Be Abstract

The flowers that bloom so profusely in the Spring give you a chance to create otherworldly images of color and shape. It's photography that's beyond the ordinary.
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Abstract Flowers To capture this extreme close-up of an Iceland poppy, Laird handheld her Nikon F4 and 50mm lens, with extension tubes attached, moving in so closely that the lens almost touched the flowe

My exploration into the incredible beauty of abstract flower photography began at a photo workshop at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. It was a turning point in my life! Once I discovered the unlimited number of graphic designs I could create with the colors and patterns and flowing lines of a blossom—the way I could change the drama and mood by subtly changing how the light played in the petals and accented the shadows—I was hooked. Artistically, there are so many aspects that thrilled me and grabbed my spirit.

Beyond the technical aspects of mastering your equipment, this type of photography is about experimenting and exploring your creativity to make abstract art. Far beyond what macro photography alone can do, creating flower abstracts is about getting a unique perspective on an old subject that people often take for granted. It’s about adventure and making something surprising again, or going even further and making it altogether foreign, causing people to pause and wonder, “That’s beautiful; what is that?”

The Importance Of Documenting
Although I never stay there long, I always begin a photo session by photographing “documentary” images of the flower. I didn’t always do this when I started, and it caused me problems on a number of occasions. There’s nothing more frustrating than someone asking “What flower is that?” if I can’t identify its species.

Having several full-length shots of the flower also is a means for me to identify and organize the many abstractions I’ll capture later. Work before play, I always say. Even though the documentary aspect is more like work than play for me, it’s an important step to take before starting your adventure into the unknown. And those documentaries always can be used for submissions to certain publications that require such shots in the presentation.

Abstract Flowers
The dewdrops and early-morning light in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, Calif., gave an ethereal effect to this Calochortus. Laird used just her Nikon F4 and 50mm lens

Selective Focus
Once I’ve captured an identifiable photo, I begin to add teleconverters and other magnification to my lenses so I can get very close and start playing with selective focus.

Selective focus can be created with several tools, one of which is a 50mm lens with a fast aperture of, say, ƒ/1.2 or ƒ/1.4. The aperture should be set at the fastest ƒ-stop on your lens so that you’re shooting wide open. This allows you to have a shallow depth of field as you begin to explore the flower.

For creating abstracts, having as little depth of field as possible is ideal for creating that otherworldly feeling. I set my camera on aperture priority, turn off the autofocus and select the closest focusing distance on the lens. This allows my camera to be free to move through the flower as I choose the point of focus by moving the camera. I won’t change the focus with the focusing ring on the lens, but will leave it at the closest focusing distance that I’ve previously set.

Usually, I’m lying on the ground, moving in very close to the flower to find my images. As I handhold the camera, I move through the flower, capturing a new angle and image with every breath I take. This is what I call “body focusing” or, in other words, “focusing with my toes.” Looking for beautiful lines and color designs, I move over, under and around the flower to capture the art I’m seeking. Shooting as fast as I can, I move through the flower, with each movement of my body creating an entirely different image from the one before.

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Abstract Flowers
She created this abstraction of a Blue-Eyed Grass by adding extension tubes to her 50mm. The blade of grass coming off the stem adds a diagonal line to the composition that’s softened using this technique.

Extension Tubes
At this point, I find myself wanting to get closer and closer to the subject—to create larger-than-life images and abstract designs. Thus, I venture into a new realm of equipment: extension tubes, close-up diopters and teleconverters.

By adding extension tubes (which have no optics themselves) mounted between your lens and camera body, you’ll be able to focus closer to your subject. With this added magnification, you’ll lose depth of field, allowing you to create the soft, subtle colors and designs desirable in this style of photography.

The background will fall away, which will bring your subject to the forefront of the image, and with the softness created, the distinct lines of the flower will now begin to take on a new abstraction.

Don’t be afraid to stack two or more extension tubes together. You’ll be able to get closer and closer to your subject. The effect is amazing. Greater magnification transforms the flower from a recognizable object to an otherworldly image of changing light and incredible beauty. It’s this journey through increasing magnification that gives me the “Wow!” factor. Sometimes the image in the viewfinder is such an overwhelming surprise that it’s hard to believe it’s real. The results are those larger-than-life images, which are my passion to create.

