“Don’t be afraid. Just go ahead — photograph, photograph, photograph. That’s the only way you’ll learn.”
Back in September of 2013, I attended a workshop put on by Denise Ippolito and Art Morris. It was five days of immersion in flower photography and was headquartered in the small town of Canby, Oregon. Why Canby Oregon you ask? Well it happens to be the home of Swan Island Dahlias – http://www.dahlias.com/ – a farm that grows nothing but dahlias with over forty acres under cultivation and they encourage photographers to come and take as many pictures as they want. We also spent an afternoon at the Portland Japanese Gardens and a morning at Gramma’s Farm Store shooting sunflowers. It was probably one of the best photography courses I have been on. Since that time I have been on a real personal photography trip shooting flowers and I have decided that they will become my favourite things to shoot. (No, I am not forgetting birds and landscapes, oh, and macro work as well.)
There are a number of things about flowers that make them a great subject and an incredible source of creativity for your photographic skills:
- You can shoot them all year round. In the winter, if you have snow and cold as I do, then you can visit your local supermarket and buy a mixed bouquet of flowers that, properly watered, will last about a week or so and in the other times of the year there are lots of opportunities in the outdoors, either in your garden, someone else’s garden (get permission first), or in public gardens in your local city parks.
- There are so many different varieties, that just like birds, you will probably never run out of different subjects to photograph.
- There are a wide variety of techniques that you can experiment with when photographing flowers, that they will appeal to those who have a desire to express their creativity (which, I am assuming, most of us want to do).
- You can cover a full complement of lenses from macro to mini-telephoto to specialty lenses like tilt-shift and Lensbaby. You don’t need all these as a simple 50mm lens will suffice, as will a point and shoot camera, so don’t get all worked up if you don’t have a lot of fancy gear, but you do need a tripod for best results, regardless of the camera you are using.
The first thing that you need is a place to shoot indoors. It should be easily accessible – don’t laugh, not every part of your home is easily accessible – and preferably by a source of external light. In my case, I use my kitchen and place my studio on the kitchen table. To construct my studio, I went to Michaels and bough a number of pieces of foam core board. They are all the same size, 30” x 20” (76.2 x 50.8 cm) I bought a few different colours – white, black, green, and beige (light brown). I used three white sheets as the main part of the studio. They are placed on the kitchen table which is next to a large glass patio door so that I have some indirect lighting from outside. I also modified one piece of the white foam board as a large diffuser. I cut a 16” x 26” piece out of the centre of the board and covered it with white rip-stop nylon fabric. The camera is mounted on a tripod and I have two flash guns that I fire remotely, or connected, as required. I often dial the flash power down to ¼ or 1/64 to try and make it look more like natural light and I use diffusers on the flash to try and eliminate harsh shadows. I place the flower, or flowers, of interest in a vase and use that as my setup for photography. I can shoot single flowers, groups of flowers (remember the rule of three – more later), or parts of flowers using a macro lens.
Photographing flowers outdoors can happen where ever you find them. As I said, your garden other people’s gardens, city parks or along the roadside in the country. I have the nice situation in being less than an hour’s drive from some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world and the meadows of wildflowers that grow there.
Techniques that you used indoors work just as well outdoors. You probably don’t need a lot of flash equipment, but light diffusers of some sort are probably more important outdoors than indoors. They help to diffuse sunlight and thus help to cut down on harsh shadows.
To shoot flowers and get decent images, you will need some basic equipment.
Camera. You don’t need the “latest and greatest”, but you do need something with which to capture the images. I have seen folks use everything from simple Point and Shoot models to top of the line professional ones. Use whatever you have, but obviously a DSLR will help you make a different array of images as you can interchange the lenses on the camera. For the sake of this blog, I am going to assume that folks have some sort of DSLR.
