Richard M. Saunders
Reprinted from Rhododendron Society of Canada Bulletin
Taking pictures of flowers is a venture in sympathetic understanding, necessarily so since every flowering plant has a character all its own and a distinctive place in the realm of nature. Studying the individuality of a plant is a needful prelude to the taking of pictures, if those pictures are to reveal the true nature of the plant. Command of technique, essential as it may be, will never by itself give the portrayal of plant beauty and character that are desired. Only a combination of feeling, knowledge and technique will do that. Plainly, flower photography is an art that makes use of technique.
The first essential from the technical point of view is to make sure that the right kind of camera is being used. For the flower photographer the most convenient camera is the 35mm single lens reflex type. This is compact, light in weight and above all enables the user to change lenses as differing conditions require. It is also important to note that with this type of camera you can look through the view finder and compose your picture so as to see exactly what you are trying to get. Moreover you can try the effects of using various openings from the widest, say f.1.8, to the smallest, usually f.22, and decide by this means how you want your picture to look.
The general lens, a 50mm as a rule, which comes with the camera, may be used for general effects, e.g., a shrub at a few feet, a field of flowers, etc., but by itself is is not satisfactory for close-up pictures of flowers or any other object. For these it is necessary to use special close-up equipment. The simplest and most economical forms of this are Portra lenses and extension tubes, the former being added at the front of the regular lens, the latter being placed between the camera and the lens. These come singly or in sets, usually sets of 3 lenses, and may be used to achieve life-size or larger pictures. Great care, however, must be taken with them to get precise focus or blurring may result. Better close-ups may be more easily taken with a macro lens, a single lens which is used in place of the regular lens and which has the advantage of being able to serve as a general lens as well as for close-ups. This type of lens comes in varying sizes, e.g., 50mm, 90mm and 100mm, and is nowadays probably the most widely used close-up apparatus. For myself, although I use macro lenses, I still prefer to use a bellows and a short-mount lens, a 105mm in my case. The bellows, put between camera and lens, can be freely racked in and out to produce various arrangements and magnifications that can be readily seen through the view finder. Admittedly, a 100mm macro lens will give approximately the same latitude in use and is now generally preferred because of its greater simplicity of operation.
Whatever close-up apparatus is chosen it should be borne in mind that it is requisite to use a tripod in taking all such pictures, as it is virtually impossible otherwise to be sure of obtaining precision and definition of detail at such close quarters. It is even wise to use a tripod when taking general pictures wherever possible to escape the faults resulting from inadvertent movements made either by the photographer or by outside sources such as wind. A tripod should be as light as possible for convenient carrying but sturdy enough to be firm in a strong breeze. Also, a cable release should be used so as to make it unnecessary to touch the camera-tripod set-up once the picture has been arranged for taking.
In selecting the flower to be pictured it is important to select the best possible subject since any defects, even apparently insignificant ones, will show up in the picture, particularly in close-ups.
It is necessary also to look at the subjects from all sides to assess the lighting effects, for a flower will look quite differently from different angles. Front lighting can be used effectively, but it can have a flattening influence and so make it hard to bring out flower details suitably. Side lighting is highly superior if one wants to show structure, texture and detail. Back lighting can be very dramatic, enabling one to get striking silhouettes, glowing rim light, and to show up such delicate features as hairs on the stem, as in the case of the stag-horn sumac. One must, though be careful in assessing the needed exposure and in balancing the light and dark areas.
It is commonly supposed that good pictures can only be taken in sunlight, but with flower pictures this is often a very dubious procedure. Bright sunlight may bring out hopelessly contrasting dark and light effects that make unpleasing pictures. Moreover, it tends to make some flowers glaring and brash; others it can fade or cause colour shifts so that one does not get a true colour in the picture. White, pink and blue are especially likely to be badly affected. On the whole it is preferable to take most flowers on cloudy or hazy days when there is an even, gentle light. On a sunny day low early morning or late afternoon lighting is the best and the middle hours of the day the poorest time to take flower pictures, though it is possible to work satisfactorily in shady areas. It is also possible to cut down excessive light by using an umbrella (a white, semi-translucent one is needed) or by holding a sheet of plastic (preferably a slightly grey form) between the sun and the flower. This helps to remove unwanted shadows and can give pleasing even colour tones.
Blue is the colour most badly affected by sunlight since it is likely to be faded, whitened or turned reddish as anyone who has tried to picture such flowers as chicory, fringed gentian and blue lobelia will know. This experience is so general that I think it may be said that the first rule should be, Never try to take blue flowers in the direct sunlight. It is far better to use low light or shade. Just before sunrise or at sundown are good times to work with flowers in real or artificial shade. A blue filter, attached to the front of the camera lens, can be a help though you may run the risk of blueing the leaves, the stem and other parts of the plant, especially in low light. Some people use electronic flash units successfully in taking blue flowers and consider that the high speed of the flash overcomes the colour difficulty. Under-exposure by half or a full stop is also sometimes helpful.
One of the most difficult problems for the flower photographer is posed by backgrounds which are frequently near, disturbing and distracting, drawing attention away from the main subject, the flower. It is necessary to avoid or to eliminate such distractions if possible, and if it is not possible then it would be wise not to take the picture as only disappointment can result. Avoidance may sometimes be accomplished by taking a different angle of view; for instance, getting down to a low angle that will enable you to have a simple sky background, or you may look and find a similar flower that has a plain water background. Simplicity and concentration of interest on the subject should be achieved in some way. If a messy background cannot be avoided it may often be eliminated in one of two ways: 1 )By selective focus, that is, by using the wider camera openings such as f.8, f.5.6 or even wider. If one focuses on the flower the troublesome background can often be blurred out, frequently with pleasing, even enhancing results. 2) By creating a shadow just behind the flower and thus obscuring the disturbing background. Here again the umbrella can serve a useful purpose. If such details of the flower as the stamens and pistils are of first concern then very small openings such as f.16, f.22, f.32 must be used in order to overcome the problem of depth of field involved in such close magnification. Background should not, however, be a serious difficulty in that sort of close picture.
Above all, in flower photography patience is a prime essential. A good flower picture is never likely to be a snapshot. Experts expect to take many minutes, even up to an hour, in evaluating, composing and taking a picture. Some have waited hours to get just the right light. Practice and persistence also count heavily, for the best way to learn to take good flower pictures is to take pictures and more pictures and more pictures. There is no magic formula for success in this field. As in other forms of art, so in flower photography, experience must be added to native talent, to the eye that sees, to a sense of composition, to a feeling for balance of colour and tone. Nor is there any magic camera; a basic one, yes, but a more expensive camera can never guarantee the taking of better pictures.
In the last analysis, granted the basic camera and a reasonable knowledge of technique, it is the person behind the camera who is the true creator of beautiful pictures.