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Background Check: Spring Cleanup
Lupine and Goldfields. In these two examples, Lepp used a longer lens (the Canon EF 180mm Macro) to photograph wildflowers at different ƒ-stops. At ƒ/5.6, 1/1000 sec., and ISO 200 (above, left), the subject is isolated from the out-of-focus background and foreground, while the faster shutter speed facilitated handheld capture and mitigated windy conditions. At ƒ/16, 1/125 sec., and ISO 200 (above, right), background detail overpowers the subject.
Background checks for photographers, really? No, this isn’t about putting you on the “no shoot” list, or keeping you from buying a really long lens or a high-capacity CF card, or registering your drone. It’s about cleaning up your composition—not just from left to right and top to bottom, but from front to back—to make sure that every element in the image supports, and doesn’t detract from, your photographic message. Fields of spring wildflowers offer abundant opportunities to practice and perfect these compositional techniques.
As we write this, we’re looking out the office window at fields of snowflakes. But by the time you read this column, the desert in the southwestern United States will, we hope, be bursting with blooms inspired by this year’s El Niño event. Photographers will flock to the meadows and many, many flower images will be captured. And, of those, a vast number will have terrible backgrounds. The fact is, the vast majority of wildflower images that we see are completely discredited by their bad backgrounds. Most are just too busy, some have intrusions into the frame that confuse the composition, and others contain competing subjects that subvert the message, if there is one.
Fields of flowers in bloom are really exciting! Worthy subjects are all around us, everything is beautiful, and it almost seems too easy. But photographers often concentrate so much on their chosen subject that they don’t properly consider what’s behind it. In my workshops, I advise participants to look into the viewfinder or LCD as if they were critiquing a finished image. Consider the overall composition, and at the same time, check for debris, dead foliage or other distractions poking in from the edges. Watch for bright spots of light or color in the background that draw the eye away from the center of interest. Once you have a clear concept of the composition you seek, some simple (and, okay, some not-so-simple) techniques can help you achieve it.
Minimize Depth of Field
A beautiful way to separate the flower from the field is to capture the subject sharply, while throwing everything around it out of focus. This technique yields an image with a clearly identifiable floral subject against a wash of soft color. One simple way to do this is to identify a subject that’s somewhat separated by distance from the background. A low angle of approach might eliminate foliage backgrounds altogether by placing the subject against a beautiful blue sky.
A lens of greater focal length—135mm or more—will help to achieve this effect. I like working with my 180mm macro lens because it focuses close and blurs the background when used close to wide open. A 70-200mm zoom telephoto can be an excellent wildflower lens, especially at 200mm. You may have to add an extension tube if the focus of the lens isn’t as close as you’d like and you can’t get back from your subject. I’ve been known to use my 100-400mm zoom telephoto at 400mm with an extension tube to really throw the background out. The new Canon EF 100-400mm MK II focuses to 3.2 feet, so it will be my go-to lens for this coming spring’s flower-field photography.
The telephoto lens doesn’t have to be a fast version, such as an ƒ/2.8, to be effective. An aperture of ƒ/4 or even ƒ/5.6 will minimize depth of field at a telephoto focal length. You might want a fair amount of the blossom(s) to be in focus while still throwing everything else out. A longer focal length, such as 400mm, will keep the flower sharp at ƒ/8 and still render the background soft. An advantage of the wide aperture is that it enables a fast shutter speed, which facilitates handheld techniques when working in awkward low-level positions.
Another technique to soften the background and sharpen the subject is selective focus-stacking. Here, you’ll need to use a tripod and telephoto at a maximum wide aperture like ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 to minimize the depth of field. Frame the image, then capture a series of exposures without changing the composition, moving the in-focus area of each capture from front to back of the subject flower in small “slices” of sharpness. Don’t move the area of focus into the background; because of the wide aperture and longer focal length, the background stays out of focus in each focus-stacked image. Composite the captures later in software such as Zerene Stacker or Helicon Focus to create a beautifully sharp image of the complete flower in soft, out-of-focus surroundings. If you had captured the whole flower in a single image stopped down to, say, ƒ/11, you could achieve a similar, but far less precise effect; without absolute focus control, the background would become defined and distracting.
Gardening is Allowed—Within Limits
Some nature photographers believe that everything must be photographed exactly as it exists, without any adjustment or intervention from the photographer, either before or after capture. I believe that, at least in the case of a field of wildflowers being photographed for creative as opposed to scientific purposes, neither harm nor misrepresentation is caused by removing or relocating minor distracting elements such as dried sticks or perhaps a small light-colored rock that shows up as a bright spot, as long as we leave the area intact and without noticeable alteration. The Mini-Leatherman knife I carry in my pocket has small scissors that I occasionally use to clip out a couple of dried-up flowers that aren’t necessary for the composition. Adjacent plants can be gently bent to the side without damaging them to include them or remove them from the frame.
Remember that it may be possible to improve the background with a simple adjustment of the camera’s position. Work the edges of a group of flowers instead of flopping down in the middle of them and making a nest of smashed plants. Keep in mind that all the flowering plants you trample won’t finish their goal of blooming and setting seeds to offer up new flowers in successive years. That’s why I’ve been so angry when I’ve returned, several times, to high basins of the Colorado Rockies where in the past I had photographed fields of columbine, larkspur and paintbrush, only to discover a flock of sheep decimating the meadows, leaving nothing but excrement in their wake, destroying sustenance for the small mammals, birds and insects that once lived there as part of a balanced ecosystem, and eliminating all possibility of future blooms.
Finally, a note about enhancing the scene. Many years ago, it was rumored that a certain landscape photographer carried with him gardening tools to relocate flowers, placing them in strategic positions for improved color and composition. Staging a natural area by moving plants seems wrong on two counts: first, it tampers, even if mildly, with the environment; and second, it misrepresents the scene. In the Photoshop era, this manipulation occurs post-capture, which results, in my opinion, in a photo-illustration rather than an accurate depiction of nature.
Artificial Backgrounds or Light Modifiers
With projects that involve isolating a particular species of flower, I take along my own white or black background. The objective is to keep the image natural looking, but to eliminate all distracting elements. It’s important to keep the background out of focus in order to obscure its texture or any wrinkles or flaws and render consistent lighting. This is a special way of capturing flowers, and I don’t use it often because I prefer natural subjects in their environments; it’s more of a textbook approach.
Small light modifiers, such as fold-up reflectors and diffusers, can be useful for opening up shadows or softening harsh midday light. Using the diffuser in the Alaskan tundra on a bright day, for example, simulated overcast-like lighting that revealed the natural colors of the foliage. Reflectors are available in both white and gold colors; the gold will add warmth to the image. Some kits have both a white and a gold side. Because they fold easily, you can carry both a reflector and a diffuser in a pocket of your camera backpack.
Take Your Time
The key to excellent composition is to work deliberately, to view possible subjects in their environments as finished compositions and to improve the capture before committing the pixels. In the case of fields of wildflowers, using a low tripod is highly recommended, as it allows you to fine-tune your composition and enables you to implement stacking techniques. When working at low angles, remote viewing can be very helpful: Some cameras have WiFi that transmits the image to your smartphone, and I’ve been known to hook up a CamRanger to the camera so I can comfortably view and fine-tune an image on my iPad’s large screen. That’s a great tool, by the way, for teaching a field workshop on flower photography.
Learn about George Lepp’s upcoming workshops and seminar opportunities on his website at GeorgeLepp.com.