Flower photography tips: composition, lighting and settings

David Chapman / 16 September 2020

A flower, whether a single perfect specimen or part of a massed rank of colour, offers a compelling subject for photography but how do we get the best images? Professional photographer David Chapman shares a few tips.



Photographing floral landscapes

Lenses

We tend to use wide-angle lenses for photographing landscapes but these can also be useful for photographing flowers. When I see a cluster of wildflowers in the foreground of a wonderful view I usually want to try to combine these two elements in one photograph. The same might be true in the garden. During the Covid lockdown I put together an album of photos of our house and garden, some of which try to combine colourful flowers in the foreground and our house in the background.

Use the widest-angle lens you can, so if you use a compact or bridge camera zoom fully out. For greatest impact you will need to get very close to the flowers in the foreground and make sure you focus on the flowers rather than the house or distant view.

Lighting

Understanding light is very important to successful photography. Firstly I suggest a sunny day is best for wide-angle photography because we will probably be capturing some of the sky in the image and a blue sky is more attractive than grey. It is sometimes not possible to have the sun directly behind us because our shadow might fall in the photo but generally try to have it half behind you so the foreground flowers are lit nicely.

Midday sun can be very harsh and unforgiving. If you can take your photos early in the morning or in the evening then this is best as the light is warmer and more pleasing. Being able to do this in your garden depends on the orientation of your house not to mention the shadows cast by surrounding trees and neighbouring properties.

Focussing

Focussing with a smart-phone is easy, just touch the screen where you want the camera to focus. For compact and bridge cameras you might need to point the camera directly at the foreground flowers then half-press the shutter button. Once the focus is locked re-compose the image so the flowers are no longer in the centre of the frame then take the picture.

Composition

Composition is all-important. Try to get the flowers in the lower left or lower right of the frame and the distant view of house or landscape should then occupy the upper right or left. You might find yourself in a strange position trying to get low enough to see both the flowers and house in the photo, so use live-view rather than the viewfinder if that helps. Concentrate on getting everything level, it’s easy to take your eye off the ball when multi-tasking!

Camera settings

The final tip is technical. If you are wanting to get foreground flowers and distant view sharp in the photo you will need to use a small aperture. Small apertures give more depth of field. If you use a DSLR, mirrorless or bridge camera put your camera in aperture priority mode and use a large f-number such as f16 (the larger f-numbers correspond to smaller apertures).

If you use a compact camera you probably won’t have this option so select ‘landscape’ as the picture style and this will select a small aperture for you. Phone cameras tend not to allow any aperture choices but they do naturally have a large depth of field anyway.

Raindrops on daisy
Rain drops on the petals of an oxeye daisy reveal other daisies beyond

Close-up flower photography

Flowers are beautiful in their colours and symmetry and various parts of plants offer captivating details of texture and form crying out to be captured on camera. To photograph such details we need to get in close.

Lighting

In contrast to the wide-angle shots I think a cloudier day is better for close-up photography. The even, diffused light of an overcast or misty day allows the camera to show the true colours and fine detail. Backlighting can also work well for some subjects, particularly those with semi-translucent petals or hairy stem.

When working in less than bright conditions it is essential that we think about how to hold the camera still. I usually use a tripod for my heavy DSLR but bracing your elbows on the ground or leaning against a post might be sufficient. Make sure your camera has its image-stabilisation turned on, if it has that function. However you try to ensure that you hold the camera still it is also important that the subject isn’t moving so close-up photography is best on calm days.

Composition

Regarding composition, a single flower can be used to fill the frame by putting it in the centre of the picture but generally it is better to put the main subject off-centre. Other compositional techniques involve looking for diagonals so it might be that the stem of the flower leads from the bottom left to the centre of the frame. Rather than having just one flower try off-setting it to one side and having a second flower slightly out of focus to the side of it, then see if you can put one bottom left and the other top right for balance, giving you the effect of a diagonal.

Once you have mastered the basics you will want to be more creative. I am often transfixed by the possibilities on misty-dewy mornings when droplets of water cling to leaves and flowers. These droplets add an extra layer of beauty in themselves but look into each droplet and you find a microcosm of the world beyond. It takes time and great care to position your camera in such a way as to reveal these miniature magnified microcosms but it’s worth the effort.

Camera settings

Finally the technical. For smart-phone users just point the camera, touch the screen where you want it to focus and take the picture. These cameras are easy to use and though they offer fewer options when taking the photos they do have far-reaching and creative software available for processing the image post-capture.

With compact and bridge cameras you will need to set the camera to its macro mode, usually signified by a flower symbol often on the back of the camera near your thumb. On most cameras the macro setting only works when the lens is set to quite a wide-angle. To focus you will probably find it easiest to point the camera straight at the subject, half press the shutter button then re-compose the image without moving closer or further away.

For mirrorless and DSLR users the process of close-up photography is more time-consuming, more difficult and more expensive. To get properly close-up to subjects you will need to buy an extra lens: a ‘macro’ lens. I use a 100mm macro lens which is useful for flowers and insects. Generally I think a tripod is essential with these cameras and I use a remote release. As you get closer to subjects the depth of field diminishes so you might find that you need to use a smaller aperture so I tend to find myself using an aperture of around f8 if I want to a reasonable amount of the flower sharp.

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Cowslips telephoto
Using a telephoto lens and a very low angle of view combined with a wide aperture allowed me to blur the foreground and background making the cowslips the obvious focal point to this image.

Using telephoto lenses in flower photography

Compact, phone and bridge cameras are very good for close-up and wide-angle photos of flowers because they give a larger depth of field (they show more in focus). DSLR and mirrorless cameras are more difficult to use so you might wonder why we bother using them at all.

There are many reasons why I use a DSLR. It gives the best quality of any of these camera-types (when used carefully), so we can enlarge the photos and make large prints for example. Another benefit is the ability to isolate subjects, such as flowers, against an out of focus background. This process, known as ‘differential focussing’, is highly sought-after by publications which like to put text onto the blurred areas of photographs.

To achieve differential focussing, even with a DSLR, we need to use a telephoto lens because these lenses give less depth of field. The most important factor when trying to blur the background is to put as much distance as possible between the subject and the background. So you will find it much easier to photograph a flower in this way if it is growing on top of a bank, because the background will naturally be much further away. If your chosen flower is growing in a level lawn then you will need to get the camera on the ground to achieve a distance between subject and background.

Sometimes the best forms of differential focussing occur when the foreground is also blurred. This often involves shooting ‘through’ vegetation between the camera and the subject. It’s best if you can find a small gap through which the subject can be clearly seen but the surrounding blur frames the subject.

I like to use a tripod so I have one which allows me to get down to ground level but it is sometimes easier to rest the camera on a beanbag or just on the ground. With such a small depth of field the focussing is critical so I use manual focus combined with live-view. In live-view we can zoom in on the screen to focus extremely accurately, then I use a remote release to take the photo.

Technically we have one further control over the amount of depth of field and that is the aperture we choose. For differential focussing we want to choose a wide aperture (the opposite of the wide-angle photography that I began this article with). So I use aperture priority and choose a small f-number such as f2.8 or f4.

Visit our photography section for more useful guides, including David Chapman's top tips for photographing garden birds and how to take wildlife action shots in your garden.

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