Hellebore Bud, taken with LensbabyVelvet 56 lens, 1/4000 shutter speed, ISO 400.
By Jamie Konarski Davidson, New Life Photos
In the world of flower photography, styles of interpretation run from documentary to artistic to abstract. Each approach has its place and purpose. And there is no “mutually exclusive” clause that says you, as the visual artist, must use only one style.
Of course, the technical aspects of photography are important. A clearly defined subject in a well-composed and well-exposed frame matters, no matter what photography style you prefer. So knowing how to achieve a technically correct image is vital. Once you are comfortable in the technical aspect, you can veer in the direction of your own creative vision. Knowing how to operate your camera without a litany of “whoops,” fumbling or fiddling will help you find your way in all areas of photography, not just among the flowers and gardens.
For starters, it helps to create a goal for your image. If you know what you want to achieve, that vision will help guide your choices. For example, if you want tons of detail, choose small apertures (f/8 – f/22). If you prefer shallower depth of field and selective focus, choose wider apertures (f/1.8 – f/8). Depending upon your goal and closeness to subject, you may need to make adjustments. If you’re uncertain, use multiple apertures and focus areas. Experiment with exposure compensation to find just the right look. Stepping out of “auto-everything” gives you control over the results. Each choice hinges on your goal. So be the driver behind your images.
Recognizing Your Style
We all have leanings in how we approach our subjects. Sometimes, they are led by profession (i.e., conservation) and other times by personality (left/right brain). My style, especially with flowers and gardens, leans strongly toward the artistic and interpretive zone. Yet, I’m not averse to the documentary image. Photography is my passion and therapy, and my images reflect that.
With three macro lenses and a roller bag full of Lensbabies, I embrace getting close and discovering hidden gems within blooms. I tend to get “lost in the folds” of florals, and must remind myself to take reference images so I can later identify the flowers as they evolve from macros into abstracts that celebrate colors, shapes, lines and textures. There are times when all I can say is that the subject is a flower, but the “big picture” escapes me. If this happens to you, start the habit of taking the reference photo before you start or before you leave a subject. An environmental portrait never hurts.
The Intentional Approach
There are times when we’re in a field of flowers or gardens that overwhelm our senses. Awestruck, we don’t know where to start. When this happens, stop. Settle down, be where you are and take it all in. Don’t just plant your camera and tripod somewhere and start mindlessly shooting. Open your eyes and mind. In the middle of that ocean of blooms, look for the one that holds your attention.
Before you start shooting, ask yourself, “Who’s the star? And the supporting characters? And why?” Move around your subject. Find the best angle and perspective. Where do you need to be? What lens do you need? How do you make the light work for the subject? What gear do you need? Gather your tools, and now, begin connecting with your subject. (Keep in mind, this approach applies to more than flowers).
When I identify the “star” and the “why,” I usually work from the “big” (smaller) picture inward. I’m likely choosing a macro lens, making sure I have diopters ready to add, along with my tripod, diffuser/reflector set and small flashlight or Litra cube with diffusion dome. Most of these accessories fit inside the diffuser case, which I attach to a belt loop or my camera bag with a carabiner. And I nearly always use a circular polarizer for my flower and nature photography. The only time it’s off my lens is when I’m indoors or the light is so low that it’s not helping to temper glare and sheen off my subjects. By the way, a macro lens is awesome but is not required for flowers. Telephotos and wide-angle lenses work as well.
If I don’t have a “star” in mind, it’s entirely possible that I’m “crap-shooting” and will go home with images that elicit a “What was I thinking?” reaction. Time in the field with beautiful flowers is precious and therapeutic. I want to see emotional impact in the frame. And while all images won’t “speak” to me, there’s always one that stands out. Remember that a slower pace allows for more depth in exploration. More frames in the camera do not guarantee success. More time with your subject almost always does. Slow down. Don’t leave before the party starts.
We Are ‘Mostly’ In Control
My perfect world for flower photography would look like this: The skies would be bright overcast; all the flowers would be in their best condition (though I am drawn to broken petals and bent blooms); there would be no wind; and the rain would only come before I arrived, so I’d find fresh drops on leaves and petals. There would be ladybugs, grasshoppers, caterpillars, butterflies and bees in all the right places, sitting perfectly still for their close-ups. Oh, and I’d find green tree frogs tucked in the flowers, just waiting for me. Yup, dream on! We can’t summon the perfect settings on command. Sometimes (rarely), we’re blessed with some of the best conditions. So when we head out, we need to put on our “happy face” and our “problem-solving cap” and move forward.
Recently, I encountered several amazing gardens in Georgia (Gibbs Gardens) and North Carolina (Tryon Palace Gardens & local arboretum). The first line in Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” echoed in my mind. There was bright sun and no clouds one day, perfect overcast the next, and twice I had varied light with almost constant breezes. In other words, an excellent time to find a cactus to photograph. It was a reminder that we are not in charge of the sun, the wind, the rain or any other planetary influence. We are only in charge of our own response.
On the sunny days, I look for flowers that lend themselves to the light, or find blooms in shaded, wind-protected areas. I work bigger scenes where the light is balanced and manageable. On the overcast days, I look for blooms that are beautiful to me because of their colors or shapes. In all cases, I am on alert for clean backgrounds without distractions, or ones that complement the subject (the “star”). On breezy days, I choose apertures that give me faster shutter speeds, increase my ISO and embrace the softer, more abstract look. I sometimes ditch the tripod and practice a rocking motion with my eye glued to the viewfinder, pressing the shutter as the select area came into focus.
Brightly lit areas are easier to manage with a diffuser (or if you’re lucky, a random cloud). Wind is less manageable. In public gardens you can’t bring wind breaks and plop them in well-tended beds (unless you enjoy being asked to leave for not respecting the efforts of the gardeners). If it’s your garden, have at it. Cut the flowers, bring them inside and have a field day. While you’re at it, be open to trying new techniques. Motion blurs and multiple exposures offer creative ways to deal with moving subjects and changing light.
Go Beyond The Name With Abstracts
It is freeing when you know that you (and the viewer) don’t have to identify the flower by name. Rather, simply capture the essence of the blooms. This approach releases you from the tack-sharp requirement, but not from considerations like visual flow or relationships of colors, textures and lines. Are the flowers blowing (or whipping like crazy) in the wind? How about slowing down your shutter speed and letting them create a canvas wash of color? (You might need a neutral density filter to accomplish that, but it’s probably in your bag.) With abstracts, I work areas of focus that look best in the frame. It’s not a rule-of-thirds approach, but rather finding a place for the eye to rest momentarily before traveling throughout the frame.
Best Thing To Bring To The Garden
Regardless of how you approach flower photography, there’s one thing that you must not leave at home or in the car. PATIENCE is the virtue that is always critical in flower photography. If you wait, the light will change, the wind will calm down, people will move out of your scenes, and there’s always another flower waiting for your attention. We’re in the middle of a season that’s ever-changing, with new waves of colors and textures and patterns arriving each day. Embrace those evolutions!
Jamie Konarski Davidson is an award-winning freelance photographer, educator and presenter with a passion for capturing the beauty of the natural world. She is a Lensbaby Ambassador, often working in florals and abstracts. Her images range from macro and abstracts to intimate, grand and rural landscapes. Jamie is a long-time member of North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) and Carolinas Nature Photographers Association (CNPA). Via New Life Photos, she leads photo workshops throughout the East Coast.