How to Photograph Wildflowers, Part 1
Photographing Wildflowers is dificult until you know a few good tricks
Wildflowers are an important part of landscape photography. Using them as foreground almost guarantees a good picture and the color they add is often the most important part of the picture. Shooting wildflowers isn't difficult once you know a few tricks. Here are a couple that work well..
I'm often asked when is the best time to shoot wildflowers in the Rockies. Well, we are still a couple of months away from wildflower time in the Rocky Mountain high country, but we're getting there. In Colorado, it's possible to begin shooting wildflowers in the lower elevations (5000 foot level) in mid to late May and early June. By mid to late June it is usually possible to find wildflowers at the seven or eight thousand foot levels. However the real displays of high country wildflowers found at the ten and eleven thousand foot level usually don't peak until mid July, late July and even early August. However, in these days of warmer weather, the bloom dates are becoming earlier and earlier. In the 1980's, I didn't get serious about wildflower shooting until the first of August. Now-a-days, if you wait until that late, you may miss everything but the last crispy critters.
The most important secret of shooting wildflowers is photographing them in the correct light. The correct light for taking wildflower pictures is indirect light like the hazy light on a cloudy day, or the light found just before dawn or after sunset. Even shade, though it is not perfect, is better than direct light. The worst kind of light is direct sunlight and the absolute worst is direct sunlight in the middle of the day. Direct, bright sunlight on wildflowers or any other kind of vegetation, foliage, trees or bushes creates all kinds of shiny, hot-spots and dark, impenetrable shadows; a picture taken in this kind of light will be a jumbled, confusing mess of too-bright and too-dark colors that is awful. Bright sunlight simply results in far too much contrast to make a good picture. Avoid it like the plague when shooting wildflowers.
Taking pictures in diffused, indirect light is absolutely the most important part of shooting good wildflower pictures. The flowers in bright sunlight will look great to your naked eye but the camera most definitely will not see them that way. There are several ways to fix this problem. Even on a bright, blue-sky sunny day there will often be a few clouds in the sky; wait to shoot until a cloud passes in front of the sun. Or get up before dawn and shoot in the early morning. An added bonus to shooting very early is that you may be able to catch a little dew on the flowers which will make them even more beautiful. Even if the sun is already up, early morning light and late afternoon light is much better than the mid-day light that you find between 9 am and 3 pm. Pictures taken in these kinds of soft, diffused light will be soft and rich and sharp with wonderful detail and color.
Making sure that you are shooting in the right kind of light is doubly important if you are shooting with a digital camera, since digital cameras don't handle contrast as well as film cameras. Film is a little better at capturing directly lit flowers than digital cameras, since film tends to smooth out all of those too bright and too dark spots somewhat. Unfortunately digital cameras seem to make high contrast even worse. However, this doesn't mean that if you are shooting film, you can shoot wildflowers with impunity in bright sunlight. Even flowers shot with film will be infinitely better if you wait for a softer, more indirect light.
If you want to get really serious about taking wildflower pictures, there are several things you can do about making sure the light you use is soft and diffused. You could buy a two or three foot diameter diffusing screen that you hold between the sun and the flower. This will cast a nice patch of soft, diffused light on the flowers. If you are really adept, you can hold the diffusion screen with one hand and click the shutter cord with the other. Or, on the other hand you may find yourself using nasty language that you haven't used in years. These screens will fold up to a handy size you can fit into your pack.
You can take this technique a little further and buy a diffusion tent which is a simple dome tent with neutral color walls that you set up over the flowers. This will provide both a very nice diffused light and also cut the wind. This technique does result in gorgeous pictures but it also requires some real dedication and extra time. You can buy either of these devices at most good photography stores or online. Having said this, I must admit that I don't use either a diffusion screen or a flower tent. I rely on a cloudy day or a passing cloud in front of the sun or shooting very early or very late in the day. Or, if it's a no-cloud, blue-sky day I just don't shoot flowers or any close up foliage at all.
