Photographing Flowers, Part 1: Equipment

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Rose at Brookside Gardens
When I first fell in love with photography, it was largely because of what a photograph could do to a flower, especially getting up close to them to portray them in ways we normally don't look at them.  They are marvels of nature, so I'm excited to begin a series on how to photograph them.  I'm going to concentrate on macro & closeup photography of flowers, at least to start off.  This is not the only or even best way to photograph them (since there is no "best way"), but it is the way that I prefer to photograph them.  Shooting close up photos of flowers properly is demanding and exacting work. It's also painstakingly slow.  But the results you can get are worth far more than the effort it takes to get the photo.  Here's what you need to get started shooting close up photos of flowers.

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Lilly at Greenspring Valley Park
Camera.  Well, of course.  Most any quality DSLR will do just fine photographing flowers, but there's one feature that I highly recommend for flower photography--mirror lockup.  You can get by without this feature, but it's very useful in macro photography.  When you trip the shutter of your camera, the camera slaps the mirror to the top of the camera, causing vibrations inside the camera.  If your shutter speed is between around 1/5sec and 1/60sec, these vibrations can actually blur your photograph a little.  Activating the mirror lockup feature will make taking a picture a two step process: press the shutter release button once and the mirror will slap up.  After a couple seconds, trip the shutter again, and the camera will take the picture.

Lens.  The ideal way to shoot closeup photos of flowers is with a macro lens.  I strongly prefer longer focal length lenses to shorter ones in flower photography.  This is obviously a matter of taste to some extent, but let me make my case.  If you use a wide angle macro lens (say, 50mm), you must get very close to the flower to make it large in the frame, and may scare off a butterfly or bee that interested you.  Plus, you will have an expansive background that can easily cause cluttered compositions.  If you use a longer focal length macro lens (say, 180mm), you can stand farther back from your subject, and the background will cover a much smaller area, making it easier to isolate a background of one color and blur it into a pleasing image.  Of course, you'll pay for this benefit (these lenses can exceed $1000).  You may opt for a middle ground (a 100mm macro) to balance the benefit of focal length with price.

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Lilly at Greenspring Valley Park
Extension Tubes.  If you can't afford a macro lens, don't despair.  You can spend about $175 on a set of Kenko extension tubes.  They fit between the lens and camera and allow you to focus closer to your subject.  The larger the extension, the closer you can focus, and the wider your lens, the closer you can focus.  I used to put a 36mm extension tube on my 100-300mm f/5.6L lens, and this would let me focus close enough for most situations.  The tubes have no glass, so they do not directly impact the sharpness of your lens, but they do cut down on light on the sensor, so they will slow your shutter speed a little.

Closeup Filter.  Another alternative to a macro lens is a closeup filter, or diopter.  They work like a magnifying glass filter attached to the front of your lens, allowing you to focus closer.  These come in varying strengths and quality.  They will cause a loss of sharpness in your image, so if you go this route, buy good ones.  Also, make sure you buy them for the range of focal lengths you will use.  If you have a lens in the 75-300mm range, make sure you buy a filter that fits that range, or you'll end up with chromatic aberrations in your photos.  Personally, I recommend extension tubes over closeup filters.

Tripod.  This is an absolute necessity, even if you bought Canon's new, wonderful 100mm IS macro lens.  Image stabilization (or vibration reduction)  stabilizes the movement of your camera, not the flower.  As both you and your camera move, focal distance changes.  And your depth of field is so small that you will still end up with many blurry photos.  Even the slightest breeze will move your flower significantly, so you want to keep your camera absolutely still so that when the breeze stops for a second (literally), you're ready to trip the shutter.  Plus, as we'll see, you are going to want to have both hands free while taking a picture.  Trust me, don't take a short cut on this point.  Use a good tripod.

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Rose at Brookside Gardens
Cable Release.  It's so important to make sure that your camera is absolutely still when taking a picture that I highly recommend using a cable/remote release.  Using your hand to trip the shutter on the camera can move the camera slightly and blur your image.  Plus, it will help you to be able to move away from the camera when taking your picture.

Diffuser/Reflector Set.  I use a Chameleon diffuser/reflector set all the time when shooting flowers.  The diffuser filters out some sunlight, allowing you to have a more evenly lit scene to photograph, and this will cut down on harsh reflections and lower the contrast on sunny days.  A reflector will allow you to redirect some sunlight onto the underside of a flower that is in shade to even out lighting

Rag.  Or anything to cover the viewfinder of your camera.  If you aren't looking through the viewfinder when taking a picture, sunlight can enter the viewfinder and mess up your exposure.  I recommend just having a lens cloth or something to cover it when taking the picture.

Circular Polarizer.  A CP Filter will be essential to cut down on reflections on leaves and flower petals, especially when not using a diffuser.

Patience.  Notice in the above equipment list all the things that can slow your shutter speed: CP Filter, diffuser, and extension tubes.  Add to that even a slight breeze, and patience is a necessity.  Be prepared to set up for your photograph and then wait several minutes to get your one second of stillness.

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Fallen Flowers at Brookside Gardens
Now let me see if I can bring all this together so you can understand why it's all necessary.  Imagine you found a great flower on a relatively sunny, breezy day.  You set up your camera on its tripod and compose your image, but the flower won't stay still.  You can tell where the flower will be when at rest, but it won't stay put long enough to get a sharp image.  The sunlight is also creating harsh shadows, so you pull out your diffuser to shade the scene.  But you have move the shade so close to the flower that you can no longer look through the viewfinder.  So you cover the viewfinder with your lens cloth, attach your cable release and stand between the camera and flower and wait.  Then wait a little more, and maybe a little more.  But you're watching that flower intently for the second it is still.  Then, when the flower magically stops moving, you're ready to go, and you have your shot.

Comments

  1. Again, a very helpful article. I love the beautiful examples. especially the wet rose and the 2nd lilly. I look forward to picking up an extension tube and a diffusor to get me started.

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