Ten tips for photographing wildflowers
I have been an amateur photographer most of my adult life, starting with a Pentax Spotmatic II back in 1972 and making the change to digital in 2003. For the last couple decades, I’ve spent most of my time photographing wildflowers, first on film and then with digital cameras. I currently shoot with a Nikon D5100 camera and use a 50mm macro lens for wildflowers. I also use a normal or zoom lens if I’m photographing a meadow of wildflowers or landscapes. Most of my pictures are taken on the Eastern side of Washington State and the shrub-steppe areas here are a wonderful place in the Spring months to photograph wildflowers, before the Summer Sun dries everything up except the Sagebrush.
Below you will find some helpful tips I use for making wildflower images. I have grouped these into ten categories, so they make some sense. Many of the suggestions are for the work flow used with my Nikon D5100, but can be adapted to any DSLR or adjustable camera. Every year I come up with a few new ideas and tricks, so these will be added or changed periodically.
Remember with wildflowers, timing is everything and many bloom for a very short time and the petals can be easily damaged by the wind or adverse weather. A few days can make a big difference in the bloom available to photograph, so visit that favorite spot often during the season. That old proverb: “Here today, gone tomorrow”, surely must have applied to wildflowers. The two biggest problems you will encounter photographing wildflowers are bright sunlight and windy conditions. Make these work for you and the rest will fall into place. An overcast, calm day is what I hope for, but don’t often get here.
1 – Tripod
When photographing wildflowers or landscapes, always use a tripod (very important). Not only does it give you a rock solid support, but it slows down the picture taking process (the flower isn’t going anywhere). This gives you time to evaluate the best camera position and whether a vertical or horizontal picture will be better. Remember the tortoise and the hare. It’s not how many shots you take, but who has the keepers at the end of the day. A tripod also gives you the ability to have your hands free of the camera so you can work with diffusers or reflectors and when combined with a remote release, let’s you watch the flower carefully for that lull in the breeze. Sometimes this takes a while, so get comfortable, with your thumb on the release button.
Some photographers like to work a scene through the viewfinder, hand holding the camera to get the right perspective and light, before using there tripod for the final pictures. A flower tripod needs to be able to get down low if needed. Many wildflowers are only an inch off the ground. I use a swing arm tripod with a quick release that can get the camera down to ground level if needed or work at standing height. I carry it military style, over my shoulder with camera ready to use quickly if needed and with my D5100, I typically use an infrared release. It can be carried or cradled by the swing arm when working an area with low flowers and you don’t want to reset it each time. I sometimes use a focusing rail on my tripod for closeup work. When doing closeups, a couple inches can change the perspective enormously. A tripod, plus a cable release or infrared remote, allows shooting without touching the camera (important), which gives the sharpest pictures of wildflowers possible. Some photographers will use exposure delay (mirror lockup) or the 2 sec timer, but beware of flower movement because of a breeze. Live view also delays the shutter, so I don’t like to use it to shoot, only compose and focus the picture, then turn it off.
I have started using live view with manual focus on my D5100 and this works very nice, especially with the articulating screen (see picture). When everything is set, I then switch off live view and wait for the breeze to calm with my infrared remote. Be sure to cover the viewfinder to avoid stray light changing your exposure when not looking through it and using A, S or P modes. I prefer using M mode, so I do not need to worry about this once I have the correct exposure set. Live view shows the depth of field the camera was set at when live view was entered. On my Nikon D5100 if you change aperture, just reset live view to see the updated depth of field preview.
1a – Monopod
Using a monopod is not as stable or hands free as a tripod, but does have some advantages at times. If you are hiking a long way and want to cut down on weight or if you need to setup quickly for a shot, especially if its in very uneven or rocky terrain, consider using a monopod. Here’s a couple tricks I use. Use a small ball or swivel head to give you both horizontal and vertical capability. To get a steadier shot, use your 2 second timer. Take a deep breath, press the shutter and freeze. I have a lightweight Gitzo fiber (basalt) monopod that I mount on my belt via an aluminum bracket I made and carry my camera via its strap usually draped over my left shoulder/back if I am not carrying a backpack or when using my waist pack. If you like, you can use the monopod as a walking staff, but I seldom do this as I like my hands free. A monopod won’t give the rock solid support a good tripod does, but is much better than trying to hand hold the camera (even with a VR lens), especially taking flower pictures. Notice all the monopods at football games, they’re quick and stable with those big lenses. I also use my monopod as a trekking pole on longer hikes.
2 – Light & Color
These two work together and by your camera’s white balance setting. On a sunny day, use a diffuser to soften the bright sunlight hitting the flower, that can cause shadows or hot spots in some areas. Use a reflector on a shaded flower to bring in more light. I use a LiteDisc 22″ collapsible translucent diffuser and 12″ gold/silver reflector when needed. Cloudy days are ideal for flower pictures (nature’s diffuser). You can also experiment using your flash with a diffuser. A cable or infrared release works well when trying to handhold a diffuser in just the right place. Avoid midday Sun if you can. Early morning and late afternoon give a more pleasing warm looking light. In the picture, notice the warm upper basalt rock and the gray lower rock that the Sun has not hit yet. In reality, the basalt rock is the same color, but the early sunlight gives it a warm glow, along with the landscape.
