by Kev Vincent
Kev Vincent is a regular contributor of stunning work to our photo gallery. Here he shares some of his knowledge with us and outlines his meticulous and careful approach to photography. Don't get too disheartened if you can't afford all the equipment he suggests, although it does make a difference of course, a thoughtful and knowledgeable approach will make even more difference to your results. A good lens will not take great pictures on its own and many great photos have been taken with 'budget' equipment. There is a lot of good stuff in this article, read it carefully - Geoff.
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 which has a unique center 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 17-55mm f/2.8 DX Lens which is very sharp throughout the range and also allows me to get pretty darn close - enough for 99% of the shots 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 centers, etc.
As mentioned in my flower passion - part 2 blog I think of flower shots 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 flexibility 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 MC-36 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 conditions, 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 and 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 conditions 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 diminished color 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. Colors become washed-out with a high saturation loss, foliage& flora in general will look faded, burnt, streaked and very unappealing. So, again be patient - do yourself a big favor 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? :-)
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Other tutorials in this section
A few tips for the budding wildlife photographer.
Lighting and perspective.
What you need and what to watch out for.
All the settings you need.
Photograph flowers like a professional, what you need to know.
For when you need extra depth of field.
How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.
Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.
Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.
Getting the exposure right in all that white.
Tips on how to capture fast action.
Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.
A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.
Bribing people to sit for you.