Sinking to Their Level: Shoot Spring Flowers From a Different Perspective

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. (Digitized from film.)

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.
(Digitized from film.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

If you’ve had your gear packed away since the final vestiges of colorful foliage faded from the landscape last fall, now is the time to dust off the cobwebs. Spring is finally here – bringing an abundance of subject matter. Fresh flowers are popping up everywhere and demanding attention. But, you don’t want to fall into a habit of taking the same types of pictures year after year. A change in perspective is a good way to view an old subject in a new light.

Many photographers tend to shoot from an eye-level perspective. Let’s face it… it’s a comfortable position and the path of least resistance. However, it’s not always the best angle when shooting flowers. To capture more unique compositions, you will need to get on their level – often necessitating getting on your hands and knees (or even lower). Of course, none of us are getting any younger, and if the thought of this conjures up visions to the chiropractor, there are a few things you can do to make your life easier. I always carry a pair of gardening kneepads in my bag. They come with velcro straps, so they’re very easy to put on and take off. They come in very handy when I’m shooting low on rocky surfaces. Not only do they spare my knees, they keep my pants relatively clean and dry in dirty or muddy environments. Other helpful aids are right-angle finders (periscope-like devices that screw onto your viewfinder) and adjustable flip screens. These objects make it easier to view low-angle scenes without having to get too low yourself.

The opening photo of this article is about as low as you can go. I shot it 25 years ago with a film camera and a 16mm fisheye lens. I placed the camera flat on the ground, with the lens pointed skyward, in the middle of a tulip bed. After setting the self-timer, I quickly stepped away. Although I couldn’t see what I was shooting, I wasn’t completely flying blind. I was able to get a fairly good idea of my composition by looking at the reflection on the large lens surface. I didn’t have an autofocus lens back then, but even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have trusted it in this situation. I used a tape measure to determine the height of the tulips, and then pre-focused the lens.

Daffodils in direct sunlight (left) versus daffodils partially blocking the sun (right).

Daffodils in direct sunlight (left) versus daffodils partially blocking the sun (right).

Low-angle shooting doesn’t need to be that extreme in order to make an impact. Simply shooting at the level of the flowers will make your images stand out, because it’s an angle most people aren’t used to seeing. This angle also makes it easier to include the sun. I shot the two photos above in a field of large-cupped daffodils with a right-angle finder. The inclusion of the sun adds a lot more interest, but it can also raise a few safety concerns. Obviously, this wasn’t a factor in the opening shot because I wasn’t looking through the camera. In this case, I was looking right at the sun, but I was using a 28mm wide angle lens. This kept the sun relatively small in the frame, so I wasn’t too concerned. Nevertheless, I shot the majority of these images with the sun partially hidden behind the flowers (as seen in the shot on the right). That significantly cut down on its intensity and made it much easier to see what was going on in the viewfinder. I did that purely for creative purposes. Had the focal length been longer, I may have done it for safety precautions.

As a former film shooter, I can attest to how difficult it was to shoot high-contrast shots like these years ago. Film just didn’t have the dynamic range (the ability to record details in shadows and highlights) that modern digital cameras have today. High-end models have features that can actually boost the dynamic range to varying degrees. Nikon has Active-D Lighting and Canon has Auto Lighting Optimizer. I shoot with Nikon, so I set the Active-D Lighting to “Extra High.” Although I used a flash to remove the shadows from the flowers in the foreground, the added dynamic range helped to prevent the shadows in the background from blocking up.

Cloudy days can offer many opportunities as well. If you don’t want to include a large expanse of featureless, white sky in the shot, all you need is a longer focal length and a change of composition. I shot the group of triumph tulips below at a low-angle at 200mm – making it easy to exclude the sky.

Triumph tulips shot at level. Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Triumph tulips shot at level. Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Although the tulips in the foreground stand out, there’s really nothing unique about the shot. Try to look for something different – something a bit out of the ordinary. Tulips are usually planted in tight clusters. Sometimes, a tight shot of their stems can be just as intriguing as the flowers themselves. Below is an example of what you might find when you shoot slightly under the average level of the group. The shorter tulip surrounded by tall stems creates a much more interesting perspective of the scene.

Triumph tulips shot slightly below level.

Triumph tulips shot slightly below level.

Shooting flowers in the field is fun, but it can also be very physically tasking. You may find yourself in some pretty uncomfortable and/or unusual positions. Years ago, I had my mother accompany me on one of my flower shoots. At one point, I had to lay flat on the ground to get the shot. She thought it was one of the weirdest and craziest things she had ever seen. For decades afterwards, whenever I told her I was going out to shoot something (no matter what it was or what the season), she would always ask, “Are you gonna lay on the ground with the flowers again?” My mother is no longer here, but that image of me left a lasting impression in her mind. If you take the time and effort to get the shots that many others might deem “too difficult,” the images you create will make a lasting impression as well.

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.