Close-Up Diopters
If the flower is small and I’m using extension tubes, and I’m not able to make it big enough, then I’ll start to add diopters to get in progressively closer. If it’s a large flower, either diopters or extension tubes will work, and how many I use depends on how close I want to get and the effect I want in my composition.

Abstract Flowers
Earth Brodiaea and California poppy photographed at Montaña de Oro State Park, Calif. She used a 50mm lens, without tubes, to create a softened effect and to blend the two flowers together.

I use Nikon two-element diopters, namely, the 3T, 4T, 5T and 6T. There’s no discernible loss of light, but they shorten my working distance, so that I can move closer to the flower. Working much the same way I do when there are extension tubes attached to my lens, I explore, handheld, journeying through the flower.

Don’t be afraid to stack two diopters in front of your lens and add extension tubes at the rear of the lens at the same time. Often, I’ve added so many tubes that it looks impossible to capture any discernible image. But many times, I’ve been overwhelmed by the results. The image may be a part of the flower not visible to my eye, and I find myself wondering why I hadn’t seen that before.

Teleconverters usually are available in 1.4x and 2x magnification, and they contain optics, unlike extension tubes. Buy the best quality you can afford. Teleconverters enlarge the subject within the viewfinder without having to move closer to your flower. Although using a teleconverter will cause a loss of one to two stops of light, this won’t be a severe problem because your lens should be set at a wide-open aperture.

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Abstract Flowers
Raindrops on the petal edge of this Camellia blossom are captured using a 105mm macro lens, shot wide open so that the background falls off. To enhance this effect, add a small extension tube

In addition to my 50mm lens, I use macro lenses like the Nikkor 60mm ƒ/2.8, 105mm ƒ/2.8 and 200mm ƒ/4. I use these lenses with combinations of close-up diopters and extension tubes. This gives more softness to the image than when using a macro lens alone.

Since macro lenses contain extension within themselves, magnification is enhanced with the addition of these other pieces of equipment. I often use one of these lenses with several diopters and extension tubes to achieve a total abstraction. That way, the viewer can no longer see the reality of the subject. It’s literally transformed into something resembling a modern abstract painting you’d see in an art museum.

Inspiration for my own art has come from many artists, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Monet and, especially, my mentor and friend, photographer Mary Ellen Schultz. Always a positive person, he’d instill in me the desire to always try something new, which I encourage you to do as well.

With the options I’ve discussed to get you started, it’s time to begin your own journey. Let curiosity reign supreme, and take a moment to escape into a world of unfamiliar imagery, which actually has been there right before your eyes all the time. You just need the tools to see it and the freedom of your imagination to pursue it. And don’t forget to “Focus with your toes!”

Anne Laird is a nature and wildlife photographer based in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains in Red Lodge, Mont. To see more of her work, visit or She also can be contacted at [email protected].

What’s In Anne Laird’s “Flower” Camera Bag?

Nikon PN-11
Nikor TC 1.4x

Nikkor 200mm ƒ/4

Photoflex Reflector Translucent,Silver
And Gold

Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8

Camera: Nikon F4

Lenses: Nikkor 20mm ƒ/2.8, Nikkor 24mm ƒ/2.8, Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.8, Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.4

Macro Lenses: Micro-Nikkor 60mm ƒ/2.8D, Micro-Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8, Micro-Nikkor 200mm ƒ/4 with lens collar

Teleconverters: Nikkor TC 1.4x, TC 2x, TC 16A at 1.6x

Extension Tubes: Nikon PK-11A (8mm), PK-12 (14mm), PK-13 (27.5mm), PN-11 (52.5mm)

Close-Up Diopters: All two-element Nikon 3T and 5T (1.5 diopter strength) 52mm mounting threads, and Nikon 4T and 6T (3 diopter strength) 62mm mounting threads

Other Gear: Bogen 3221 modified by Kirk Enterprises to go to ground level, with Tri-Pads by A. Laird Photo Accessories attached, Studio ballhead with Kirk Enterprises plates, focusing rail by Kirk Enterprises, Laird rain hood, Laird macro ground cloth, Photoflex 12-inch reflectors in gold/silver and white/white

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