Quantity or quality? Often this is a question that too many photographers ask themselves when about to embark on flower photography – especially in a field of flowers. Should you zoom in on only one of them, or should you try to capture the impressive beauty of the entire group so your flower photography images become like coloured landscapes, or s single beauty?
While there are the proverbial “pros and cons” for either option, for the focus of this discussion we’ll consider the best approach to flower photography.
If you are photographing a large mass of flowers, the primary thing to remember is that the techniques used for your flower photography will be very similar to those used in standard landscape work (as opposed to the methods put to use when capturing only individual blooms). This means that we won’t be looking at macro flower photography or zoom lens requirements. We will instead focus more on general composition, aperture settings, and shutter speeds for your flower photography.
We must also consider the way light will affect our flower photography as well, particularly where it has any impact on the accurate or artful rendering of colors in the scene.
Let’s first look at the flower photography images we will refer to throughout the remainder of this discussion, and we will see that they work as sets to use in contrast to one another. First, a classic flower photography image. Sunflowers.
We have two different views of a field full of sunflowers. The first gives us an “eye-level” perspective which uses only the sky as a background. The second is shot at a bit of an angle and includes a mountain range at the back.
Next, we have two different views of boldly colored red and pink blooms. The first shoots bold red poppies from the “ground up”, and frames them against a beautiful sky as the background. The second looks downward and relies upon the green leaves of the tulips to serve as a strong background instead.
Finally, we have three images that use fields of flowers to fill the entire frame (or nearly the entire frame). Interestingly enough, the first two images are shot from similar angles, but the field of purple flowers has a much shorter depth of field than the field of yellow flowers. The final shot fills two-thirds of the frame with the field of flowers, but it also relies upon the hills in the background to create a remarkable sense of depth too.
It would be simplest to assess the overall composition for each of the shots in order to demonstrate the impact and power of masses of flowers. By composition we mean the way in which the photographer may have applied such things as the “rule of thirds”, or their decision to use the landscape instead of the portrait alignment of the scene. Remember, it is entirely possible to render excellent landscape photographs using the portrait view, but it does take some consideration about the end results to be sure it is the proper choice. Composition will also mean the camera settings that generated the results as well.
The first sunflower image uses a landscape perspective in order to document the vastness of the field. We get a sense of depth and distance because the photographer used the one significantly taller sunflower to draw a comparison against the cluster of trees in the far horizon. Whether this flower was naturally or artificially taller than all of the others, its presence in the first third of the frame creates a wonderful balance to the scene. The use of the sky as a strong background really causes the colors to “pop” too. Additionally, the photographer’s choice of midday allows the scene to be almost completely illuminated (note how few shadows appear) and this adds to the sunny, cloudless, and brilliant qualities of the image.
We should also consider the aperture of this scene as well. The composition is strengthened by the crystal-clear focus on the single bloom and the gentle blurring of almost all other elements in the scene. This means that the aperture was wide (which translates to a low f/stop setting, such as 2.8) which created a short depth of field. Although this is not a standard “landscape photography” technique, it did give a better result.
The second set of sunflowers was recorded a bit differently. Although the photographer positioned their camera at a slight angle above the blooms (as in the first image) they also included the hills in the far distance as a means of creating depth. This photographer did not open the aperture as wide and probably relied upon a higher f/stop setting. Because of this, many of the closer flowers are in sharper focus, and the viewer is able to see just how far the field extends, which created a more dramatic setting. Would this image have “worked” in portrait alignment? Probably not, and here we see just how composition plays such a powerful role in end results.
Interestingly enough, the qualities of the color and light in this second photograph are less saturated than the first one. This may be due to the lack of a polarizing filter, the smaller aperture, or it could be due to natural conditions such as haze or humidity.
Here it is important to mention the ways that lighting can affect the color of flowers. Many photographers seek out the early morning or sunset hours that provide the famous “sweet light”. This may or may not be suitable to the field of flowers image because, as demonstrated by the two sunflower photographs, there is often a call for bold and direct light. This sort of light, however, can fade or wash out the natural colors of the blooms. The light can also cause colors to reflect upon one another and diminish their natural beauty. The one resource that many photographers use to combat this situation is the polarizing filter (or the neutral density filter as well) as it is meant to reduce reflections of all kinds, saturate the colors, and render the skies in a more favorable manner.
