Wildflowers are one of the more challenging subjects in nature photography to capture successfully. There are many aspects to learn, but it’s all the more rewarding when the outcome is positive. I have made many mistakes over the years photographing wildflowers, and I hope to pass on some of the wisdom I’ve accumulated with these wildflower photography tips.
Our goal is to capture the vibrancy and color of wildflowers within the broader landscape. When we look at pictures of wildflowers, often the first thing that catches our attention is that the color seems to “pop” off the page. When composing, it’s essential to think of how color, shape and light interact with one another and arrange your compositions to enhance those interactions for the strongest visual impact.
Timing For Peak Wildflower Blooms
An essential part of the process is doing research to identify when and where you’ll find wildflowers at peak bloom. I begin by using the internet to search where wildflower meadows can be found. Many books and websites provide very detailed specifics about times and places to capture beautifully blooming wildflowers. Reviewing historical data over the last few years of when wildflowers were at peak bloom can be constructive.
Keep in mind that peak times only last about two to three weeks, but this can vary from year to year. When I’m doing this research, I search the internet for wildflower forums and wildflower “trip reports.” Consider looking for an active forum where like-minded people share information, images and tips about specific wildflower hikes. Even better are sites that provide or link to downloadable GPS tracks to locations and hikes.
The fluctuation of peak season for wildflower varies quite a bit, so make sure to combine your research from various sources. Contacting local guides or rangers at your destination is beneficial, too. They can be an incredible information resource for out-of-the-way locations that are harder to find.
In my experience, when I’ve combined multiple sources for research and checked recent trip reports, I’ve ended up having a successful season of wildflower photography.
Key Points For Research
- Check on the web for wildflower peak times using multiple sources.
- Look for trip reports on the location you are visiting. For example, Washington Trails Association has daily reports from most wildflower trails in the region.
- Contact local park rangers.
- Explore photo forums for inspiration and possible locations.
- Try to pre-visualize compositions based on images you’ve seen that you admire. Ask yourself how you can improve upon those images.
- Apps like Photographer’s Ephemeris or PhotoPills help to scout sun and moon locations and sunrise and sunset times.
Favorable Weather For Wildlife Photography
When it comes to ideal weather conditions, there are two schools of thought. Some photographers like to shoot in overcast conditions to capture the maximum saturation of color from the wildflowers. The second school aims to photograph wildflowers during sunrise and sunset, with the goal being to shoot the wildflowers with vibrant low light, sidelight or backlight. Both types of conditions work well. The choice depends on how you want the wildflowers to interact with the light.
Generally, I like to shoot during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset to get the best results from the sunlight. Though more challenging in terms of exposure than overcast conditions, the warm light adds to the overall color impact. If you can photograph wildflowers with partly cloudy conditions, you can wait for the sun to be positioned behind the clouds. We’ll talk more about lighting later.
Without a doubt, the most difficult aspect of the weather for wildflower photography is the amount of wind. If possible, I always try not to photograph wildflowers when the weather calls for windy conditions. The slightest wind movement can cause your flowers to blur and prevent detail and sharpness in the image. One technique to avoid blurry images if the wind is a problem is to increase your shutter speed. You might also need to boost your ISO to do this, and although a higher ISO will potentially result in greater noise, it’s more important to get a sharp image. The other option is to time your pictures with breaks in the wind or to come back during calmer conditions.
Equipment For Photographing Wildflowers
The right equipment will help you achieve success with wildflower photography. You don’t need to spend a lot on costly gear, but there are a few essential items to have.
A tripod is a part of the process and should be used at all times when photographing wildflowers. The stability of a tripod helps you to re-frame and precisely refine your composition as needed. A sturdy tripod also helps to minimize vibrations, enhancing the aforementioned, all-important sharpness.
When choosing a tripod, remember that lighter tripods can be less stable, making them prone to slight movement during the picture-taking process. You may also want a tripod without a center post or with a center post that’s removable, which will help you get low to the ground for scenic compositions with wildflowers in the foreground or for macro photography work.
Lens selection is also important. Over the last 12 years of photographing wildflowers, I have used several different lenses. Through experience, I have found that lenses that are faster and wider make a big difference in the image’s overall impact. A fast lens, such as an ƒ/2.8, collects more light at its larger apertures, allowing you to increase your shutter speed and reduce the chance of blurred images, and lessens the need to crank up your ISO.
I generally set my aperture in the range of ƒ/13 to ƒ/16 unless the wind is blowing. In those situations, I shoot the foreground flowers at a larger aperture so I can use a faster shutter speed without pushing the ISO too far. Then I shoot another image for the background at ƒ/16 and combine the two in post-processing. I only recommend using this technique if the wind is so strong that a higher ISO would introduce too much noise in the overall image.
When it comes to focal length and aesthetics, while there are scenes that lend themselves well to a telephoto perspective, I most often use wide lenses, typically 24mm and wider. The broad view allows more creative composition options. Although this is a personal choice, I like to include as much of the foreground flowers as possible in my images.
Composing Wildflower Scenes
Using quality equipment and the right lenses leads us to the next important component of successful wildflower photography. Because the elements and textures are so bold in wildflower scenes, it’s easy to include too much. The tendency is to be overwhelmed in wildflower meadows and try to include as much as possible within the frame. The final results are often chaotic and unorganized. Consider this when assessing what to include in the overall composition. It’s always better to have less and be more specific when it comes to the elements you include in your framing. Simplifying the design will go a long way to creating an image that is cohesive and pleasing.
