You really can’t go wrong if you choose flower photography as your preferred genre of photography. Flowers are beautiful, they are plentiful too, and they never fail to capture the attention of onlookers. On top of that they are very vibrant. The most important thing is that they are still, meaning, you can take all the time in the world to experiment and get the shot absolutely perfect. If you are having a decent enough digital camera and oodles of patience you can showcase your talent by taking some stunning flower photos. Here are some tips to get you started. But before you start, you may want to look at some important compositional rules in photography to improve your work.
If you are a DSLR user you would need a way to focus as close as possible to the subject. The simplest way to do that is by using a purpose-built macro lens. Please note that Canon refer to its close-up lenses as Macro while Nikon refer theirs as Micro. But they essentially mean and do the same thing, they focus close, often as close as a few inches. As a result they can capture a very small object and fill the frame with it. Therein lies the mind-boggling possibilities of a macro lens. You may have seen stunning images of bugs captured with a humongous amount of detail. Chances are, those were shot with macro lenses.
To be called a proper macro lens, a lens needs to offer a minimum magnification of 1x or 1:1. That means a subject needs to fill the frame of the camera or appear life size on the digital sensor. Standard lenses can only offer about 1:5 or 0.2x magnification. The Nikkor AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G Micro lens offers a stunning 1:1 magnification. It is a really bright lens and at f/2.8 it allows the photographer to capture a lot of light from a minimum focusing distance of only 12”. There are plenty of good macro lenses from other major lens manufacturers as well. Regardless of the camera system you have, you are likely to get good lens options to shoot this genre of photography.
One thing is given, standard zoom or tele-zoom lenses can look farther away, but they are unsuitable for macro photography. Photographers have however tried to tweak their general purposes lenses and tried to give them some sort of macro capability. Here is one such way.
These are cheaper than buying dedicated macro lenses and those who use these swear that they are just as effective as proper macro lenses. Extension tubes are nothing but hollow tubes that sit between the lens and the camera body. They serve the purpose of moving the lens’ front element away from the sensor so that it can focus more closely. At the end of the day, the closer a lens can focus, the higher is the magnification ratio.
There are two basic types of extension tubes, one that has electrical connection between the camera and the lens and the other that has none. When buying extension tubes insist on the first one as otherwise you will face problems trying to adjust the right aperture while shooting. There are plenty of lenses which don’t have any aperture ring on them, such as Nikkor’s G type lenses. The aperture of these lenses have to be controlled via the camera body. If you buy an extension tube without an electronic connection your lens will be locked at the widest aperture possible on it and you will always get a shallow depth of field (DOF).
Point and Shoot Cameras
Those with a Point & Shoot camera needn’t get disappointed. Your camera is a very versatile equipment and is just as capable of shooting excellent flower photographs as is a DSLR with a dedicated macro lens mounted on it. All Point & Shoots come with a built-in macro-mode. Enable it, and you can focus very close, often inches from a flower. This is something that standard DSLR lenses can never do.
A Flexible Tripod
A flexible tripod is a must have for flower photography. A majority of the times you will be shooting down at the ground level. So, it pays to have a tripod that can stoop very low. When shopping for tripods you might want to check out whether the central column can be inverted. It will allow you to setup your camera between the tripod legs and stoop very low. Joby’s Gorillapod is a great tripod if you need something very flexible, small and yet capable of handling 8-10 lb. of weight easily. The USP of this tripod is that its legs are ultra-flexible. So, you can set it up on the ground looking straight towards a flower bed, or you can also wrap it around a branch and shoot from an angle that is simply impossible to achieve using standard tripods. For more tips on buying your camera gear, check this online course.
Auto-focusing vs. Manual Focusing
While auto-focusing may give you great results 5/10 times, you may want to switch to manual focusing mode if you need precise focusing on specific features of a flower. Since you are dealing with tiny subjects, say pollen on the flower or its petals, auto-focusing will never give you the kind of results that manual focusing will. It will go out of focus as the wind blows or if the light changes. Easily, the best option in such situations is to go for manual focusing.
Shoot in Manual Mode
Manual mode allows you to control both shutter speed and aperture. This means you are in charge of how much to expose for a shot. If you shoot in aperture priority the shutter speed will not be in your control. That means the slightest bit of wind will ruin your composition if the camera thinks that a 1/60th of a second exposure should be optimum. On the other hand if you shoot in shutter priority you cannot control the depth of field. If you need a large depth of field on a heavily overcast afternoon you will need a combination of slower shutter speed with small aperture, provided of course there is no wind to play spoilsport. Here is a comprehensive resource on digital photography that will clear your doubts about using the manual mode on your DSLR.
Bokeh refers to the soft out of focus effect that happens when you use large apertures. It isolates a subject, a face, a flower or any other feature from its background and foreground. To achieve bokeh you need a combination of fast aperture and a significant amount of distance between the subject and its foreground and background. Once the conditions are satisfied a lens that can go to f/4 or wider is good enough for capturing beautiful bokeh. Please note that if you are trying to capture bokeh you are playing with the aperture of your camera. Due to the large aperture used the circle of focus is very small. As such, as detailed in the auto-focusing vs. manual focusing section of this article, you need to switch to manual focusing to be able to precisely focus where you want to.
Watch the Weather
Inclement weather is something that you should plan for in advance. Stay informed of any weather forecasts that may hamper your work. There are plenty of great weather apps available for all smartphone platforms. Download and install one that suits you and prevent being caught off-guard out in the field.
Wind is Not Your Friend
Needless to say, wind, even if it is the tiniest bit, is not your friend. It can put your camera’s autofocusing system off and result in blurry images. Unless of course you are planning to capture some artistic blurry images of a lone flower waving in the wind, make sure that you check the weather forecasts and the possible wind speed during the day.
Desired Shooting Conditions
When shooting flowers insist on shooting during the golden hours or on an overcast day. An overcast day is like a nature’s soft box. The light is soft and diffused and the photographs turn out flattering. Such days are also great for shooting outdoor portraits. The golden hour on the other hand casts a beautiful rich color tone which works great for both flower as well as landscape photography.
Most nature / landscape photographers would say that a bright sunlit day is not the ideal condition for photographing flowers. They will also claim that the harsh light creates unflattering contrasts and shadows while washing out details. Having said that, there are plenty of perfect photographs of flowers taken on a bright day and against the bright blue background of the sky. At the end of the day you need to work at the scene and use the conditions to the best of your abilities to get good results.
What to Focus On?
This depends on what fancies you. Flowers are extremely delicate and they encompass very fine details. This is an interesting thing to capture. Patterns are beautiful, especially where they are broken to create a relief. You can capture patterns in the arrangement of filaments or petals. Flowers are a perfect example of symmetry in nature and capturing that symmetry is a beautiful subject as well. Else, you can zoom-in and highlight very minute details which are ordinarily overlooked, such as pollen, the anther, the filament and so on.