Photographing Spring Flowers

Despite lingering snow in some parts of the U.S., springtime is almost upon us. With the season comes flowers, and this week I have some tips you apply to capturing the beauty in your backyard garden, public park, or hiking trail. Of course, if you're still digging out from the latest snow storm, you might be more interested in how to shoot in snow and cold weather. But if the daffodils are starting to bloom in your neighborhood, here are some tips for you.

Keeping Your Flower in Focus

There's no single right way to shoot flowers, but the most common approach is to use a macro lens or your camera's close-up mode. Macro photography allows you to fill the frame with the most interesting parts of the flower while "weeding out" the background.

Macro photography, especially when shooting flowers, has a unique set of challenges. First and foremost, the depth of field is quite narrow--depending upon how close you are to the subject, it can be less than an inch. That means you need to think about the composition of your shot. Do you want a lot of the flower to be in sharp focus, or only part of it? Is it okay for a lot of the frame to be blurry?

I captured this rose with an extremely narrow depth of field, so the foreground and background are quite blurred.
If you want to keep as much in focus as possible, you should consider all the ways that you can control depth of field. As you probably know, your camera's aperture is the primary way you control depth of field. For close-up flower photography, I highly recommend switching your camera to Aperture Priority mode. The larger the f-number, the deeper your depth of field will be (but, unfortunately, the longer your exposure time). You'll need to balance the depth of field with the shutter speed so that you don't accidentally introduce camera shake or blur in your shot.

A less obvious way to control depth of field is the lens's focal length. If you are using a zoom lens, try setting it wider. Bottom line: the longer the focal length, the shorter the depth of field.

Last but not least, the distance to the subject affects depth of field as well. The closer you get to the flower, the more narrow your depth of field will become. So if you can back up a little, you might get more breathing space to keep everything in focus.

The subject is shot perpendicular to the axis of the lens, so the entire flower is in sharp focus.
We don't often think about factors like focal length and subject distance affecting depth of field, but when it comes to the really close up compositions of flower photos, every little bit counts.

Likewise, consider your perspective. Here's what I mean: If you photograph a flower so that it has a lot of depth, you'll have trouble keeping all of it in focus. But can you shoot the same subject from another angle, so that it's now perpendicular to the axis of the lens? If the subject is largely flat--more or less the same distance from the lens across the entire frame--then having a lot of depth of field isn't nearly as important.

Keeping Your Flowers Sharp

Now that you know what you need to do to keep it all in focus, we should talk about how to freeze the action. No, the flowers aren't going anywhere--at least, not unless you're planning to photograph triffids--but they are one of the most infuriatingly unstable subjects you will ever try to photograph.

First, let's talk about making you stable. As usual, I recommend using a tripod (or at least a monopod). Especially if you are shooting at a high f-number to maximize your depth of field, you're going to be saddled with a relatively low shutter speed, which can easily cause camera shake. Put the camera on a tripod.

But flowers tend to move as well, and the tripod won't do much to prevent that. Even a gentle breeze can cause petals to flutter in the wind. You already know that you can minimize the effect of wind by shooting at a faster shutter speed--either by sacrificing depth of field or by increasing ISO. In addition, you can practice patience, and wait for the wind to settle down before pressing the shutter release. Many a day my family has camped out waiting for me to press the shutter four or five times over the course of an hour, waiting for the right moment between gusts.

A better option? Carry something to block the wind. It can be as simple as a large piece of paper or poster board, or one of those flexible reflectors you can buy at a camera shop. Either way, ask a helper to block the wind so you can take a few photos.

Keep the Colors Sharp

To take this photo, I positioned myself on the ground, under the flower, and shot up to frame the subject against the sky.
Finally, how do you get good exposure? I could write an entire book on this subject, but the most important rule is to avoid the midday hours. When the sun is directly overhead, you'll get a lot of high-contrast shots with areas that are dramatically over- and under-exposed, depending upon where shadows appear in your shot. And bright sunlight is not your friend when trying to preserve the delicate colors and many nuanced tones in flower petals.

Instead, you will actually get your best photos on overcast days, or when the sun is low in the sky--early or late in the day. Your best photos will often be when you shoot in the shade, so there's no direct sunlight on your flower.

That said, rules are made to be broken. For a change of pace, you might want to try shooting from underneath the flower, positioning your subject against the sky for a rich blue background. If you try this approach, you should bracket your exposure over several shots to be sure you get what you're looking for.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Jet Over Yosemite" by Graham Turnbull, Ottawa

Graham writes: "Here's one of my favorite recent photos taken at Yosemite Valley. There was no special preparation or planning. I just looked up in the sky, and there it was... zoom, click."

Graham used a Canon PowerShot SX20 IS.

This week's runner-up: "Rain Bird" by Steve Shaw, Grants Pass, Oregon

Steve says: "I used a Canon Rebel T2i to take this photo of a Japanese Maple in our yard. It was right after a rain in the early fall when the tree was beginning to turn red. The light was just right to give the rain drops a sort of cat eye look."

To see the March winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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