Photographing Flowers, Part 2: Composition

Lazy Flowers at Brookside Gardens
In my last post, we looked at the equipment needed for closeup photos of flowers.  Now I want to consider some strategies for composition.  There are two significant challenges to composition when it comes to flower photography.  The first challenge is largely aesthetic and the second largely technical.

Top-Down View of Flower
Aesthetic Challenge
Flowers are pretty, so there are lots of flower photos to see out there.  Even good flower photos can appear to be "just another flower photo" when seen in the context of all there is to see.  But interestingly, most flower photos are shot largely the same way.  They show the whole flower, and they are often look at the flower from the top down.  Please understand, there's nothing wrong with this, and I wouldn't discourage you from doing this if that's what you enjoy.  But consider also that not only do these images share many similarities with each other, they also look much like the way we normally observe flowers when walking through a garden.  We tend to observe the whole flower from the top down.  I'd encourage you to consider the following strategies to comsposition:

Side View of Same Flower
  1. Put Your Tripod Low to the Ground.  Make yourself uncomfortable as you compose your image--lay down on the ground with your camera and make a fool of yourself if you have to.  No one else is doing that, so no one else is seeing the flower the way you are looking at it.
  2. Get Close to the Flower.  Look for designs, colors and textures in the flower and zoom in so that you can Simplify your composition, Emphasize what's important to you and Exclude what isn't.  Learn to SEE the flower, not just look at it.
  3. Slow Down.  Take your time with the flower.  Look at it from many different angles.  Take your camera off the tripod and just look through the viewfinder from different angles to see something interesting.  Defocus the lens a little so that you can notice shapes and designs.  Then when you have your new composition, set up your tripod, focus, and shoot away.
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The Challenge of Depth of Field
Technical Challenge
Depth of field is always a challenge in macro photography, but experience will let you use it to your advantage.  When shooting closeups of flowers, shooting wide open (largest aperture) at f/2.8 - f/4 will frequently leave you with very little of your image in focus.  Sometimes it will look like there's a "stripe" that's in focus while the rest of your photograph is blurry.  If you stop down to f/16 or so (I wouldn't shoot much smaller), you may have more of your flower in focus, but the background becomes very cluttered and distracting.  Here's some strategies I've learned when photographing flowers over the years.

Watching for the Plane of Focus
  1. Plane of Focus.  If there's a plane you want to have in focus, make sure your camera is looking straight at it.  If your camera is perpendicular to that plane, then your sensor is parallel with it, and you can get the whole plane in focus at a relatively narrow depth of field.  This will allow you to blur the background more easily, if that's what you want.
  2. Background.  Look for angles of view with a lot of distance between your subject and the background.  This will let you use a wider depth of field to get the whole flower sharp and still blur the background if you want.  Generally speaking, I err on the side of too much depth of field, since you can blur backgrounds in software.  I don't really do that though.  On a couple occasions, I've lifted a flower off of a f/16 image and "pasted" it onto an f/3.5 image.  But I haven't done this in any of these images here in this post, and I firmly believe in the "garbage in, garbage out" principle.  Make your photograph as perfect as you can in camera.
  3. Design.  If you orchestrate a design for your photo so that the background doesn't compete with the background, you can create some very interesting compositions.  When the background appears "cluttered," it's often because the background isn't designed to complement the subject.  And you can also zoom into the flower and eliminate the background all together, concentrating only on a foreground design.
Importance of Depth of Field and Background
Take all this as advice to follow and try out, not rules that will absolutely make your photograph great.  Try these techniques as you develop your own style. Even a casual glance at my gallery of floral photographs will demonstrate that I have a "style" I like (and which I probably need to expand), but there are many other great ways to shoot flowers.  And part of the fun is learning how to use all the techniques available to you to create your own style.
Rose Petal Design