No tripod, no macro lens, no rules to follow. These are my essential “rules” for my own flower photography. Here shared with the readers, with some more secrets for better photography and more fun.
When I recently wrote here at Manfrotto about different ways to photograph flowers, in the article, “5 different situations in flower photography” , I promised that I would return to the theme with an explanation of “my own way” to photograph flowers. In fact, I use a technique completely different from those presented in the article mentionned above. This new article allows me to share with readers eventually interested some information about the ways I prefer to follow to photograph flowers.
As I’ve mentionned before, all the notes published in my previous article should be used as guidance and not as definitive solutions. They should point you viable directions to pursue, based on the “behind the scenes” revealed, and never be accepted as the only ways to photograph flowers. Now we take this adventure a step further, while I show you how I photograph flowers “my own way”. The same advice is to follow here: look for your own ways even when using someone else’s experience as a starting point.
Although it may sound as if I am repeating myself, let me say that I’ve three different approaches when it comes to flower photography: the Meet You Neighbours (MYN) way, using white backgrounds in a field studio, with flash light as the dominant light source, the macro way, and then my own, which involves using long focal lenghts.
I use the MYN approach when I want to do material for that international project I am involved with. For those photographs I tend to use macro lenses, either 100mm or 60mm, depending on some specific circunstances from which the following two are mostly present: dimension of subject and how much I wanted to carry with me that day. Trying to follow my motto of “Less Gear, More Fun” – and by less gear I mean less weight – I tend to carry the 60mm around as my everyday macro lens and just use the 100mm for some situations. Now you know it!
So, I use macro for my MYN flowers, but I also use it with some subjects, as it allows me to get closer or photograph small flowers that do not work with “my own way” of photographing flowers. In fact, “my own way” is based on something that not many people associate with flower photography: I use a 100-400mm lens at its long end, mounted on an APS-C body. This means, for practical purposes, that I usually photograph flowers at 640mm. Yes, although people generally look at my photos and tend to say “I also want to do macro”, they are wrong, as this has nothing to do with macro photography.
Why this approach? Well, I simply like the compression effect you get at such focal lengths. I like the way it looks. When I tell people about this process of photographing flowers they immediately say that I need a tripod. In fact, some people will even go to the extent of saying that you ALWAYS need a tripod for flower photography. Well, I must have been absent when the rule was written, because I rarely – I probably could write NEVER – use a tripod. Why? Because I like to separate the flower from the background, and for that I use wide apertures, meaning I mostly can handhold the camera. Also, because I work outside, sometimes with a light breeze or a strong wind moving the flowers, it makes no sense to use a tripod, unless I wanted a specific result. Makes sense?
When working in areas with less light I tend to raise my ISO within acceptable limits, normally to 400 ISO, although I expect, with new cameras – mine dates back to 2008 – to be able to go higher and still get clean pictures. I’ve tried the EOS-1D X and it surely works, but it is much too heavy for me, and I very much like the APS-C form factor, so the new EOS 7D Mark II may well be my next camera for flower photography. Again, some people will think a tripod would suffice for those low light situations, but it does not, as wind may still be present when the light goes down! Anyway, for my flower photography I tend to sit down amidst the flowers, at their level, and use my knees as support to my elbows and camera, like an human tripod. If the flower is so low on the ground that I need to lie down flat on my belly, I will either use my elbows or even the backpack as support to my camera and lens.
To achive the results shown in these photographs one has to consider multiple aspects: lighting, position of the flower in relation to background and foreground, best angle to get the best aspect of the flower and also deal with the little depth of field present. As I tend to use wide apertures, depth of field has to be taken into account when choosing the view angle over the flower, so as to get the more detail available withouth compromising the relation of subject and background and foreground. This is probably the hardest part of this photographic option, and one that many times makes me drop one specific flower. If I can not get all the elements in place I tend to look for another specimen to photograph.
Accepted these limitations or conditions, the rest of the work becomes easy. That’s what I always try to explain people, and still they seem to not believe me. The technical aspects are not important, or at least as important as some think. That’s the reason why I rarely mention data for my photographs: I tend to use wide apertures (f/5.6 to f/8) and a shutter speed that allows me both to keep the 400mm (or 640mm with the crop factor) lens steady and to stop any movement the flower may have due to the wind. I also have to consider things like the use of light, creative use of depth of field, composition, background selection, use of small reflectors and diffusers and also the use of fill-flash, if needed, but those are just normal part of a photographic process of thought and something that is not explainable in one article like this. I use them withouth thinking much about them, and that’s it!
One aspect that, more than the rest, leads to the results I achieve does not come in technical books about photography: it has to do with patience and a contemplative state regarding my flower photography. I am out there to have fun, generally to be on my own, to fill my eyes and soul with the experience of creating the best “flower portraits” I can, both to satisfy myself and share with others. Through that I aim to share my love for Nature and how much of beauty it has for us, if we only SEE things. And believe me, this may start right outside your door step, or even in a vase with flowers you’ve at home.
For those whom, having read this article until here, think that a long lens like mine is needed, I must say that even the humble 18-55mm kit lens that comes with many DSLRs can be a good companion for many flower photography. I’ve shown it to people in the field, when they tell me that they envy my lenses. If they’re using a Canon I do not mind to change lenses with them, and still show everybody what a simple lens can do. Still, those really interested in photographing flowers wiht a long lens may look at a regular 70-300mm lens, preferably one that has close up focus capabilitiy, and invest on it. The magnification power of many of these lenses is more than enough for flower photography. After all, not everybody wants to do REAL macro. It should also be mentionned that many pictures taken with macro lenses are nothing else that close-up photos. Macro is not always the best solution, it is a tool, like all the rest. I, for example, prefer to photograph flowers “my own way”.
There’s one piece of advice I always give people when it comes to flowers: take your time and talk to them. Sit at their level and understand them as beings. Else, it will not work as it does to me; it does not matter how much technique you know or use. Put your heart into your photographs. That’s something I tried to share with people in my eBook Best Secrets of Flower Photography. The eBook is a 36 page practical guide with 38 photographs of flowers and tips for you to achieve the results people like on my flower images. There are no notes on exposure or special techniques in the book, as exposure is very much limited by the lens in use and the options I take in terms of aperture. There are also no special effects, or Photoshop tricks. This is much what was captured in the field. You can find more about the eBook visiting my website.