Some things in life are permanent and predictable. The Golden Gate Bridge. The Sydney Opera House. The rising and setting of the sun. And that one weird guy who always pushes his bike around the neighborhood instead of riding it. If you want to photograph these things, you're not going to have any trouble seeking them out and getting the shot. You can do so year-round, with almost no exceptions.
Other things in life are fleeting. A lightning storm, for example. A rainbow. Or wildflowers. Here are a few tips for photographing the latter.
Gently by Flickr user Joel Olives
Wildflowers are a little more predictable, it's true, than the average lightning storm or rainbow, but their appearance is intrinsically bound to the appearance of springtime weather. In some years this may happen in March, other years it may not happen until May. And you never know for sure where the best fields of wildflowers will appear. One year a particular field it may be thick with daffodils, and the next year someone has torn that field up with a Rototiller to make way for a Quick Stop. So if you're going to photograph wildflowers, the first thing you need is information.
Where to go
Obviously, you're not going to find a whole lot of wildflowers in the city, so if that's where you live you need to get on your computer and Google the nearest local area that’s famous for wildflowers. Some areas have such brilliant displays of wildflowers that local people will publish a “Wildflower Watch” or “Bloom Status” on websites and in newspapers. Make sure you keep a close eye on these resources, whichever one you choose. As fickle as wildflowers are about when and where they will make their appearance, they’re just as fickle about how long they will stay around. If you happen to drive by a beautiful field full of purple flowers, don't count on it being there the next time if you happen to drive by that same spot. During those few weeks of heavy wildflower bloom, it's always best to keep your camera in your car at all times, so you can be ready when wildflower photography opportunities present themselves.
Rathcoffey Castle (HDR) by Flickr user bbusschots
Fields of flowers
Personally, I think the best place to photograph wildflowers is in fields. I like to start my photo sessions with a long shot of the field, just to give my viewers an idea about how many flowers are there. Approach this shot just like you would any other landscape photograph—try putting something in the very near foreground to give your viewer a sense of scale. This could be a single flower, or it could be some other feature of the landscape such as a boulder or a tree stump. You can also help give your viewers a sense of scale by using layering to compose your photo. For example, have a few trees in the foreground, the wildflowers in the background, and a farmhouse in the distance.
If you want your photo to have broad depth of field from foreground to background (a long view of a field of flowers is a good example of a scene where you would want to do this), you need to set your aperture to somewhere in the f/22 range. You also need to choose a low ISO—low ISOs will ensure the best possible detail and clarity. Now, when you combine a low ISO with a small aperture you may find that your shutter speed ends up being too slow to allow you to handhold your camera, so always have a tripod with you in case you need it.
If you want to shoot a few flowers up close and isolate them from the background, choose a larger aperture. And make sure that you place your focus point on one flower so that it will be the sharpest part of the image.
To get the most out of your photo shoot, try to arrive just before the golden hour. The golden hour, as I'm sure you know, is that hour just after sunrise or just before sunset when the light is soft and even. The soft light is flattering to almost any subject, including wildflowers, and arriving a little bit early will give you plenty of time to set up and compose your photo before the light gets to that perfect stage.
I recommended shooting wildflowers in the morning, for the simple reason that mornings tend to have less wind. You want to avoid a windy days especially if you're shooting in the low light of the golden hour, because if the wind is moving your subjects around you may end up with some motion blur in your photo.
Canola by the Road by Flickr user WherezJeff
If you do happen to be out on a breezy day and you just can’t help yourself, make sure you turn up your shutter speed to compensate for all that motion. You’ll need at least 1/250 to freeze the action (depending on how close you are to your subject)—if you can’t get that at a low ISO you’ll need to make some sacrifices. Try shooting at ISO 200 or 400—yes, 100 is ideal but modern cameras are quite good at coping with moderately high ISOs, and the trade-off is that you’ll get clear, blur free photos.
Shooting individual flowers
It's great to give your viewer a sense of scale with those long shots, but you are doing them a disservice if you don't also photograph those flowers up close.
Make sure you choose a good specimen—in fact try to find a flower that’s as close to perfect as possible. Look for one that’s blemish-free, hasn’t been chewed on by bugs and has petals that look lush and soft (vs. dry and curled up). I know that flowers aren’t always perfect and that finding that one near-so specimen out of a whole field of imperfections sometimes doesn’t seem very honest, but when you’re photographing flowers people want to see nature in as close to a perfect state as you can find it. Don’t be afraid to pull off imperfect leaves or remove specs to get your flower that much closer to an ideal state, but be gentle! Don’t do anything to the flower that may injure it.
Pay close attention to the background, too—if your parked car is out there in the distance that whole perfect nature feeling will vanish the second your viewer spots it. Look for backgrounds that are some distance from your subject, since these will fall out of focus and provide that lovely bokeh that is so impressive in any photo. If there are other flowers in the frame consider bending them out of the way (again, gently) while you’re shooting so they don’t distract from your main subject. And watch out for colorful backgrounds—multiple colors, even when they are out of focus may steal your viewer’s attention, too.
You can get closer still and fill the frame with your subject, so if you don’t have a macro lens try using your camera’s macro setting. You can use extension tubes or screw-on close-up filters, too, anything that will allow you to get close and capture detail (but remember that filters and extension tubes will have an impact on your depth of field).
When shooting at close range it’s even more important to have a tripod, because even a little bit of motion in your subject could be enough to change your focus point. A tripod will also help you lock focus and keep it there—remember that the closer you get to your subject, the less depth of field you’ll have overall, which means that just a slight change in camera position (which happens from moment to moment any time you’re shooting off-tripod) could also be enough to throw off your focus point.
Small apertures are generally a good plan for shooting close-ups of anything—because your depth of field is so limited at close range, you need a small aperture to capture as much detail as you can from the front petal to the back one. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't use a shallow depth of field in a creative way—I have seen some really beautiful images of flowers that feature a tack-sharp stamen surrounded by beautiful, soft bokeh where the petals are. So use your own judgment, in fact consider doing a little bit of both—take a series of shots with a small aperture and then switch to a large aperture and compare your results.
Even with a small aperture your may find that you’re just not getting as much of the flower in focus as you’d like, so consider changing your camera angle so that your lens is parallel to whatever you feel is the most important part of the flower. A daisy, for example, has a relatively flat surface if photographed from directly above, but if you photograph it from the side it becomes much more three dimensional. Keeping the flattest part of the flower parallel to the lens will give you more clarity across its surface than photographing it from an angle will.
Close-ups of wildflowers should be shot in the golden hour just like landscape photos should. That really soft light will highlight detail, whereas shooting the same flower under the bright midday sun may obscure detail. The hard, overhead light you’ll get in the late morning and early afternoon will produce very black shadows and blown out highlights, neither of which are particularly good at revealing texture, form or color.
You can also shoot on an overcast day—the clouds act as natural filters (in fact some photographers call overcast days “nature’s softbox”) and you’ll get nice, even light on those days—but keep in mind that overcast light can also tend to be a little flat so it can help to use a reflector to add highlights or a black flag to add shadow.
When you’re shooting wildflowers its important for you to tread lightly and leave the field just as you found it. There will surely be others who want to enjoy the wildflowers in your area, so make sure that they remain in the same state after you leave as they were before you got there. Use trails if they exist and if you must step out into the field do so carefully, and avoid stepping on any of the flowers. You may be capturing them with your camera and preserving them in that small way for a photographic eternity, but their short time on Earth is something that should be enjoyed by everyone, with or without a camera.
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