Getting out into the countryside to enjoy the stunning scenery and wonderful wildlife is what makes caravanning so special for so many of us. Watching wildlife isn’t always easy in fact some of Britain’s natural history can be downright elusive but wildflowers, which are one of our greatest natural assets, are there to be enjoyed at our leisure and that might be one reason why so many more people are now photographing wildflowers.
Given their beauty and plenty of time you might think it would be easy to photograph flowers, in fact it is very difficult to portray the true charm of the subject a problem which can leave the photographer feeling disappointed with the resulting image. As with any art form there are tips which can help to achieve more pleasing photographs of flowers and, particularly with the advent of digital cameras, there is no need for expensive or specialist equipment to get good results. I aim to show you how, with a basic camera and a clean handkerchief, you can transform your photographs of flowers.
The first and singularly most important point is to get down to the level of your subject you wouldn’t normally take a photograph of a person from five feet above their heads so why do it with a flower? By standing above a flower looking down onto it you will lose any stature that this delicate little subject might have and in the photograph your flower will be lost in amongst a mess of vegetation. Instead lie down in the grass, it’s easy, getting back up might take a little longer but remember the old adage ‘no pain no gain’.
What is gained by this strategy? Well it might be possible to show the whole of the flower and its stem, giving some feeling of the plant’s size. More importantly you may be able to get yourself into a position where the flower stands clear of the surrounding vegetation so achieving an out of focus, plain background which will minimise the number of competing elements in your photograph. If your camera has a zoom lens then ‘zoom-in’, i.e. use the telephoto end of the zoom, this will help to achieve the plain background because telephoto lenses always give less depth of field (a term which describes how much of the photograph is sharp).
You are now in a position where you can compose your photograph. If you are concentrating on just one flower stem it is tempting to put it in the middle of the picture but don’t, set the flower head just to one side of centre and slightly higher than the middle of the frame, giving space for the complete stem (if your camera is auto-focus see ‘Flash and Focus). If possible photograph small groups of flowers to help fill the frame in this case remember that odd numbers work better than evens, threes and fives are best.
The use of flash is rarely desirable when photographing flowers but there is one type of supplementary lighting that makes a real difference to images of single or small groups of flowers. You may not believe it until you try it but a simple piece of white card, sheet of paper or even a white handkerchief can transform a photograph of a flower (other reflectors, particularly gold, can work well). Place the reflector just below the flower so that it is outside the field of view of the camera and your subject will gain just enough extra light to separate it from its background. You may think it is about time to take a photograph but before you do make sure to look carefully around your main subject and take out any bits of dead plant matter which might catch the eye; there is nothing worse than seeing bits of twig or dried grass competing with your intended subject for attention in the final photograph. Anything that is alive should be left where it is, please don’t pull up a rare orchid and tell the judge that I told you to do it!
With experience you will find that to reveal the true colours of flowers it is necessary to photograph them on bright but overcast days and even dull days are far more preferable to bright sunshine (calm weather is obviously best). It is tempting to take a photograph of a flower when the sun is shining brightly and to our eye it looks glorious but film (and the digital sensor) cannot cope with the same degree of contrast that our brains are capable of.
I can think of two styles of flower photography that might benefit from direct sunlight. One is if you want to show a whole mass of flowers, in which case you will use a wide angle lens and show the flowers in their environment. The second possible case is if you wish to try backlighting. Backlighting works best with flowers that have semi-translucent petals since this type of lighting enhances their colour. This technique is best used at first and last light when the sun is low in the sky but care must be taken to shield the lens from the sun’s rays to avoid bright spots of flare in the photograph, either a good lens hood or a good friend can do that job for you.
Learning new techniques can seem daunting at first and it might seem that all this bother might detract from your enjoyment of the countryside. In fact I have found the reverse is true, through photography it is possible to learn more about our natural history and with greater understanding comes a greater appreciation of its wonder.
Flash, Focus and fiddly bits
Most cameras have a built in flash, learn how to turn this off, there is nothing less flattering than the stark white light of a flash for lighting a delicate flower.
On some cameras you can adjust the focus manually, this is ideal, but most compacts are auto-focus. The trouble with auto-focus is that the camera doesn’t always know what you want it to focus on unless it is slap bang in the middle of the picture which is not ideal for composition. The trick is to turn the camera to face directly at the flower, press the shutter release half way down and then hold it, this will keep the focus so that you can re-compose the image and take the picture.
Some cameras have a flower symbol on their control dial or menu this essentially chooses settings which help to blur the background so use this when photographing individual flowers. For large groups of flowers in a field choose the landscape setting instead.
Photographers with greater experience and slightly more sophisticated equipment may be able to set the aperture on the lens. As you may already know a wider aperture (smaller f-number) will lead to a shallower depth of field so when photographing single flowers use a wide aperture to blur the background. This effect is even more effective when using a telephoto lens because these lenses have less depth of field anyway. At the opposite extreme, when photographing a field full of flowers use a small aperture and a wide angle lens to get them all sharp.