Close-up or macro photography
Wildflowers come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes the only way to see their beauty is to move in close. Some of them are so small, that to photograph them, you need to use a close-up or macro lens. A example of this is the Slender Popcorn Flower in which the flower is less than 1/4″ in size. Unless you move in close, you can’t see the detail of the flower and the little dab of butter in the center. You may be able to photograph a rose or a tulip without working in close, but for some of natures littlest pretties, you need some help alone the way and some good tripod work. So let’s talk about some things I consider important when it comes to getting good close ups.
For me, the first thing to a sharp, precisely composed picture is a stable platform to work from. In my case, this is a good tripod that let’s me get down low. Some people like to use a bean bag, which can be quickly dropped into place and makes a steady platform in either the horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait) position. I have also used one of the little mini-tripods (for backpacking), but they do not have enough height or stability for taller flowers. Another useful gadget for close up work is a focusing rail. These are readily available on eBay. When combined with a ball head and tripod, it lets you change from vertical to horizontal easily and gives you several inches of movement back and forth to help with composition. Another thing you can do is add an L-bracket to all this to help with centering the camera over the tripod when in vertical, but it gets pretty heavy to pack that way.
Currently, I use a full size tripod (Manfrotto) that the center post can become a swing arm (horizontal) and let you get down to near ground level if necessary, very versatile. The center post can also swing out and over things for a variety of perspectives. Whatever your choice, get a tripod that can be easily configured for various positions as wildflowers don’t always grow in level places or at comfortable heights. Hand holding close-ups is pretty risking if you want sharp pictures, unless you’re needs are just a quick snap shot. I prefer to use a tripod and remote shutter release. That way any motion by me does not affect the camera. Alternately, you can use the camera’s self timer to avoid shake, instead of a remote shutter release, but the delay can be a problem if a breeze is blowing.
Now that we have our camera setup on a stable platform and positioned the way we want for the best composition. Remove any unsightly or dead debris, especially anything light colored. If it shows in the viewfinder, it will show in the picture. Let’s discuss lighting a little as this is important. Don’t just shoot the flowers in bright sunlight. You will find out that many of the petals and flower parts show shadows. Ideally, shoot on an overcast day to avoid this. If not, I use a LiteDisc translucent diffuser or shoot in the shade of your body and maybe bring a little light on the flower with a reflector. Many people also like to use a diffused flash. Also beware of any background lighting (hot spots).
The next thing is deciding on the lens and how close you want to get. If you have a point and shoot camera, it’s a matter of deciding what macro mode to use. For a DSLR, you have many choices and some are just personal ones, depending on the equipment you have. On my D80 Nikon with a 1.5 crop factor, I favor a 50mm macro lens. This gives me the equivalent of 75mm on film cameras or full frame. My D5100 I also use a 50mm macro lens (75mm equivalent). Some people prefer 100mm to 150mm for macro work because of the working distance, but with wildflowers, you’re not going to spook them and they won’t fly away. I prefer working physically close if possible, so I can see any imperfections or tiny bugs, before I take the picture. As a last resort, you can crop the picture to make the flower bigger when post processing, but keep this to a minimum if possible.
Whatever method you use, make sure it gets you close enough to properly frame the picture. This gives you a sharper picture than cropping some of those pixels away. Moving in close is a good way to isolate the flower and remove unsightly objects that do not belong in the picture. Keep in mind as you move in closer, your depth of field decreases, so use your depth of field preview button and close down the aperture if needed. The D5100 does not have a depth of field preview button, but in live view you can see the current depth of field the camera is set at. You can also use your aperture setting to blur out objects in the background, but make sure you have enough depth of field to cover the critical parts of the flower.
I will close with a picture of one of the littlest and prettiest wildflowers. The small Blue-eyed Mary is less than a 1/4″ in diameter, so watch your step. Above all take your time, the flower isn’t going anywhere and don’t click the shutter until everything is just right. Preview the image on your LCD afterwards and make any changes if needed until you get it right. Use both your blinkies (highlight warning) and histogram function as double checks on exposure. Enjoy the beauty of wildflowers as you move in for close-ups – Bruce Perrault