Tripod and head. Again, you don’t need a “top of the line”, professional model, but you do need something that will hold your camera, lens and any additional gear that you may add to the mix. Whatever you do, I would warn you not to get one of those rather flimsy “special deals” that you often see in the weekly sales papers, but get one that is sturdy and will not fall over at the first sign of a breeze. If you do a search on the web using the phrase “tripod buying guide”, you will find many sites that offer advice on how to choose a tripod. One of the ones I would suggest you start with because it will give the kinds of things to think about is http://www.adorama.com/alc/0008169/article/BUYING-GUIDE-Tripods-for-Photographers. There are many others as you will find in your search.
There are a couple of basic heads that you should also consider – ball heads and tilt-pan heads. I use a ball head as I find it a lot easier to make small adjustments in the position of the camera than with a tilt-pan head. What you use should meet whatever shooting needs you have for a tripod head. You can search for “tripod head buying guide” and will find a lot of information similar to what is found here – http://www.shutterbug.com/content/tripod-heads-buyer%E2%80%99s-guide-match-your-shooting-needs.
Remote shutter release. A lot of the shots that you will take, whether they are indoors or outdoors will often require slower shutter speeds. A remote release will mean that you don’t have to touch the camera’s shutter button, as touching this button can often cause the camera to shake a bit making the picture a bit fuzzy. You will also be free to move around and even hold a diffuser or another piece of equipment, like an off camera flash, without worrying about your shutter button.
Controlling the light. There are a variety of ways to do this. You may need things that will block diffuse or reflect the light. You can buy the equipment or you can make your own. I have a mixture of both. For example, directions on making a home-made diffuser can be found here – http://www.instructables.com/id/10-Minute-Light-Diffuser/. You can also use a piece of foam core board, or even a piece of dark cloth stretched across a coat hanger frame to block the light from the flower of interest. A hat will also help as well. A reflector, for those situations where you need to direct some sunlight or flash onto your subject, can be made from aluminum foil and taped over a coat hanger frame. There are all kinds of variations on these approaches for the “do-it-yourselfer” who wants to save on some of the expense of professional equipment.
Lenses. There are a variety of lenses that can be used for flower photography. The simple kit lens that came with the camera, assuming one did, is often sufficient to start with. Beyond this you can use telephoto lenses, macro lenses and wide angle lenses for variety of different images. Telephoto lenses allow you to get a shot of the flower and to place the subject against a blurred background. Macro lenses are necessary for extreme closeup photography and wide angle lenses are great for that outdoor shot where you have a landscape of flowers to photograph.
Another consideration, although not exactly a lens, is a polarizing filter. When used properly, it helps to darken the sky, reduce reflection from leaves and petals when they are wet and may increase the intensity of the colours in the flowers. A detailed treatment of the use of these filters is beyond the scope of this posting. I will cover this topic in another blog post later in the year.
Extension Tubes. These are hollow tubes that attach between your camera and the lens and allow closer focusing than you would ordinarily be able to do with the lens itself. They come in a variety of configurations and sizes. From a configuration perspective, there are two types: those that allow the lens to communicate with the camera as it does under normal situations (autofocus and auto exposure) and those that do not. As far as sizes go, some extension tubes come in sets of three and some come simply as individual tubes. Extension tubes are probably the cheapest way to get into doing macro photography of flowers as they are inexpensive when compared to the purchase of a macro lens and they can be used with some of the lenses that you probably already have in your bag. If you decide to acquire a set of these tubes, then I would recommend that you purchase a set, they often come in sets of three tubes, and that they be capable of allowing the lens to communicate with the camera. I have a set by Kenko that has three tubes – 12mm, 20mm and 36mm – http://www.kenkotokinausa.com/products/kenko/slrc-04.html – although the video shows only a Nikon camera, Kenko makes tubes for most brands of DSLR cameras. You can use these separately, or combine them for different degrees of “closeness”.
Weather Gear. If you are going to spend a lot of time in the outdoors shooting flowers, then sooner or later you will need protection from the elements, usually rain. It is best to carry something to cover your gear, as you may be forced to shoot in light showers (you get good images of rain-covered flowers that way), or you will run into a summer thunder storm. Regardless, always have protection for you and your gear and carry a small towel to wipe the moisture form your camera and lenses should you encounter rain.
The next post will cover outdoor shooting including setup and choices of subjects.