Wildflowers display some of the most brilliant colors found in nature. This often makes them difficult to photograph, but this tutorial will guide you through the entire process. You'll learn about what equipment you need, how to find the right flower to photograph, and how to determine the right aperture and exposure.
Step 1: Get the Right Equipment
Before you start photographing wildflowers, it's important to get the right equipment. Here's a list of the basics, followed by a short description of why each item is important.
- Digital SLR
- Tripod (and head)
- Telephoto lens (covering 70-300mm ranges)
- Macro lens (100mm is ideal, but 50mm will work)
- Extension tube (25mm)
- Remote shutter release
Digital SLR. Although you can certainly take photos of wildflowers with a point and shoot camera (or even your cell phone camera), the SLR will dramatically increase your creative options and allow you to isolate wildflowers in a photo by limiting depth of field.
Tripod (and head). To get sharp photos of wildflowers, it's absolutely critical that you use a tripod and a good head. Nothing will keep your camera more still than a good tripod. The maximum height of the tripod isn't usually a huge factor for wildflowers, but you'll definitely want a tripod that can get low to the ground since a lot of the most beautiful wildflowers tend to live down there.
Telephoto lens. The telephoto lens is the most important lens for photographing wildflowers. The longer focal length will help you isolate a wildflower in front of a blurred background. Ideally, you should have a range that covers 70-300mm, but a 70-200mm lens and a separate 300mm lens will also work quite well. It's important that your telephoto lens has a very short minimum focusing distance (at most 5 feet), so you can get close enough to flowers to fill the frame.
Macro lens. The macro lens is probably the second most important lens for wildflower photography. It's great for photographing flat flowers, where you don't need much depth of field. My personal favorite macro lens is Canon's 100mm f/2.8. Although you could get away with a 50mm macro lens, the 100mm gives you twice the reach (which is helpful for photographing insects), and the longer focal length will also help you get a good blurred background.
Extension tube (25mm). The extension tube is a hollow tube that attaches to the back of your lens and allows you to focus much closer to your subject. It helps a lot with wildflowers because getting closer will help you fill the frame and get a more out of focus background. The 25mm tube works well in most situations.
Remote shutter release (wireless). The key to getting sharp photos is to snap the shot when both the camera and the subject are perfectly still. The remote shutter release prevents you from touching the camera (which could cause the camera to shake a little). For wildflower photography, a wireless remote also allows you to stand away from the flower when snapping the photo (allowing you to hold a light diffuser or stand somewhere to block the wind).
Step 2: Setup Your Camera
Below are a few camera settings you should consider using when photographing wildflowers. How to enable these features is different on each camera, so check your manual to learn how to take advantage of them.
Set quality to RAW. Since you have a somewhat controllable subject (minus the wind) and because wildflowers aren't going anywhere, it's a good idea to shoot in RAW so you can maximize your options in the digital darkroom.
Enable Mirror Lockup. Whenever you snap a photo, your camera will immediately flip up the mirror, and then immediately open the shutter curtains to expose the image. Well, this flip of the mirror can cause the camera to shake a little (resulting in blurry photos), so if you enable mirror-lockup, then the camera will pause for a few seconds after flipping the mirror up. This allows any vibrations from the flip to die down before the image is exposed, resulting in a sharper photograph.
Set ISO to 400. Setting your ISO to 200 or 400 will help you get a faster shutter, which helps tremendously in battling the wind. Increasing your ISO like this will decrease the dynamic range and add more noise to your images, but with most sensors today, the effects are minimal. You really only need a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster to battle the calmest wind, so if you can get that speed at ISO 100, then it's perfectly okay to keep it there. Shutter speed will be fully explained in step 6 below.
Enable remote shooting. Since you'll be shooting with the camera on a tripod, use a remote shutter release to further prevent camera shake. You'll usually have to enable remote shooting somewhere in your camera's settings to do this (check your manual).
Step 3: Find the Right Flower to Photograph
Okay, now that you got all the right stuff and your camera is all setup, let's start looking for that perfect flower to photograph! This will be by far the most time-consuming part of the process.
First, decide how you'd like to compose your shot: do you want to shoot from the side? Do you want to include multiple flowers in the shot or just isolate one? Do you want to photograph a close-up macro from above? Your composition will dictate which flower you photograph.
If you want to photograph the flower from the side, then get down low to the ground and look for a flower that has a distant background that contrasts well with the flower. The greater the distance between the flower and the background, the more out of focus the background will be (which helps isolate and draw attention to the flower).
If you want to photograph the flower from above, then pay attention to the ground below: does it contrast well with the flower? Are there any distracting elements on the ground? Find a flower which has minimal distractions underneath it, but don't kill vegetation under the flower! If you look hard enough, you'll always find a perfect flower to photograph!
In both cases, it's also important to find a flower that's in good shape. With spring comes a lot of insects that love to feast on flowers, so you'll surely run into flowers that have holes or petals missing. Closely inspect each flower you're considering to photograph!
As an example, consider the photo above of a Desert Sunflower. I chose to photograph this particular sunflower because of the wonderful background it had: a cluster of purple Desert Sand Verbena.
Step 4: Find a Good Perspective to Shoot From
Once you find that perfect flower, then you have to find a precise position for your camera. You only get one geometrical plane of completely tack sharp focus, so proper camera placement is critical.
First, decide what part or side of the flower you want to photograph and what part you want to be the sharpest. The viewer of your photograph will immediately focus their attention on the sharpest part of your photo, so take some time to consider where you want the viewer to focus.
Then, you'll have to determine the geometrical plane which contains the majority of what you want in sharp focus, and position your camera so the sensor is parallel to this plane.
