Monday, 6 April 2009

Flower Photography

Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. In my last post I took a swift look at how to shoot insect macro & close up. Quite a lot of what I wrote about in that post is relevant to this subject as well. This is because flower photography is generally split into the same categories of scientific and artistic photography. Taking pictures of wild flowers was the reason that I became involved with Macro Photography in the first place. Initially I began with a standard 35mm film camera (yes I am that old – going to be 38 on April 20th). My adventures with film did not last long because the camera stopped working one day whilst clambering around on the North Yorkshire Moors (United Kingdom). Sadly for my 35mm film camera, it would have cost more than it was worth to have it repaired. Digital SLR cameras were just appearing on the market at the time (circa 2004). So I entered into the world of digital photography.

Flower photography is often more complicated than you may first imagine. There are lots of types of flowers and therefore lots of different types of flower photography. Some of the most popular flower photographs fall into the fine art category. Fine art photography usually takes place within a studio environment but not exclusively. Macro photographers are generally drawn towards wild flowers, garden flowers and fine art imagery. The settings and varieties of flowers often allow for high levels of contrast in flower photographs. This makes flowers an ideal subject for black and white photography. You can see examples of this for yourself in any photography gallery worth its salt. Initially before acquiring a dedicated macro lens I would use a standard Canon 18-55mm kit lens for flower photography. This was adequate (but not great) for getting portrait shots which are generally taken from the side (or above) and show the plant in its entirety. This is usually not an easy shot to achieve with a dedicated true macro lens. You would have to be a long distance from the plant or flower that it would become an unworkable situation. To get the best plant and flower portraits you will need a decent wide angle lens. It is always difficult deciding which lens is the best macro lens for a particular task. It seems logical that the shorter range of lenses i.e. 50mm-100mm would be better suited to plant and flower photography. If you want to shoot insects and small animals as well as flowers then you need to consider buying a macro lens with a longer working distance. This is the distance between the lens and the subject. There is no reason why you can not use a longer range lenses such as 100mm-180mm for flower photography.

Benbo Tripods (manufactured by Paterson Photographic)
Believe it or not I’m not a salesman for Paterson Photographic the company that makes Benbo tripods. I know that this brand of tripods has been around for 35 years (so they must be doing something right!)The Benbo trekker range of tripods are loved and loathed in equal measure by the hard to please macro photographers of this word. I firmly believe that for wild flower photography there is nothing of better value on the market. Most beginners to macro have already spent their budget on a camera and lens. These tripods are inexpensive in comparison to other leading brands, practical (although traditionally a little bit heavy) and they are extremely versatile. Benbo tripods are good value for money and I’ve written about them before in the past. In one of my previous post (probably about tripods) I recommended using a Benbo Trekker tripod with a Manfrotto head (this requires the use of an inexpensive thread adapter – as discussed). This will provide you with a versatile set-up that is ideally suited to wild flower photography. If you want a more expensive tripod (and some people do) I would suggest having a look at the range of tripod products by Gitzo. Remember to buy a remote switch for your camera and you are almost ready for some wild flower action.

A lot of the most interesting and diverse flora (flowers and plants) tends to grow in places where photography is difficult. Coastal locations, mountains, moor land, open plateaux, bogs, streams, beaches, salt marshes and riverbanks to name a few. Not only do you have to do battle with the terrain the weather is always going to be an additional difficulty to overcome. In particular the nemesis for the wild flower macro photographer is the natural phenomena of wind. Even a gentle summer breeze is enough to spoil a macro shot by adding motion blur. A fast shutter speed can be used to freeze the action but this will be at the expense of aperture. This has all be discussed and explained in earlier posts. Instead of trading aperture for faster shutter speeds I would recommend using a windbreak. A windbreak is not one of those dreadful striped contraptions people used on the beach in the 1970’s. It is a much smaller unrelated device used to keep your outdoor macro shots sharp in wild and windy conditions. A simple windbreak is easy and inexpensive to make from household objects. I’ve used a large padded white envelope with a few wooden kebab skewers as the supports and ground pegs. As long as your wind protector is flexible it will be easy to adjust its position quickly as you work. It is absolutely incredible how much difference this simple homemade device makes to outdoor flower photographs. A windbreak which is almost free to build will make your outdoor macro shots consistently sharper.

The windbreak can also act as a reflector to make more use of ambient light (a.k.a. natural light). To do this, use a material that reflects more ambient light onto your subject. It is also possible to use the makeshift windbreak as way of bouncing flash for a more flattering lighting effect. This could be starting to sound a little bit too technical for the avid beginner to macro photography. I will cease this here for now but will probably return to these topics at a later date if required.

