Digital Focus: Shooting Spring Flowers, Part I

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Feature: Shooting Spring Flowers, Part I

With those pesky April showers behind us, May flowers are blooming all around. Though wildflowers are one of my favorite photographic subjects, they can be tricky to do well. You have to contend with all sorts of problems, like camera shake, narrow depth of field, and harsh lighting. So let's spend two weeks getting ready for spring flower photography. This week we'll talk about how best to shoot the pictures with your digital camera; next week we'll wrap up with ways you can control depth of field with the camera and with the PC.

Going Macro

Not all wildflower photos need to be close-ups, of course, but the majority of them often end up that way. If you encounter a gorgeous field of flowers, for instance, feel free to set the camera's zoom on wide angle and capture an ocean of color. But the most compelling flower pictures are often close-ups, and that'll mean relying on your digital camera's macro mode. Macro mode is a special setting on your digital camera that lets you get very close to your subject and capture microscopic details otherwise invisible to the camera.

How close is close? It depends upon your camera. Most digital cameras allow you to get as near as 9 or 10 inches from the subject, but a few cameras with superb macro capabilities can focus right down to just a few inches. In general, the closer you can get, the more dramatically microscopic your pictures can be.

For example, I took one picture from about 8 inches away, and another with a digital camera that only let me get about 15 inches from the subject. This last image shows that even without a really powerful macro lens, you can still take good flower photos. But stay within the limitations of your digital camera: If you get too close, you'll end up with an out-of-focus shot. And there's not much you can do to save a blurry picture.

Check your camera's user guide to see what its close-focus specifications are. Macro mode is usually a special camera setting, almost always identified by an icon shaped like a tulip. When you enable macro mode your camera focuses in a narrow zone, such as from 9 to 26 inches from the subject. Remember to turn macro mode off when you're done, or you'll end up with a lot of blurry pictures.

Always shoot macro pictures at your camera's highest resolution. Let's say you've got a 5-megapixel camera and you can't get as close to the subject as you like: If you take a high-resolution image you might be able to crop down to a smaller element in the scene and still end up with a razor-sharp 3-megapixel picture suitable for framing.

If getting close isn't an option, you might consider other artistic alternatives. The shot I took with the camera that lacked a strong macro mode may not be a great picture, but I thought of a way to improve it. I wondered what the scene might look like if the entire frame were filled with those vivid red petals.

Using the Clone tool (in Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, it's in the eighth cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen), I sampled a flower with a right-click of the mouse (you can also hold down the Shift key and left-click) and "painted" it over any patches of green. You'll want to experiment with the brush setting at the top of the screen--Shape, Size, and so forth--to get the results you want. I'm pleased with what I ended up with.

Dealing With Camera Shake

So there you are in a field of flowers at your city park, and you're preparing to capture a shot. Start by mounting the camera on a tripod. You don't need an expensive or fancy one, but securing the camera to some sort of tripod is important nonetheless. Why? Most digital cameras have a fairly low top shutter speed, and that means you simply can't hold the camera at close range to your subject and expect to get a decent macro photo. Using the macro mode is photographically equivalent to using a high-magnification telephoto zoom setting--every move you make is amplified, and your resulting picture will be blurry.

When you're ready to take the picture, you can further minimize shake by not simply pressing the shutter release. Instead, turn on your camera's self-timer and use that instead. After you press the shutter release, let go of the camera. That way, your body won't jiggle the camera, blurring the picture. If your camera has a remote control, you can use it to trigger the shot instead of relying on the self-timer. (And if you're wondering about shutter speeds and camera shake, hang on to your hat--we'll discuss that next week.)

Watch Your Lighting

When should all this take place?

The mid-afternoon hours are not a good time. In the spring and summer, the sun is high overhead from 11:00 to 3:00, which results in fairly harsh lighting.

For the best natural light, shoot your wildflowers in the early morning or in the late afternoon. And if you can, use a fill flash. Turn on your digital camera's built-in flash unit, or use an external flash, to add some illumination to the scene. If you have a slave flash (like the Phoenix model I discuss in this week's "Dave's Favorites") you can hold the flash off to the side and exert more control over how the light strikes your subject.

Getting close to your flowers also presents some unique challenges for keeping the right picture elements in sharp focus. We'll talk about that next week.

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