How do you make the most of a season of photography? The pro’s approach is to make it intentional, to construct a creative project that will result, hopefully, in a stand-alone, complete story of a simple or complex subject. For me, a project usually involves substantial immersion in a subject that intrigues me, along with mastering and applying new techniques and/or equipment, and sometimes even revisiting previous endeavors to capture them again, even better.
So here’s the challenge: Find a subject that fascinates you, explore it nine ways to Sunday, learn some new skills, and in the end draw it all together in a format that tells the story. As an example, we’ll take on flower photography, with all its varying locations and subjects, and a wide variety of photographic approaches and creative interpretations. First. we’ll talk about the “where” and then the “how.” You already know why: Because we like it!
Location, Location, Location
In the Northern Hemisphere, the months of April through September are great for capturing the color and design of both wildflowers and garden flowers. With a little research, you can keep yourself knee-deep in blossoms for six months!
Growers. Do some research to identify growers in your area who welcome photographers in their display and research gardens. In the Northwest, from April through August, we progress across growers’ festivals of tulips, irises, roses, lavender and dahlias, growing in such abundance, density and variation that a photographer can spend days on site photographing both individual blossoms and vast panoramas of brilliant color. These are great locations to experiment with hand-held macro techniques, focus stacking in macro and landscape modes, panoramas, time-lapse and video. Of course, the most fabulous bulb display in the world is the 80-acre Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam. You’ll need to plan that one for next spring.
Some growers’ festivals go all out to provide a variety of perspectives on the flowers and the fields, with viewing platforms, tram rides and even hot-air balloons. Once I spent a day in the tulip fields covering all the nontraditional options, using time lapse and video (captured from a tiny child’s tram car shaped like a wooden shoe) to depict the lively action. You can view my video programs from the tulip fields at vimeo.com/63792001 and vimeo.com/91577169.
Botanical Gardens. Some of our favorite botanical gardens are Butchart Gardens near Victoria, British Columbia; the University of Washington Botanic Gardens in Seattle; the Chicago Botanic Garden; Brookside Gardens near Washington, D.C.; Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania; and the Callaway Gardens in Georgia. These are organized to offer a variety of blooms, from early-spring bulbs, rhododendron and azaleas through summer roses, sunflowers and dahlias and brilliant fall foliage.
It’s important to support botanical gardens for their research, education and public service functions. You will find that most are amenable to the needs of photographers if you discuss your plans with the staff before, or at the beginning of, your visit. In some cases, tripods are not permitted for safety reasons, so be sure to check out the rules of each venue before you go. Occasionally, we’ve been able to arrange to enter the gardens before the gates are opened to the general public, which is certainly a wonderful privilege.
On one trip to Butchart Gardens, I had the incredible luxury of doing whatever photography I wanted for four full days. I decided to create a video of the entire trip, from the ferry crossing to the fountains, as a tribute to our mothers, who loved gardens. Even the inevitable rainy intervals fueled creativity: When it starts to rain at Butchart, the staff wheels out carts of transparent plastic umbrellas, and then you have a garden of blooming visitors. I photographed them—and the flowers and the fountains—in infrared just to emphasize the design element unfettered by color. You can see the video at vimeo.com/97179814.
Wildflowers. Wildflower displays are unpredictable, to say the least. Timing and abundance depend on latitude, altitude and other vicissitudes of nature such as temperature, rainfall, pollinators and even wildfire.
One of the most magnificent displays of lupine I have ever photographed in Yosemite occurred the spring following a ferocious forest fire; the profuse lavender flowers created a dramatic base to the blackened pines that covered the once-green mountainsides. We’ve seen similar displays of bear grass several years following a disastrous fire in the Oregon Cascades.
My faithful readers know that the California poppy is very special to me. These wildflowers are highly dependent upon timing and quantity of rainfall, but a number of organizations, such as the Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, post predictions and updates. The wildflowers on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California bloom in June and even later as you go higher up into the mountains.
July is our favorite time to photograph wildflowers in the high basins of the Rocky Mountains above Telluride and Ouray, Colorado (sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle required). Always be careful to avoid stepping on or creating new paths through wildflower environments, as the flowers must complete their cycle to generate seed for following years. And be aware, too, of the wildlife such as birds, insects and even mammals such as marmots and pika, who both enrich and depend upon the wildflower habitat. They will expand your photographic opportunities in wildflower settings as well. Of course, that means you’ll need a full array of photographic equipment to capture macro studies, landscapes and hummingbirds.
