Photographing flowers and plants should be easy as pie. In theory, Mother Nature has already provided us with all the subjects and backgrounds and lighting we need. What’s left to do but point the camera and press the shutter button, right?
In reality, nature is usually surrounded by even more nature, getting in our way or cluttering up the background while we’re trying to work. Controlling the environment and isolating our subjects can be more than half the battle, and we hope these handy tips help guide your way towards better (and less distracting) nature photos…
Good composition is the best place to begin our article, and what you place behind your subject can be just as important as the subject itself. Background elements should compliment and play a supporting role to whatever you’re photographing. The same cluster of pink flowers was used for both images, below. On the left, it’s obvious I was shooting with a man-made distraction (a park bench) in the background. Stepping over just 6 inches to the left produced the more natural looking image.
But what about a less-obvious scenario? In the next two images, another cluster of flowers was captured with the same greenery behind it. The image on the left is okay, but moving three inches to re-compose again placed the flowers in front of a less-cluttered background and the darker greenery in the right image contrasts better with the light and bright colors of the blossoms.
Many flowers and plants bloom below our head height. Getting down low and photographing from their perspective invites us into their private worlds and feels more intimate. Low angles can also put the sky or less distracting elements in the background. In the examples below, this Skunk Cabbage was a difficult plant to capture for many reasons. Photographed at standing height, it blended into all the other greenery surrounding it. But sitting down (in swamp water!) to photograph at a lower level made it easier to isolate the plant from it’s surroundings.
DEPTH OF FIELD, IN THE FIELD
Nature rarely arranges itself according to our photographic needs, and nowhere is this more true than locations like dense prairies and lush forests. Working with a wide open aperture produces a shallow depth of field that can help isolate the subject from the background, and even throw foreground distractions out of focus.
This Red Flamingo flower (right) was growing in front of a wall of glass artwork. Photographed with a 200mm telephoto lens at f/2.8 turned the background into a pleasing wash of yellow color that compliments the reds of the flowers.
If you don’t own expensive lenses with f/2.8 or faster apertures, then use whatever you’ve got available and remember this trick: stand back and zoom in as much as possible. The laws of optics will work to your advantage, throwing the foreground and background out of focus the more you zoom.
UP CLOSE & PERSONAL
Sometimes we’re shooting exotic plants and flowers at parks and public places where the human element can spoil the illusion of wilderness. As much as I would have preferred to visit Hawaii for this article, these Bird of Paradise flowers below were captured at my local conservatory. They were surrounded by signs and architecture and throngs of school children. In these situations, the quick fix is to move up closer and shoot macros, or zoom in for tightly-cropped shots of smaller details. Often, those details are more interesting and photogenic anyway, compared to the entire plant captured as a whole.
BACK LIGHT IS ALL RIGHT
Lighting your subject from behind can be used to enhance texture and detail that is invisible under normal lighting situations. Some flowers and plants just plain look better, lit from behind. It’s worth the extra effort to walk around your subject matter, examining it under different lighting scenarios.
Take this spider image, for example. There was nothing particularly special about that leaf until the spider crawled underneath it. Now, with sunlight shining through from behind, vein textures appeared, adding extra interest.
THE GREAT INDOORS
Sometimes nature can be brought inside, which greatly helps to control all the variables, including wind and water. Continuing with backlighting from before, here’s a really simple set up (below) that shows you don’t need flashes or exotic locations when a large window will do just fine. We photographed these on an overcast day with nice, diffused light and concrete for the background. On sunnier days, the contrast of back lighting can be too harsh and placing a diffuser (or even a bed sheet) between the window and the subject will create more flattering results.
Here are two images created using this setup. The image on the left is pure back lighting, with lots of shadow and contrast. For the image on the right, we used a dollar-store sheet of white poster board to fill in the shadows. The results are quite different but neither approach is right or wrong.
In conclusion: If you find your nature and flower photography isn’t quite as clean and “pro” quality as you’d prefer, maybe it’s time to simplify. Focus on details, isolate your subjects better, and reduce clutter in the background and foreground. Or to put it another way: sometimes you can’t see the trees for the forest.