When light is direct, there can also be the need for a lens hood to prevent glare and reflection too. Look at the image of the poppies below…here we see that the photographer decided to use backlighting to make the bold red of the petals extraordinarily dramatic. The composition of this shot is wonderfully balanced by the base of green grass, the gentle movement up towards the flowers, and then the completion of the scene with the pale blue sky. There may have been a polarizer at work in this photograph, especially if you compare the saturation of blue at one corner of the image from the color at the other, but a lens hood may have also helped to capture the image successfully too.
This is the only photograph in the entire group that is similar to shots of single blooms, but it would not have been a success had the photographer used all of the same settings and taken in the image in portrait mode. Why? It is the compositional weight of the grass which really “anchors” the image; the delicate stems and bodies of the blooms; and the surreal clouds and light of the sky that make the scene a success. Had it been thinned down by the shift in perspective, it would not have achieved this sort of balance.
Of course, it is never obligatory for a photograph to utilize what is viewed as “traditional” balance.
Look at the image of the pink Tulips below…the weight of this scene is evenly spread throughout the entire frame. The photographer opted to drop down far enough to eliminate a background or horizon, but the lens is not yet even or eye-level with the blooms. They did use a somewhat small aperture, in order to keep many of the flowers in sharp focus, but not enough to flatten the image. The real genius of this image is in the fact that it was taken on what appears to be a somewhat overcast day. The quality of the light is cooler than normal, and this is the main reason that the colors of the leaves and stems along with the bolder blooms are all really strong.
Strong colors do not have to dominate a scene, as evidenced by the image above. Just as the tulips and their brilliant pink shades seem to be the “theme” of the previous photoraph, here too we have a lot of bold color. In this image, however, the photographer has decided to be a bit more “removed” from the setting, and has pulled back from the blooms in order to take in more of the overal scale of the setting. The sheer number of blooms provides a huge amount of the power in this scene, and the decision to use a wide angle with a larger aperture has created an unusual effect. Look at the nearest area of flowers…this portion of the frame has a bit of an unnatural bulge, and this is due to the use of the wide angle lens when it is too close to the subject. Does it harm the overall effect? No, it actually forces the viewer to take in more of the pale green, and this balances the nearly complete saturation of blue towards the top of the frame.
The scope of the field of purple-blue flowers is impressive, but the yellow flowers above are even more so. This is because the photographer has allowed even more of the landscape to fill the frame. In this image, the aperture is fairly large, and very little of the image is in sharp focus. This doesn’t diminish the value of the composition, however, because it still allows the viewer to take in the sight of a veritable “sea” of flowers and grass. Note, the photographer used no background or horizon to give depth – only the diminishing perspective of the thousands of blossoms.
In the last image, however, the photographer has used many of the settings and compositional options we have mentioned throughout this entire discussion. For instance, we have a unique perspective because it is quite clear that the camera is near the ground, we have a long depth of field through the use of a higher f/stop setting, the field is made a bit more dramatic thanks to the use of the horizon and the hill in the background, and we have the use of the polarizing filter to control the colors in the sky. We even see that the portrait alignment has been used to give the scene both depth and height! Is the image a success? Absolutelty! Not only is the lighting even, but the masses of tiny flowers pack a lot of weight and really make the image. Just imagine this same scene with only green grass leading to the hill beyond…it is nowhere near as interesting!
Although the portrait perspective worked well for this photographer, there are many times when only the landscape perspective will suffice. Sometimes there is no way to record a truly vast and panoramic image in a single exposure. The result is the need to take enough shots to later “stitch” them together with photo editing software. This is a bit of a tricky process, but if you have a tripod it is actually much simpler. All that is necessary is to identify a few landmarks in the scene and to be sure to record them in each of the exposures. If you do not shift the vertical alignment on the tripod, the computer software should allow you to make some impressive images. There are a few things to remember about this process, including the fact that a cloudless day is best as it will create no shadows on the landscape, and it is also preferable for there to be no wind to blow flowers around as well. Additionally, you cannot use a filter when making stitched shots because they create uneven skies.
Finally, we do need to discuss the fact that flowers are not continually in bloom. If a photographer wants to know the optimal times of year to find flowers in bloom they will have to do a bit of research. Obviously, the Internet is one of the most accurate and easiest tools to use. For example, someone in Western Australia could check up on the latest blooms and regions where flower photography was possible by visiting sites like:
Simply typing in “wildflowers” and the name of the continent is the simplest first step.