Techniques And Equipment For Flower Photography
Following is a discussion about a variety of creative techniques that can be applied to still photography of garden and wildflowers. You can see examples of these methods applied to dahlias in my video at vimeo.com/74893543.
This is a technique that draws a single flower or cluster into sharp focus while rendering surrounding plants soft and unobtrusive. Telephoto lenses at wider apertures are the tool of choice; zoom lenses such as an 80-200mm, 100-300mm and 100-400mm are ideal. It may be necessary to use an extension tube to enable closer focus to fill the frame with the subject. A telephoto macro lens, such as a 180mm or 200mm, will not have the close-focus issue. I have actually used a 500mm telephoto and 25mm extension tube to achieve this effect; it throws the background into a soft mix of out-of-focus color.
Placing a short extension tube behind a wide-angle lens enables it to focus very close to the subject, and this unique perspective places the viewer right on the petal of a flower. This is a creative technique and not useful if maximum sharpness is the goal. A wide-angle lens or zoom already in the bag will work; 24mm or wider will give the best results. I’ve even used a 15mm full-frame fisheye lens for this technique. The extension tube must be shorter (usually 10-12mm) than the focal length of the lens. For example, a 20mm lens/25mm extension tube combination will not work because the focus point is inside the lens. Keep in mind that the subject will be very close to the front element, so you may need to add a flash or ring light to the setup. Use a very small aperture (ƒ/16 to ƒ/22) to maximize depth of field.
The idea is to take the viewer inside the flower, revealing complex detail and color rarely seen. This is macro photography from 1x (life-size) and up. Equipment will be the limiting factor. There are many lenses that will take you to 1x, but greater magnification will require a specialty lens or accessories. The premier lens is the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5x Ultra Macro is a less-expensive option that will work with Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony.
Extension tubes, typically 12mm, 25mm and 36mm, move the lens away from the sensor or film, increasing magnification at the cost of light loss. A 1x loses two stops of light, and 2x loses three stops, so flash is pretty much mandatory. My Canon system, combining the 65mm 1-5x with one of the Canon macro flashes, offers a point-and-shoot macro system where the exposure will be spot-on each time. Keep in mind the depth of field at these magnifications is almost non-existent—read on for the solution to that problem.
This technique is about sharpness and depth of field, especially valuable in macro subjects where depth of field is very shallow, but also in landscape images where it enables the photographer to portray the foreground, middle ground and background all in full sharpness. This is very useful when photographing a massive field of cultivated or wildflowers.
Focus-stacking is achieved by capturing overlapping, in-focus slices of the subject within a constant frame, either by refocusing a tripod-mounted camera and lens or by moving the camera and lens toward and away from the subject. The series of images is processed in software that eliminates all out-of-focus areas while seamlessly combining the in-focus slices to produce an extended area of sharp focus.
I use this technique often on subjects as diverse as snowflakes, insects, flowers and vast landscapes, sometimes using sophisticated capture equipment and a focusing rail (the StackShot) to control the capture. But for flower photography in the field, a tripod may be all that’s needed. The most important part of this technique is stacking software on your computer. Three popular software programs that easily assemble focus-stacked images are ZereneStacker, HeliconFocus and Adobe Photoshop.
Double Exposure Glow
A sharply rendered subject surrounded by an out-of-focus glow can be a very artistic interpretation for complex and colorful flowers. This technique can be accomplished in the computer or achieved in the camera; to my eye, the in-camera captures almost always look best. A camera that allows multiple exposures makes this an easy procedure. Just set the camera software to allow two exposures on the same capture. A tripod is necessary to maintain position, as the first exposure is taken with the subject in focus and a second exposure is taken out of focus. You can view the results on the camera’s LCD and make adjustments to the focus to achieve a variety of results. Alternatively, take two individual images (one sharp and one out of focus) and combine them in the computer.
Let your creative juices flow. Many digital cameras allow multiple exposures (most Canon cameras allow nine) on a single frame, and they automatically calculate the exposure. Vary the composition by handholding the camera and taking a number of completely different overlapping compositions. From a tripod, you can rotate the camera, capturing a number of exposures around a central subject. You get the idea: Experiment and check out the LCD to see if the result is worth keeping.
Finally, don’t forget to rescue your spring and summer images from the “dusty back room” of your hard drive. Put them together to tell a story. That will keep you busy and creative through the winter!