Digital SLR Photography

Get the best from blooms

By Helen Dixon. Posted

It’s mid-summer and gardens and meadows are in full bloom, but for how much longer? After a few months of extreme, variable weather autumn may arrive sooner than we expect so there’s no time to waste if you want to get the best from your blooms. Thankfully professional photographer Helen Dixon is on hand to share her expertise and ideas for capturing an array of flower landscapes this year…

Lines in the landscape

As compositional aids come, leading lines are one of the strongest and throughout spring and summer there are often plenty of opportunities to include them as part of the landscape. Crop fields, such as wheat and barley, and oilseed rape often have tractor lines you can use to lead the viewer through the frame while daffodils, tulips and lavender are already grown in rows. While daffodils and tulip farms are now few and far between in the UK, due to the climate changing we can expect to see more purple lavender farms popping up around the UK. You can’t always get into these farms at the best times of day – sunrise and sunset – unless you’re willing to pay for exclusive entry, which they normally ask for from photographers, so you’re restricted to the daytime or shooting from the edges. If you’re lucky enough to get puffy clouds and the field isn’t inundated with people, you can get some beautiful images using a wide-angle lens to make the most of the straight lines converging into the distance. In an ideal world, these lines in the landscape will all be leading towards a lone tree in the background but it’s a rare sight so we live in hope; looking for any focal point to anchor the viewer with, however, can aid a composition. Look out for shadows cast by trees too as these too can work well for lead-in lines.

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Use a telephoto lens

While I adore the look a macro lens provides when photographing flowers, a telephoto lens such as a 70-200mm f/2.8 gives me the flexibility of a zoom – you can even attach an extension tube for a cheaper way to isolate a subject from its background; I often use my 300mm with an extension tube. Using a telephoto lens means I can get more depth-of-field than a macro lens at the same aperture and put more distance between me and the subject, which is ideal if I want to isolate a single flower in a busy field. It also means, due to the way a telephoto lens compresses perspective, that by getting low enough I can blur foreground foliage and the background to give the image depth. Some photographers get a similar result by using a 500mm lens. When photographers think of shooting flowers, they often reach for a macro lens but you can get such a variety of images of the same subject by switching up your focal lengths – telephoto lenses and wide-angle lenses have interesting applications when it comes to floral still-lifes – it’s important to know the effect you can get with different lenses.

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Macro lenses are great for photographing flowers: they magnify the smallest of specimens so you can fill the frame and, so long as you have a small area sharp, the excessive blur of its shallow depth-of-field complements the subject's delicacy. Look for flowers that you can isolate from their background, find the right angle for a seamless backdrop and colours that complement or contrast with the flower to make it stand out. I prefer to keep my set-ups as natural as possible rather than inserting artificial backgrounds, however for garden flowers it’s often helpful to photograph them in pots so you can position them in the best light and in front of the best background. Unlike in the wild where backlighting is easier to find, some gardens don’t get much low morning or evening light so you’re forced to shoot during the day. If that’s the case, try to shade the flower using a diffuser to reveal the most detail and allow the light to illuminate the background. I’ll often use my own body to cast shade or a white umbrella. I use a Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX Macro DG lens, but 105mm or even a 60mm macro works well for subjects you can shoot at close range. You could also use extension tubes with a 50mm lens to reduce your working distance if you're on a small budget.

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Creative techniques

There are so many types of flowers and set-ups to try that photographing flowers can always be made to feel fresh, especially if you inject some creativity with unusual processing or in-camera techniques, such as multiple exposures. If the flower or scene seems a little too bland or the background isn’t ideal for a straight shot, I'll set my in-camera multiple exposure facility and fire off three to five frames that are blended together for a soft, ghostly image. Sometimes, I’ll move a flower between frames, adjust my zoom, tweak my focusing or overlap with different flowers, but I’ll always get at least one shot sharp and never take more than five frames. No two blended images are ever the same and you can get some really interesting results. Adding textures to floral still-lifes is also a good way of freshening up your photography in post-production. You can build up your own bank of textures to overlay by photographing abstracts, such as weathered doors, rust or wood, or find free examples online. The process is simple: add the texture on top of your image and change its Blend Mode to Soft Light before reducing saturation for a beautiful painterly effect.

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Coastal wild flowers

There are a few types of wild flowers that flourish on cliffs and by the coast, for instance thrift is usually in abundance about now while valerian and heather start to appear at the end of June. Heather can last throughout August and sometimes into September if it’s a cool summer. There’s also beach asters and oxy daisies in June, but they're rarer. I suggest getting as low and close to the flowers as possible with a wide-angle lens to make use of them as strong foreground interest, especially if the sun is shining through or side-lighting them in morning or evening light. With smaller megapixel cameras you may be able to get the image sufficiently in focus using a small aperture, but the higher a camera’s pixel count the harder it can be to get a shot sharp front to back as there’s so much information. I found the only way to get a landscape with large foreground interest sharp is to focus stack, to take at least two images at f/13 with the lens set to infinity and to blend them together in Photoshop. While Photoshop can automatically focus stack, I prefer to manually align the images and remove the area I don’t want. It’s very time-consuming but the most accurate in case any wind caused movement.

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