Positioning your camera so the sensor is parallel to the most important plane of the flower will help put all important parts of the flower at the same distance from your sensor, so all those parts will be in sharp focus.
If some parts of your sensor are farther away from the flower than other parts of the sensor, then there will be parts on your photo that are much more out of focus than others.
To illustrate this idea, consider the photograph above - it was taken with a 100mm macro lens, at f/5.6. This flower is almost perfectly flat, so I positioned the camera so it's sensor was almost perfectly parallel to the flower's petals. If the sensor wasn't parallel to the petals, then one side of the flower would have been out of focus.
So, when you're photographing a flower, don't just think about what aperture you should use, but also consider what the most important plane of the flower is, and make sure your sensor is parallel to that plane. Otherwise, you won't get the entire flower in sharp focus.
Step 5: Find the Right Aperture
With most wildflower photographs, you'll probably want to isolate the flower against an out of focus background to help draw attention to the flower. And, to get that great out of focus background, you'll end up with a fairly wide aperture (small f-number). If there's a lot of depth to the flower, and you're fairly close to it, you can start with f/8, but if there's not much depth and the flower is pretty flat, then try starting with f/5.6.
Before taking a shot though, press the depth of field preview button on your camera to get an idea of what the photo will look like at that aperture. This button is usually hidden somewhere on the front of your camera.
If the background doesn't look out of focus enough, try choosing a wider aperture (smaller f-number). Be careful here though: an aperture too wide will start to make parts of the flower out of focus too.
Sometimes your only solution to getting a sharp flower against a blurred background is to find another flower where the background is farther away. And, that's exactly what I had to do with the flower pictured above. Even at f/5.6, the background is still too much in focus, so my only option was to find another flower with a farther background.
If you press the depth of field preview button and the background DOES look out of focus enough, snap a test shot, and review the image more closely on your LCD preview screen. When doing this review, just worry about the depth of field, and zoom in around the flower to ensure you're getting the flower in focus AND the background is out of focus enough.
If your test shot didn't come out the way you wanted, then try adjusting the aperture again. Or, as stated previously, you might have to just find another flower to photograph if you can't get a good balance between an in-focus flower and an out-of-focus background.
Sometimes you may spend a lot of time looking for that perfect flower to photograph, so don't worry if your first shots come out bad! Although I've spent up to 30 minutes looking for an ideal flower, I have never failed to find one eventually!
Step 6: Find the Right Exposure
Mastering exposure is one of the most difficult aspects of photography. It's especially hard when photographing wildflowers because of their extreme color contrast with the rest of the landscape. But, luckily with digital photography, we have a few things like the histogram to help us get that perfect exposure. Before we jump into finding that perfect exposure, there are a few things you should know about exposure for wildflower photography:
You need a fast shutter speed. Wildflowers are extremely fragile, so even the calmest wind can send them bouncing through the air. So, you'll almost always need a shutter speed of 1/200 or faster.
Increase your ISO to get a faster shutter. There are multiple ways to get a faster shutter speed, but the first thing you should try is increasing your ISO, up to 400 if you need to. This is usually the upper limit on most cameras before you start to get some really ugly noise in the photo.
Since you'll be using the histogram to find the perfect exposure, it really doesn't matter what metering mode you use. Although, evaluative metering will usually pick a decent first test exposure.
To help you find the perfect exposure, you should turn on a feature called "blinkies". This feature will make overexposed areas of your photo blink black and white when you view them on the preview screen. This might be enabled by default, but if it's not, then make sure you enable them because they really help you determine if you're overexposing the image.
Okay, now that your camera is all setup, here's a step-by-step example of how to find the perfect exposure:
1. Meter the scene, and take a test shot. Below is a photo I shot of a Chocolate Lily. I used evaluative metering and my camera indicated an exposure of 1/320 seconds. If it looks unsaturated, it's because this photo is completely unedited from my camera.
Autoexposure is usually pretty good, but almost always underexposes, and that's exactly what it did in this photo. Notice how the green histogram still has some room on the right there? This indicates underexposure.
The other two color channels (red and blue) are also pretty far from the right in this example, but because green is already the closest, you should just worry about the green channel here when finding the proper exposure.
With wildflowers, you'll have some extreme highlights, so you'll want the histogram to spread as far to the right as possible, without actually overexposing areas. If you start to get "blinkies", then you've gone too far!
2. If the histogram shows overexposure, then decrease exposure; otherwise, increase it. Since in this case the camera underexposed a little, I decided to increase the exposure by a third of a stop, to 1/250 seconds. Here's the resulting image and histogram:
Notice how all the channels moved further to the right? This is because I made the shutter speed longer, by one third of a stop. Since the green channel is now as far to the right as possible, without actually going off the graph, I knew this was the proper exposure.
How did I know to increase the exposure by just a third of a stop? I didn't, it was really just a guess. But, because the first shot's green channel was pretty close to the right already, I thought a whole stop increase would be too much, so I decided to try a third of a stop first. And, luckily, I was correct! The key is to just keep making the shutter speed slower until you get as far to the right as possible in one of the color channels.
Step 7: Take the Final Shot!
Once you find the perfect exposure, you should then take the final shot when the flower is completely still. Sometimes this means waiting 30 minutes for that exact second where the wind stops, but your patience will pay off when you're at home later admiring a sharp photo of your favorite flower!
After you take that final shot, it's also a good idea to zoom in on the LCD preview to ensure you got a sharp shot, and to make sure one last time that the image is exactly how you want it to look.
Here's an example of the type of image you'll be able to make, after following the steps of this tutorial.
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