The number two rule for shooting wildflowers is to be sure that at least some of the flowers are very large and are filling a major part the picture frame. The flowers need to be close enough to see petal and stem and leaf details clearly. If you don't get the flowers large enough to see clearly, even a huge, beautiful, flower meadow will end up making a worthless picture. It is very easy to take pictures of a large field of wildflowers and think you are getting nice pictures, only to look at the pictures later and wonder what happened to all the flowers. Finally after searching the picture carefully, you find tiny little flowers way out there in the field so far away that you can hardly see them. Believe me, this is very easy to do; I've been there many times. You really have to concentrate on making sure you are good and close and filling the frame with up-close flowers. (That's a major composition rule for me--fill the frame with whatever it is you are really interested in. Do this consistently and you will make pretty good pictures most of the time.)
There are several ways of shooting wildflowers. One way is to include just one flower in the picture; pretend that you are making a formal portrait of the individual flower. i.e., make a single plant at most, or a single stalk or even a single blossom the lone subject of the picture. The best way to do this is to use a macro lens. There are individually dedicated macro lens that you can buy for lots of money, there are zoom lens with a macro switch but the most popular way to shoot macro is to use a digital camera with a macro function. Any of these options work well. Don't let the word macro scare you, a macro lens is just a lens that allows you to take close up pictures. Most people these days are shooting digital cameras so let's concentrate on digital cameras with a macro function. Set your camera to the macro function and then choose a medium zoom position on the lens. Some macro functions will specify which zoom position they like best, the sweet spot so to speak. Choose the best looking bloom you can find and focus on it. The camera may not want to focus which means you are probably a little too close. Back off a little and try again. You may have to back away several times. Pretty soon you will find the exact correct distance.
Now you need to decide on a lens aperture. The best thing to do is choose a fairly large aperture like f-2 or f-2.8 and focus directly on the flower. This will make the flower sharp and blur most of the background which will isolate the flower from all the unimportant junk in the background. It is a simple way to create a very dramatic picture. Shooting this way has another advantage: since you are using a large aperture, the shutter speed will be very fast. This is a good way of beating that pesky little wind that is sure to come up just as soon as you start shooting flowers.
Be careful shooting with a wide open lens. You do need to keep all the parts of the up-close flower in very sharp focus and sometimes an aperture of f-2 or 2.8 or even f-4 won't give you enough depth of field to keep the whole flower in sharp focus. The picture will be ruined if any of the parts of the flower are even slightly blurry, especially those parts closest to the front of the picture. Notice in the picture to the right that there are a couple of grasses and petals in the right front that are out of focus. The picture would have been much better had they been sharp. I still like the picture though; there is a point where you can be too picky.
You can check your focus by using the preview button on your camera. What this button does is close the lens down from the wide open position it is always in before you click the shutter, to the actual aperture it will use to make the exposure. The viewfinder will be a little darker after you press this button, but it is usually possible to see the exact focus the final picture will have, what is and what isn't sharp or blurry. Play with this a bit using different f-stops which will give you different depths of field until you find one that is the best. If you can't get as much of the scene as you want in focus, move back from the flower six inches of so, this will give you a little longer depth of field. With a little practice you will soon get the idea of how to keep the entire flower very sharp while still completely blurring out the background.
It's amazing what you begin to see looking into a wildflower patch with a macro lens. I tend to forget all about the outside world around me and concentrate on all the little blooms and blossoms and stems and grasses in my camera frame. Sometimes I stay in this little macro world so long that I forget where I am and have to look around when I get up from the camera to reorient myself. Anyway, back to looking through the macro lens. Before long I am deep into trying to make the most pleasing and harmonious composition that I can. And composition is what this kind of picture is all about. Does that long diagonal stalk of grass work in the picture or is it more distraction than help. Do I want one or two or three blooms in the picture and where do they work best in the frame with the other elements. And how much background do I want sharp and where do I want the the blur to start. I can sometimes spend an hour lying flat on my stomach in the grass and bushes playing with the various picture elements until I get what I think is a perfect picture. And being the kind of shooter I am, I usually end up with many, many pictures that I will eventually winnow down to just one or two.