Start with the camera off the tripod and walk around, looking through the camera’s viewfinder for possible compositions. Without the tripod’s constraints, it’s much simpler to move about and see what captures your eye. Remember that your tripod’s height is adjustable, so change your perspective and look for compositions high and low.
To make your image more interesting, position the tripod so that you can see a flow of wildflowers that leads into the background. If the camera angle is too low, one can only see the foreground flowers. If the camera is too high, the foreground wildflowers will appear far away and lose their impact. I find that positioning the tripod around my knee’s height and tilting the camera at a 45-degree angle down often provides the best chance for success.
The camera’s focus should be roughly one-third of the way into the image or where the foreground wildflowers begin, with an aperture of ƒ/11 to ƒ/16 to achieve maximum sharpness. It is essential to make sure that foreground wildflowers are tack sharp. Take several test shots and review them on your camera’s LCD.
When looking for wildflowers to include in your composition, be mindful of the aesthetics of the wildflowers themselves, and only include those that are healthy and vibrant. Look for patterns in the foreground wildflowers that balance in terms of weight, shape and color. By “weight,” I mean the abundance of wildflower blooms on each side of the image. My goal is to find an even distribution of wildflowers on each side.
Think of balancing the flowers like a fulcrum or playground seesaw. Balancing applies to the color of the flowers as well. Frame the scene so that the dominant colors of the flowers have even weight on either side.
Impactful wildflower images tell a story. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is through layering. Layering within a composition refers to including several elements within the landscape from foreground to background. Look for areas with plenty of flowers that flow through the frame and avoid including areas with gaps where there are no flowers. A gap in the flowers breaks the flow that connects the foreground with the background. In my compositions, I like to convey a sense that the wildflowers are endless and continue all the way to the distant mountain peaks or horizon.
The process of framing should start wide and include elements that give the viewer a sense of the location. Try photographing the scene from both horizontal and vertical orientations. With more sweeping views, look to include multiple layers. Elements such as streams, creeks, lakes and ponds may provide excellent reflections and add overall depth to the image. If there are mountains in the scene’s background, try framing the peaks reflecting in a water element, if possible.
Once I am satisfied capturing perspectives on a grand scale using my wide-angle lenses, I begin to narrow my field of view. It helps to train the eye to look for the pictures within the picture. Using a combination of a telephoto lens and shallow depth of field, I look for compositions with a soft, surreal, painterly look. Creating a shallow depth of field with an aperture like ƒ/5.6 or larger can blur the background and focus attention on the foreground wildflowers. Using a telephoto lens allows you to focus on shape and color, including only the essential elements, and also compresses the overall scene, simplifying the composition. Try to get creative with sidelight or backlight to express even more mood.
Color Harmony In Wildflower Photography
One of the most critical aspects of composition is color harmony. Because wildflowers are very saturated by nature, too much color can be overwhelming and diminish the overall impact. When shooting wildflowers, I consider the interaction of warm and cool tones. The color wheel is an excellent tool for learning to use color harmony. Pay particular attention to the complementary colors on the color wheel. Nature does a great job on its own with complementary colors—for example, wildflowers with purple petals and a yellow center.
Understanding the color wheel and complementary colors can help you frame all the elements in your composition with a pleasing balance. Avoid the domination of only warm or cool tones in any image region. Each color has its own visual weight, and having too much or not enough of that color on either side of the composition can divert the viewer’s eye, causing the viewer to get stuck on one part of the image rather than allowing their eyes to flow throughout the entire frame. For example, lupine wildflowers have a purple color and thus a cool tone. So, when I photograph lupine, I will complement their cool color with a warmer-hued flower such as Indian paintbrush, which is red. An image with a mix of warm and cool colors will usually be more visually appealing.
Quality Of Light
The presence of the light in your composition can make or break a photo. You can execute all the previously mentioned tips to perfection, but the quality of light is the one element that truly makes an image stand out. Time of day and the direction of light will have a big impact on the success of your wildflower photographs.
Resist the temptation to shoot wildflowers during the middle of the day when sunlight is strongest. The problem is that mid-day light typically means harsh contrast, which results in images with dark shadows and hot highlights that detract from the wildflowers’ color. I find it’s best to photograph flowers early in the morning at sunrise or in the late afternoon near sunset. The few moments as the sun rises and sets provide the best low-angle light and showcase the flowers in a warm, soft glow that draws the viewers’ attention.
Another good time to photograph wildflowers is when the sun is not present on overcast days. The wildflowers will be cast in soft, cool light, and the even contrast of the light across the scene makes for a pleasing color balance. So, make sure to be aware of the light direction. If used in the right way, it can make all the difference.
For successful wildflower photographs, it helps to do your research and have the right equipment. Being aware of your camera settings and composition creates images that are full of detail—and easier to process. Don’t be afraid to be creative, think outside the box and create something visually that hasn’t been seen before. Combining the above recommendations with the right light increases the odds of capturing memorable wildflower images.
It is important to respect the fragility of wildflower meadows and obey trail signs that ask you not to walk in the meadows. Respect for the environment will ensure future generations can partake in the beauty that surrounds us.
Lastly, remember to dress appropriately for the adventure. Dress in layers, as alpine and desert environments where wildflowers are common can have dramatic weather and temperature changes throughout the day. Most of all, have fun because you get to see nature at its best.
See more of Kevin McNeal’s work at kevinmcnealphotography.com.