If you didn’t read my previous post about using field guides I recommend going back one post and browsing through it. Field guides are a very useful tool for the wild flower photographer. This may seem like a strange correlation but field guides contain a lot of information about each plant. Like insects you will need to know which habitats certain plants are likely to be found in. There is no point driving hundreds of miles to a salt-marsh to photograph alpine flowers! The more information you know about certain plants the more you will understand about photographing them. An example would be the species with the common name Yellow Rattle. This semi parasitic plant gained its name because after flowering it develops seed pods that rattle in the wind. Knowing that it is semi-parasitic can help you to find it because the areas where it grows are surrounded by brown unhealthy grass/foliage. Yellow Rattle is not difficult to find although it is quite rare generally in the UK. Also knowing when plants are in flower or when they produce fruit will make photographing them much easier. It is always better to photograph a flower by planning rather than by a chance encounter. I’m not suggesting that you need to be a professional botanist to photograph flowers. I am making a point that to become a proficient wild flower photographer it would be beneficial to have a good general knowledge and understanding of your subject. This obviously applies to wild flowers but is also relevant to flowers generally. Photography is a very competitive business and if there is a way to get the upper hand you should definitely not think twice about taking it. A wild flower photograph always looks more professional with the correct scientific name written below it – along with your name and copyright.

Getting in Close to Flowers
It is not always an easy task attempting to get close-up or true macro of flowers. Plant foliage will always appear to be in the way and not always conducive to a good composition. If a plant has a lot of flowers it can be difficult finding the best one for your composition. A cluster of flowers will often make a composition look messy or confused. Flower photography is an art even when taking scientific shots. Different skills are required for different species of flowering plants. It can be extremely challenging for example to take sharp images of grasses. The identification of grasses can be important in terms of agriculture or conservation. Some students of wild flowers and grasses use photography to assist in the identification process. If you fall into this category of photographer I recommend that you also keep separate notes on each species photographed for later reference. In these records write down the in-camera file number assigned to that image.

Experience is the only real lesson
The fact is quite simple. I could write about flower photography all day and you could read about it for the same length of time. The only way to learn how to take macro photographs of flowers is by doing it. This way you soon learn what works and what doesn’t. I’ve found that using coloured card you can simply make a new clean background. In some cases this will stop the ambient light passing through the petals. This can be beneficial in some cases and detrimental to other compositions.

Macro Photography for Beginners
Well, it is almost a year since I began writing this website. It has been an interesting year. I think that I have done quite well for my first year writing a blog. I have had some experience of writing website and blogs in the past but nothing as comprehensive or serious as this project. My ambition was to catch those macro photographers who had bought equipment found macro photography much harder than they had expected and considered giving up. I’ve been there, and I know how it feels, you want to put your camera equipment on Ebay and spend your time doing something easier…like training to be an astronaut. It is now English summer time in the UK (not that you would notice by the weather conditions) and I’m looking forward to new season of Macro Photography. If the summer is anything like 2007 there is a chance that photo opportunities may be confined to indoor space. Also, there is very little on television worth watching these days. So once the light goes down I spend most of my time taking photographs indoors. I am now concentrating on building an indoor still life macro studio. This means that I have to face the continuous or flash light debate. My next post is about studio lighting kits and whether we should be investing in them or not. I hope that you have found at least some elements of this article insightful.

Marvin Africa


urmiraj14 said...

Hi Marvin! This is Urmi again. I had commented earlier, asking u abt entry-level DSLRS (

I just wanted to let you know that I went ahead and bought my first dslr: a Canon 1000D! Its barely a month old and I have alot of tinkering to do. Hopefully I can learn more from your great posts on macro photography :)

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Urmi,
It is great to hear from you again. I remember your original comment about digital SLR cameras.

I hope that you are enjoying using your Canon 1000D!

Are my posts great in quantity or great in quality I wonder? LOL

urmiraj14 said...

definitely great in quality :) it's like having my own personal instructor for the various aspects (especially those one doesn't think of immediately) of photography

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Urmi,
Thanks for the complement. Although I'm starting to run out of ideas for new articles. Extension tubes, lens filters and tele-converters are all up for consideration for future posts.

Meanwhile, I'm currently trying to adapt my ring flash to operate away from the camera. This would be similar to using a flash gun on a bracket (but far less expensive) That is the general idea anyway! I'm not sure if this would be of enough interest for a full article.

I might add a "bonus" post this month, telling the tale of what happened when I took my Canon 18-55mm kit lens apart. Have you ever wondered what is inside a lens? (obviously this has nothing whatsoever to do with macro photography)


urmiraj14 said...

oh im definitely curious about the what goes on inside. If i could I would go ahead and pick it apart myself. But seeing that my cam is not just a month old, it mite not be wise :P

But you can definitely make it about macro photography (the taking apart of yr lenses) by posting some awesome snaps of the insides for us to drool over :)