6 Essential Principles for Stunning Flower Photography – Part 1

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Flowers are a popular subject for photography, full of color, texture, patterns and personality. This time of year many of us begin to count the days until spring arrives. As a nature photographer specializing in flower photography, I look forward to the time when the earth comes to life again and the spring flowers appear. Although my preference is to photograph flowers outdoors, I can still enjoy flower photography in the winter months. During the winter I find plentiful subjects in greenhouses, conservatories and by bringing flowers home from my neighborhood florist to photograph in natural window light. My hope is that you can practice some of these skills indoors before heading outdoors when spring finally arrives, or perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who live in a warmer climate and enjoy flower photography outdoors year-round.

“Star Magnolia”, 100mm macro f/14

Slow down and practice the art of seeing.

You have probably heard this mantra over and over, but once I started practicing this, my photography changed dramatically. It sounds so simple, but I find few people actually practice it. Leave your camera in your backpack initially, put your phone away and walk slowly, observing all that is around you. I find that being in nature naturally relaxes me and puts me in more contemplative state of mind. The distractions of the day exit, my mind clears and my senses are more aware. I think most people would agree that being in nature is a kind of therapy. Train your eye to notice details, look for interesting lines, sensuous curves, a unique curl of a petal or leaf. Learn to see your subjects more abstractly, in terms of lines, color, texture, patterns and mood. Slowing down will sharpen your visual skills and help you find more interesting and unique subjects. You will create work that is more impactful, work that evokes feelings and perhaps even stories. For me, the process of finding and capturing images is equally important as the end product. By focusing on the process and enjoying the process, we will more likely convey those feelings to others.

“Embrace,” 180mm macro f/4.5

Learn to Recognize Good Light.

Light is one of the most important elements in all genres of photography and key to beautiful flower portraits. Just like we need to slow down and learn to see to find interesting subjects, we also need to learn to recognize the quality and the direction of light best suited for photographing flowers. Generally speaking, you want to photograph flowers in soft, diffuse light. Although there are a few exceptions when using strong sunlight in backlighting can be beautiful, you want to avoid the harsh highlights and deep shadows that strong light produces. I like to shoot in what I call bright overcast, a layer of clouds acts to diffuse the sun but adds enough light to bring the flowers to life and add sculptural details. Early morning when the sun is low in the sky is the perfect time to get this more subdued light and it also adds another important element, side light. Side light will act to bring out details and texture in your flowers and make them appear more three-dimensional. Side light will effectively do all the work for you, very little post-processing is needed to bring the flower to life. You can get this same beautiful light in the late afternoon or early evening. It is always important to carry a diffuser and a reflector when shooting in stronger light. I carry a small 12” diffuser and a 22” 5-in-1 diffuser with reflective surfaces. A reflector will help guide light into darker recesses or parts of the flower you want to draw the eye to.

“Rose in Evening Light,” Lensbaby Sweet 80 Optic f/4

Work Your Subject.

Once you find an interesting subject, work that subject to its fullest. I often see photographers in garden settings walk up to the first flower they see, take a shot or two and move on. It is not unusual for me to stay with the same flower for over an hour, taking hundreds of images from every angle and composition I can come up with. A good starting point is to ask yourself what drew you to the flower, how does it make you feel? Then, think about how you can compose to bring that element or feelings to others’ eyes. Perhaps it is a an interesting curl of a dahlia petal, a gentle curve of a leaf or the curve of a stem that makes the flower appear to be dancing.

“Dahlia with Curls,” 100mm macro, f/11

I often start by composing with the rule of thirds in mind. We should all understand this rule and practice it. There is a reason it has been in the art world for hundreds of years – it is an effective way to lead the eye. The rule of thirds is not the only way to compose flowers; we can break this rule when there is a compelling reason to do so. For example, I will often center compose or move the center of the flower to the middle of the frame but slightly offset it. This is an effective composition when emphasizing pattern and symmetry in a flower. Shoot up under the flower, or even behind the flower. Sometimes the backs of flowers are much more interesting than the fronts. By experimenting and working your subject, you will come up with new ideas and perhaps have some aha moments. Many times I have ended up with a very different composition than I originally imagined by working my subject.

  • “Collarette Dahlia,” 100mm macro f/13

  • “Underneath the Tulip,” Lensbaby Velvet 85mm, f/4

The following are two examples of a rose I photographed in many different compositions. The first image is composed using the rule of thirds. In the second image, also using the rule of thirds, I flipped my camera vertically and wanted to emphasize the abstract curves of the rose and the play of light and shadow. Turning it to monochrome helped bring the abstract element forward. Same rose, but very different ways of portraying it. Always remember to shoot both horizontally and vertically.

  • “Rose with Curves,” 180mm macro f29

  • “Rose Abstract,” 180mm macro f/29

In Part 2 of this article I will explore the important subjects of aperture, controlling backgrounds and use of tripods in flower photography.

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