In this installment of “Great Subjects”, we’re going to look at how to approach flower photography for more creative and interesting photos that go beyond snapshots.
Flower photography is one of the most popular types of photography, especially for amateurs. Perhaps it’s because anyone can point their camera at a blooming rose, hit the shutter, and get a pretty good snapshot. But creative and compelling photos must go beyond snapshots. Just pointing your camera at a pretty flower wont transfer the innate beauty of the flower into your photograph and often you’ll be left with lackluster imitations of the splendor you’re trying to capture.
If you want your image to do justice to the earth’s wonder, you need to change the way you approach the whole process. Rather than playing the role of an observer by taking a photograph, place yourself in Mother Nature’s shoes instead, and make the photograph. When you fully involve yourself in the construction of the image, your choices will affect the visual impact the photograph carries. In this way, you can make a photograph that is as exquisite as the subject itself.
Making purposeful choices about what you are trying to convey in your photographs is what is going to help you transform from snapshot taker to photograph maker. If you just see a pretty flower, hold up your camera and snap, you’ll get a snapshot. But when you take the time to decide what is important, what you want to convey, and how you will convey it, you’ll start to notice your photographs improving.
The only thing standing between you and incredible flower photos is a little bit of thought, technique, and practice. This holds true for all types of photography, but flower photography is a good place to start putting the concepts into practice and then you can apply what you have learned to all of your subjects.
To begin this transformation, simply ask yourself a few questions: What is so special about this flower? What attracted you to this one? What makes it better than the other ones around it?
Maybe it has perfect form, or the light is hitting it just right. Look closely at the flower and figure out its true significance and what you want to say about it. These are the qualities that you want to emphasize through thoughtful composition and technique.
Every image has a message, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be complex. In flower photography, it is often as simple as, “These colours are awesome!” or “ Check out the texture of this pollen”. Or, it can be conceptual like life blooming in the sun, or the perfection of nature. Whatever it is, the best pictures are created when the photographer knows the message or the concept before making the image. At that point you can decide which type of light is best, what kind of composition you want to use, and what techniques are appropriate to convey your message.
The quality of the light in a scene deeply affects the overall mood of the photograph. Flowers are most often photographed under diffused light because it hides their blemishes and makes them look gentle, delicate, and serene. The light is dispersed and shadow contrast is low, making plants look silky, delicate, and healthy.
Because the light is less intense, you’ll be able to use a wider aperture to achieve a shallow depth of field to blur the background and increase the overall softness of the image. Overcast weather is perfect for this type of photograph, but even on a bright, sunny day you can find diffused light in the shade, or when a cloud drifts by overhead. In a pinch, you can also place a diffuser between your subject and the sun to soften its hard light.
Using diffused light may be the most popular way to photograph flowers, but it isn’t the only way. If you want to create more dramatic images, use more dramatic light! Dramatic light is bold with high contrast and strong shadows.
Look for flowers that are lit differently than their surrounding area, particularly ones that are in direct sunlight and have a dark, shady background. Hard light is less forgiving than soft light because you cannot hide anything, so you’ll have to make sure you pick flowers without any flaws. Finding the right subject is half the battle!
When working with dramatic light, you need to pay particular attention to your camera angle because sharp shadows can make or break an image and should be placed thoughtfully within the composition. For instance, if you’re shooting with the sun directly behind you, you won’t see the shadow falling on the other side of the subject. This can sometimes make a flower look flat and boring, because shadows give a photograph a sense of dimension that draws the viewer in. If you change your point of view, however, the shadows will become more visible. Remember that shadows create a feeling of drama, but can also completely obscure parts of your subject. You should always think about where they are when framing your shot.
Exposure is especially important when working with high contrast scenes. Sometimes your camera’s meter can be confused when part of the scene is bright and part is in shadow. The most important thing to remember is that the main subject should be properly exposed so use spot metering to meter on the flower and let the background fall where it may.
You can also use backlight to create dramatic flower photos. Because the flower’s petals are translucent, they will often glow when you position the light behind them. Backlight can also illuminate what is inside the plant – such as the veins that bring them life – much like a simplified x-ray. These types of compositions can be very dramatic because they show us a familiar subject in a way we may have never seen it before.