I haven't mentioned it yet, but your camera should be on a tripod anytime you are shooting wildflowers or, for that matter of fact, anything at all. If you don't use a tripod you aren't going to be able to shoot at the slow speeds that are often needed and you aren't going to be able to play around with composition the way you need to if you want to get good pictures. Believe me, without a tripod you will never be a good photographer and you will never take really good pictures. I keep harping on this in all of my articles on photography, but having and using a tripod is just about the single most important aspect of being a good photographer, at least from the equipment point of view.
The second way to shoot wildflowers is to use a prominent bunch of flowers as the foreground of a larger landscape which also includes distant background. In this kind of picture, both the foreground and the distant background should be in sharp focus. When you make this kind of a picture you use wide angle lenses along with very small f-stops. This will result in a picture in which the wildflowers in the foreground are large and prominent and the background is small and very un-prominent
Exactly how do you go about doing all of this? Read my article on Depth of Field to find out. It isn't hard to do. This kind of picture is the classic landscape shot that is guaranteed to get ooohs and awes and raves out any audience. Take some time to learn how to do it and your landscape pictures will instantly be 200% better. I'm not spending much time discussing this type of shot because I have described it extensively in both the depth of field article mentioned above and in my two articles on composition. However, in my mind, using wildflowers as foreground in a large scale landscape that also has a distant background is the best and most important way of shooting wildflowers. If you are seriously interested in taking wildflower pictures be sure and read these other two articles.
One of the problems with shooting the kind of picture taken with wide angle lenses that is described in the previous paragraph is that the background tends to be very small, in fact it is almost an afterthought. What if the background is just as spectacular as the wildflowers in the foreground and you want to make both of them large and prominent and sharp? The thing to do in this case is to use a long lens, a telephoto lens, and back off quite a distance, maybe even twenty or thirty feet or so, depending on how long your long lens is. Focus on the wildflowers that you want to have in the foreground or perhaps just a bit beyond them. In the resulting picture, the flowers will be prominent and sharp in the foreground and the background will be sucked in by the long lens and also sharp-- that is, if you got the depth of field right. Generally both the foreground and the background will be good and sharp if you are at least twenty feet away, you don't get too carried away with zooming the telephoto in too close , and you use the smallest f-stop that you have. If you want to get a little more precise, it is easy to buy a depth of field card on line or at a photo store that will give you the exact depth of field numbers for specific focal lengths and f stops.
One of the real problems of wildflower shooting is the wind. Even a very light wind will cause delicate blossoms to move just enough to blur them. This is particularly true if you are shooting at a very small f-stop in order to get a long depth of field and thus have a very long exposure time. If you get seriously into wildflower shooting, I guarantee that this will drive you mad.
There are several solutions to this wind problem. First, be patient and wait for a lull in the wind, it will almost always come within a minute of two, especially if it is early in the morning or late in the day. Another solution is, if you are shooting with a digital camera, to increase your ISO speed and thus your shutter speed. This can make a huge difference in the insanity level you may reach. If you can increase your shutter speed to even 1/125, you can forget about most of the wind problems. Be careful doing this though. There is always a penalty that comes with increasing ISO which is usually increased noise and grain. If you are shooting a good quality camera this penalty can be quite minor. When I am using my 16 megapixel Canon, I can increase the ISO up to 800 or even 1000 and and still have no noise or possibly only a tiny amount of black speckling in the pictures. Since I know I can fix this later in the computer, it doesn't worry me. However with some of the less expensive consumer digital cameras an increase to even 400 ISO can result in very excessive levels of noise. The best thing to do is test your camera in advance. Turn up the ISO level to 800 and do a little shooting that includes some fairly dark shadow areas. Download the pictures and blow them up to 100% or more on your computer and check the dark shadow areas. Look for speckles of red, green and purple. If you can see much noise at all, I would not try to increase ISO to gain shutter speed.