color wash. If you don’t have such a lens, your backgrounds might consist of a hodge-podge of unsightly leaves, twigs and soil. A quick and easy fix is to simply carry your own background into the field. By placing a black cloth on the ground behind the roses (below) I was able to replace a distracting background of dirt for something much more elegant and dramatic.

Rose and buds shot with black cloth underneath
Rose and buds shot with black cloth underneath

If you’re feeling a bit more creative, you might opt for colored paper. Below is an image of a daylily I shot using multi-colored Mylar paper as a background. Mylar is a very reflective, metallic-like paper that’s often used in gift-wrapping. When it’s exposed to bright light it explodes with dazzling highlights. Hence, another benefit of shooting on a sunny day. You will, however, need a lens with a focal length of at least 200mm to create the effect you see here. I shot this photo on film in 2001, using a split-aperture f/5.6-4 lens. The hexagonal-shaped highlights were just something I accepted back then.

Daylily shot with multi-colored Mylar paper as the background
Daylily shot with multi-colored Mylar paper as the background

Today, I’ve discovered that it’s much easier (and more controllable) to apply this effect digitally. However, as I stated at the beginning of this article, these techniques are for people who would rather spend more time behind their cameras rather than their computers.

Add Dew Drops (at Any Time of the Day)

You’ve probably noticed that most of the photos in this article are covered with dew drops. I shoot early in the morning, but not quite so early as to always catch the morning dew. To remedy that, I carry a little water bottle to spray the flowers in order to add my own “dew” – even if I’m shooting at high noon. It’s a simple technique that makes a huge difference in the photo. However, depending on where you’re shooting, it’s always a good idea to ask first to see if this is allowed.

It’s been a long lockdown and it’s time to get out and see what you’ve been missing. Try out a few of these simple techniques to see how they might improve your images.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight  departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.