After the long, cold nights of winter, spring signals rebirth – a time when life starts anew and colour returns to the landscape. More than anything, it is a time when flowers re-awaken in all their glorious shapes, sizes, colours and hues. These are subjects that enable a number of different approaches, from ultra wide-angle to extreme close-up and macro. And so, as spring arrives, it’s time to stretch the legs, gear up and head out … if you’re up for the challenge?
Before you get going it’s worth giving some thought to what equipment you’ll need to take with you. In terms of lenses, the addition of a macro lens to your kit bag, probably of a medium focal length (e.g. 90–200mm), will open up all sorts of options. However, if you don’t own a macro don’t panic: there are some equally effective and less expensive alternatives, namely extension tubes and close-up filters.
All things being equal, extension tubes (which come in different sizes and are normally available in sets of three or individually) will give better quality results and they work by extending the distance between the lens and the sensor. Older versions won’t work with your camera’s auto-functions (focus and exposure) but newer models are designed to maintain the camera’s AE and AF controls. A complete set from an independent will cost around £100 new.
Close-up filters are added in front of the lens, like any normal filter, and work much the same way as a magnifying glass. They are available in different degrees of magnification. Compared to other close-up options they are the least expensive, costing around £20. As a means of getting into this area of photography they are great for beginners, but there will be an associated loss in optical quality.
Of course, there are many ways to photograph flowers and plants that don’t involve macro or close-up. Consider a wide-angle (e.g. 12-24mm) and a standard short to medium telephoto (e.g. 70-300mm). You’ll also want to take with you a tripod and I would highly recommend one of the more flexible options, such as those made by Benbo, which enable the camera to be placed in almost any position and at any angle. Basic models aren’t expensive (around £50) and the flexibility they provide will make your life much easier. Finally, I would add a polarizing filter, which will help to saturate colours and, on wet days or dewy mornings, will remove unwanted reflections from foliage and petals.
Finding suitable subjects
Now you’re all geared up, the next step is to find some suitable subjects – and you shouldn’t be short on options. The most obvious and, perhaps, easiest place to start is one of the many formal gardens that are open to the public. The National Trust manages numerous gardens and parks around the country (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) and the Royal Horticultural Society provide further options in England (www.rhs.org.uk). For a detailed list of independent gardens throughout the UK, visit www.gardenvisit.com. For wild flowers, a walk through a woodland may well turn up a spring favourite – bluebells. Bluebells flower from late-March through until May, depending on weather and climate, and are at their best early in the season and from late morning until mid-afternoon.
As well as woodlands, meadows spring to life around now and an early morning or late afternoon walk will usually reveal some interesting photo opportunities. For a guide to meadows close to home try contacting your local Wildlife Trust (www.wildlifetrusts.org).
When photographing flowers, it’s possible to have a greater degree of control over natural lighting than for subjects such as landscapes. The first consideration is the direction of light. As an experiment, on a clear, sunny day, find a single flower in a park or field that you can walk around easily.
At first, stand looking at the flower with the sun behind your shoulder (making sure the subject is clear of your shadow). This is front lighting and you will notice that colours are well saturated but there is a lack of visible texture, as the sunlight bathes the petals. Now walk 90-degrees to your right or left, so that the sun is shining from the side. Note how side lighting introduces a sense of form (three dimensions) by creating contrast (highlights and shadows) and also makes texture more apparent. Finally, walk a further 90-degrees, so that the sun is behind the subject (in front of you). This is an example of back lighting and again changes the mood of the scene. With the sunlight glowing through the petals and leaves, patterns become more apparent.
Often, bright overcast lighting is preferred for flower photography, as the softer, more even light reduces hard shadows and contrast to within manageable levels, enabling the camera to record and reveal detail in all areas of the scene. For the same effect on a sunny day, when photographing at close quarters (as opposed to a wider landscape scene), it may be possible to deploy a diffuser to scatter the direct light, creating the same effect as when the weather is overcast. Similarly, a reflector can be used, positioned on the side opposite the direction of the sun, to throw light into shadow areas, reducing levels of contrast.
Diffusers and reflectors can be bought from most good camera stores or on-line and cost between £12 and £50 depending on the size. However, to save some money, it’s just as easy to make your own reflector using a piece of white cardboard or a white plastic tray. A diffuser can be made easily from a sheet of thin white cotton stretched over a wooden frame.
Another lighting option is electronic flash. Avoid using the built in flash that many DSLR cameras come equipped with, as this will produce harsh front lighting that is less than ideal for creative photography. A purpose-made macro flash is great for close-up photography but can be an expensive option. Alternatively, use an external flash that can be held off-camera using a connecting cord and position the flash unit at an angle around 30-45-degrees from the subject. A diffuser placed over the flash head will help to soften the light, much the same as using a diffuser with sunlight.
Compositionally, there are many approaches to photographing flowers and I urge you to try them all. For example, imagine an expansive wild flower meadow. You could select a wide-angle lens and photograph the scene as a landscape, perhaps positioning the camera to emphasise a particular flower or group of flowers in the foreground. Alternatively, you could opt for the opposite extreme, selecting a telephoto lens and cropping tightly on a specific area of the scene. You could also use a macro lens or close-up accessory and close in on the tiny detail of an individual leaf or petal or stamen.
With any of these approaches, it’s important to remember that defining your subject is the critical first stage of the process. For example, if your idea is to reveal the texture of a flower, ensure that you only include an area of the subject where detail is visible. Include too much erroneous information and you will distract from the subject.
Isolating elements of the scene can be managed in a number of ways. I have already touched on one, namely cropping using long focal length and macro/close-up lenses and accessories. Another option is to use narrow depth of field to blur distracting information.
With macro lenses and accessories, this is easily achieved as depth of field is often measured in millimetres and less. With standard lenses, you will need to use lens aperture to increase or decrease the amount of the scene in front of and beyond the point of focus that appears sharp.
Think too about how certain colours work better together. For example, complimentary colours such as red and green (e.g. a field of poppies), yellow and violet, and blue and orange reverberate to create tension and visual energy. Bold colours, such as deep reds and yellows, stand out, making a statement and calling attention. Pastel colours are more soothing and moody. When framing the image give plenty of thought to what’s behind your subject. Avoid bright colours and messy cluttered backgrounds of jumbled branches and leaves.