The Environmental Portrait
Most flower photos that we see are portraits where a single flower is the main subject. But you can also explore the flower and it’s environment by including the landscape that the flower is in – the flower and its context. The flower should still clearly be the main subject, but instead of blurring the background or having a dramatic black background, add a sense of place to the image.
When making environmental portraits, your composition is going to be more complex to show the flower and the landscape. We’re not just filling the frame with the flower anymore.
The first decision you need to make is how you want to frame your photograph. The frame is the confines of the picture – the box that contains your image. When we talk about framing your image, we’re referring to arranging your subject within that area, including how many elements are visible, how large they are, and where they’re placed within the frame.
You’ll probably find yourself using a wider angle lens so that you can incorporate the flower’s surroundings into the frame. With this in mind, give some thought to the perspective you choose so that you don’t come away with a snapshot.
Most flower photos are taken from the front and slightly above, just like we might see it as we walk by. And while this is a perfectly fine point of view to shoot from, it can easily lead to snapshots. What makes a photograph stand out amongst others is a willingness to look at things a little bit differently.
Whether you move the camera up higher, down lower, or to either side, changing your point of view of any subject or scene will give you a more unique perspective that will add instant interest to an image.
The way we look at something changes the way our brain processes it, and therefore the impression it leaves. Looking up from a low angle makes a subject appear large and grandiose, while looking down at it from up high seems to shrink it. Getting closer or further away from the subject can change its apparent size compared to what is around it, and moving your camera relative to the sun can show a completely different side of something – literally, in a whole different light.
Perspective becomes an especially important factor when you start adding other elements in the frame, in addition to your main subject.
Exploring Your Creativity
There are many different ways to photograph flowers, so I want to challenge you to come up with a creative concept and then put it into action. Do something you have never done before. Find your inner artist 🙂
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- change your perspective
- focus through another flower by putting one flower very close to the end of your lens and focussing on a flower that is farther away
- don’t include the entire flower
- photograph a different object with a flower reflected in it
- try some creative processing techniques
- use a long exposure and let the flower blur
- forget about the flower, and think only about shapes and colours
- photograph the flower through some fabric or glass or something else
- zoom the lens while the shutter is open
For more ideas, check out “One Flower 16 Ways” in Scientific American which explores creative decisions in nature photography.
The word “creativity” frightens many people. “I’m not an artist,” they’ll protest, or “I’m just not a creative person.” If this sounds like you, put those doubts away. You don’t have to be an artistic genius or come up with something that’s never been done before to express your creativity. Creativity, at its heart, is simply about remaining open to all possibilities in your approach to a subject, idea, or problem.
In photography, remaining open to all possibilities often requires us to slow down and spend more time observing than we do shooting. When we get caught up in “taking the shot” and then quickly move on, we can walk right by other ideas that might lead to a more interesting image.
Try taking a slower, more thoughtful approach to flowers. Before you raise your camera to take a shot, stop, and simply spend time observing the flower or flowers, using as many senses as possible. What possibilities arise?
Final Tip: Eliminate Distractions
If you look at a lot of successful photographs, you might start to notice that the most effective compositions are the least complicated. Try to focus the entire image towards telling your story, and eliminate anything that is is distracting from it. Anything that can be seen in your photo that doesn’t add to the story only takes away from it.
If your composition contains clutter and errant objects, there are a number of ways to get rid of them. If you can physically remove them, great! Otherwise, you may have to change your perspective to hide or minimize the offending elements. Things near the edges of the frame can be cropped off by moving closer, zooming, or otherwise re-framing the shot.
Backgrounds especially should be clean so they do not distract from the detail of the main subject. This is why wide apertures are often used to get a shallow depth of field that blurs the background and minimizes distractions.
I hope you’ll get out there and take some of the ideas in this post to make four very different flower photos: use diffused light; use dramatic light; create an environmental portrait; and something creatively different.
For more tutorials in this series, check out “Great Subjects”.
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