This is the first of a series of articles on photographing flowers, plants and trees. They are structured according to how far from the camera the subject is, running from close-ups to flowerscapes and concluding with semi-abstract plant photography.
The series deals with the sort of pictures you can produce with “ordinary” equipment – the sort that you are likely to have bought anyway for routine photography. Producing striking pictures of plants, trees and flowers is not difficult, but it requires thought and skill. With digital photography it is far easier to produce good pictures, not only because of the extra sophistication that digital provides, but also because of the immediate feedback that allows you to try again and go on until you produce a stunning photo.
You can go further, investing the time, effort and money for specialised equipment such as special mounts, clamps, and ring flash and the photographic techniques that go with them, but that is beyond what is covered in these articles
The most important component is the camera. The digital single lens reflex (DSLR) is ideal because
- The viewfinder shows you exactly what you will get
- It allows interchangeable lenses
- It will often have a zoom lens to allow you to get your framing just right
- It is easy to get a macro lens for close-up work
- It is likely to have a built in flash
- It will have through the lens exposure metering
- It may have adjustable exposure compensation
- It may have film speed adjustment
- It may have camera shake reduction
- Some DSLR’s are very sophisticated in how they meter light levels producing very satisfactory results even against the light.
Many of these features will be found on compact non-DSLR cameras with which it is still possible to produce excellent results, but not with the ease and reliability of the DSLR. In particular, the DSLR scores strongly for close up work and you will find yourself taking close-ups all the time for photographing plants.
A high quality lens which can focus closely enough to show just one or two blooms is essential. There is much fine and subtle detail to display in flowers such as the fine structure of the individual petals (more of this under lighting). A macro lens is a boon because it allows you to get to within inches of the subject so if you are interested in photographing plants, look for a macro lens when buying your digital camera.
Nowadays zoom lenses are common and are of a high enough quality for sharpness not to be compromised in providing the zoom function. A zoom lens has a) variable magnification and b) retains its focus as the magnification varies. Zoom lenses are useful because they allow you to get framing right very quickly.
Very often you will run into problems of access. Sometimes it is getting the camera close enough to the subject and sometimes you will be unable to get close enough. For example, you may be unable to leave a vantage point such as a balcony from which you can see the perfect flower across the way on a tall tree or hillside.
For these sorts of subjects a long lens such as that in the picture on the left (75mm to 300mm focal length) is needed. For close-up work an autofocus lens may cope very well, but make sure you choose a camera which allows you manual focus as well.
Camera support and tripods
In many cases you can produce good pictures of flowers with a hand-held camera especially with camera shake reduction settings, but particularly for close-ups and when you are using long lenses you will need a tripod. In these cases any little movement produces significant camera shake.
One invaluable accessory is a table-top tripod such as that illustrated on the left. Its portability makes it easy to take with you so it is never left behind, and for indoor work and some outdoor work it will be all you need.
Where a table-top tripod is inadequate, particularly when you are out of doors you will need a standard tripod such as that shown below.
Choose one which has a pan-and-tilt head allowing you to put the camera at any angle relative to the subject and one with independent variable adjustment of each leg as in the illustrations below. This allows you to set up the camera stably even on very uneven ground, which is where, for example, flowering shrubs are likely to be growing.
Lighting, Flash, Exposure Compensation and Film-speed Adjustment
Lighting is important for any subject but particularly for flowers because there are strong colours, complex structures for which strong light can cast a shadow on other parts of the flower, and because portraying delicate structures like petals which can be shown by either transmitted light (through the petal) or reflected light (from the petal) require careful attention for best results.
Many cameras come with built-in flash which for floral photography can be a very mixed blessing. This is because a) particularly at close distances automatic exposure control with flash is imperfect and b) because you are confined to direct frontal flash which gives hard, cold lighting with strong shadows and rapid fall-off into the distance for objects further from the camera.
A piece of white card is useful to have with you. You should use it to reflect light into the areas which are in shadow due to parts of the flower nearer the light casting a shadow on them. Alternatively or additionally there are many battery-operated small LED lights which give very good white light, and these too can be used to fill in dark areas without the harshness of direct flash.
Image Cropping Software
No matter how good you are at concentrating on composition, to avoid distracting backgrounds and throw the viewer’s attention to where you want to have it, there will be times in which such distractions are unavoidable. For these you will have to transfer the images to a computer and crop off the distractions leaving a picture which shows the best of what you wished to show.
The next article in the series will deal with the points you will need to understand to produce flower photographs to advantage.