Points to Understand for Good Results

This article follows on from the previous article on equipment for photographing flowers.  It deals with aspects of how to use that equipment effectively.


In all photography, getting the frame right counts for much and for floral photography it counts for more.  The basic rule is to get the subject you wish to portray occupying the majority of the area of the picture and in some cases even the whole picture. 

Everything else in the picture then needs to serve that subject.  That can be actively in directing your attention to it or by conveying an implicit message, or passively by not presenting distractions.  Where you have multiple features in a subject, the well known rule of thirds applies.  This says that you should regard your picture as divided into a grid of thirds both horizontally and vertically and place major features at the points where the lines on the grid cross each other.

With flowers, plants, and shrubs you have many elements to integrate into a picture.  These are things like colour, shape, structure, arrangement of blooms or neighbouring plants, light, shadow, texture and surrounding features.  All of these things should be consciously designed into the picture.  Thus when you see a flower or plant you wish to photograph you should be asking yourself “how could I portray it?”, “how do I wish to portray it?” and “how am I going to go about doing it well?”.  Such planning yields far better results.

Kumquats Growing on Tree

Think of how the finished photograph will look and work as a picture.  Your three-dimensional scene in the viewfinder will become a two dimensional picture, so you must train yourself to translate in your head from viewfinder to finished photograph.

You will find that it is impossible to keep everything in your head at once, so do not expect perfection every time.  You may well have to use some image software after the photograph is taken to adjust the composition by cropping off distracting features.

As described in the article on equipment, zoom lenses provide variable magnification without changing focus.  This saves a huge amount of time because variable magnification allows you to set the edges of the frame to exactly where they need to be for maximum pictorial impact, usually without having to move from where you are standing.  At the one extreme you do not end up with just part of a large bloom and at the other extreme with some flowers in the corner of a picture full of irrelevant distractions.  You can work with fixed focus lenses but you will find it takes much longer as you have to move closer to or further away from your subject to get the framing right – and you may not be able to access where you need to be.

Using Depth of Field

If you imagine a line from the camera lens to as far as you can see into the distance, depth-of-field is defined as the distance from the camera from the nearest point that is in sharp focus to the distance from the camera to the furthest point that is sharp focus.  If your lens has a distance scale you will see that the distance at which it is nominally focussed lies between the limits of depth-of-field.

Depth of field is a crucial tool you will need to use appropriately and consciously as you photograph flowers.  There will be times when you want it as shallow as possible and others when you struggle to get it deep enough.  You will want it shallow when you wish to lose background features, leaving only the plant set off against a blurred background.  You will struggle with close-ups, especially when taking a photograph down the axis of a deep flower such as a tulip. 

Increase depth of field by using a smaller aperture (higher number f/stop) and reduce it by using a larger one (lower number f/stop).  Do this by switching your camera to the manual exposure setting with aperture priority (usually marked “A” on the dial) and check the shutter speed that this gives you.  If it is below 1/30 second, use a tripod, or set the film-speed higher.


Kalanchoe in Pot

There are two optical properties that will affect you here.  One is that the closer to the subject you go the less depth of field you will have (which will sometimes be less than the depth of the flower you are photographing) and the other is that you get more depth of field behind the distance at which your lens is focussed than you do in front. So for close-up work, you must decide yourself on what you want to emphasise by being in focus, rather than letting autofocus do it for you.  That is why I recommended manual override of autofocus in the first article.  On manual focus the rule is to focus one-third the way in to the depth of the object you are photographing.

Using Flash

Flash, particularly direct flash (which is what most cameras provide) produces harsh lighting, strong shadows and disappointing reproduction of the tones of subject.  Things near the camera will be over-exposed and those further away (but not in fact very far away) will be seriously under-exposed.  At close distances, the automatic control of exposure with flash is often not very accurate.  You will therefore usually want to avoid using flash, but your camera may not allow you both to set the macro setting and disengage the built in flash.

To solve this, you can use a diffuser such as a single layer of white cloth over the flashgun.  This will both absorb and diffuse the harsh light of the flash.  It softens glare, but also causes under-exposure, which you then need to compensate for by setting the exposure adjustment of the camera beforehand to 2/3 stop or 1 stop extra.

A second way to tackle the problem is to try to brighten the light on the subject to a level in which the flash does not engage.  If you cannot achieve this directly, use the camera film-speed adjustment to reach a film-speed high enough for the flash not to be needed.  What you lose in quality is more than offset by what you gain in the subtlety of lighting on your subject.

The next article in the series will deal with photographing flowers close-up.