Besides auto white balance, many camera’s also have adjustable white balance settings, so you may want to try one of the presets or better yet, learn how to set a custom white balance. Each camera is different, so read your camera manual. You may need to change the white balance as you encounter different light conditions throughout the day. Auto white balance may not always be correct, so be careful when using it. When photographing wildflowers, getting the color right “in camera” is important, especially if your shooting JPEG’s. Most DSLR’s have different color (color space) settings, so experiment with these. I use sRGB, for wildflowers. I like to shoot outdoors in landscape mode with my D5100 when shooting jpg’s. I also carry a small WhiBal card to get the white balance correct when shooting in RAW if needed.
3 – Wind
Use a cable or infrared remote shutter release, exposure delay and the base ISO setting on a calm day. If it’s breezy, turn off exposure delay, so you can take the picture quickly when there’s a lull in the wind and the flower stabilizes. I can’t emphasize how important this is for sharp pictures. When working in close, the slightest movement can effect sharpness in the picture. Use a higher ISO or a wider aperture to get the shutter speed up on a windy day to freeze those moving flowers. Keep in mind though that as ISO goes up, picture quality may go down. Typically, I use an aperture of f5.6 to f11 on wildflowers, depending on the depth of field (blurring of background) I need and ISO 100 – 1600. Make use of the camera’s depth of field preview and manual focus when necessary. Live view does show correct depth of field (if you don’t change aperture after entering it). Nothing looks worse than a blurry flower. This can be caused by the wind, camera motion, out of focus or not enough depth of field. Flowers moving in the wind can be hard to focus on, especially up close, so take your time and shoot extra frames if necessary. Above is a local weather indicator I use to help me keep an eye on the wind, which can greatly affect wildflower closeups.
4 – Background
Always be aware of your foreground and background along with any problems it might add to the picture. Light colored stems or sticks really stand out in a picture, as does stray sunlight. Work the area with your diffuser to get an evenly lit flower and background, also remove light colored or unsightly debris. It’s ok if the background is shaded and will be darker than the flower. Important – Check closely for bugs and blemishes on the flower. There’s nothing worse than getting home and looking at the flower on your computer and seeing a couple of eyes looking back at you or blemishes that you overlooked. Use a small aperture number to blur out the background and bring attention to your sharply focused flower.
5 – Camera
Make the camera work for you, don’t just set it to auto and shoot, hoping to get lucky. Most camera’s can vary the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Take advantage of this to meet the conditions, whether it be shallow or deep depth of field or a moving flower you need to freeze in the breeze. I use my camera’s base ISO whenever possible or when shooting waterfalls, which is 100 on the D5100. Make sure the camera’s image plane (back of the camera) is parallel to the flower or subject that you want in sharp focus. Take your time and get the picture right (the flower isn’t going anywhere). I like to shoot in M or A mode and set everything up before the shot. I also use manual focus when it becomes a problem trying to auto focus on some small part of the flower. Don’t be afraid to take multiple shots with different perspectives and camera settings. Use your camera’s preview set on the highlight warning (blinkies) or histogram after each shot and understand what it should look like. Your percentage of keepers will go up dramatically. Carry an extra battery or two. Live view eats them up fast.
Become close friends with your camera, read the manual and understand the different settings available to you. Set up something colorful like a flower arrangement or flowers in your backyard and experiment until you are happy with the picture output with various colors and conditions. The nice thing about digital is it cost you nothing to do this. Most DSLR’s have many options available that can affect the look of the picture (color space, saturation, sharpness, contrast etc). This is very important if you are shooting JPEG’s and time saving if you shoot in RAW. So experiment until you get the look you want, before heading out to photograph wildflowers that are only in peak bloom the day of your visit. Going back the next weekend just isn’t an option with most wildflowers. Take whatever time you need to get the shots in the field. It’s to late when you get home to take an extra shot or two of a special flower at a different camera setting or perspective. I also often take a wide angle shot for identifying the flower if I am now sure of it’s identity, including the leaves and stem.
6 – Metering
I use center-weighted or matrix metering to get close and spot meter the actual flower to be sure, then use a zone chart to help set tonality if needed. One thing to remember about metering and using a tripod with a DSLR is when the camera mode is not set to manual, the meter can change the camera settings when you leave the viewfinder open and bright light comes in the back. So, if using a setting other than manual mode, cover the viewfinder, unless your eye is covering it. That is why most camera’s come with an eyepiece cap. Use the cameras histogram to nail exposure.
Don’t be afraid to bracket your images, especially when the picture is important. Start with 1/2 stop under and over. You can also bracket 1 or 2 stops, especially if you’re taking pictures for HDR images. Many camera’s have an auto bracketing feature (3 frames), so it’s easy to do
7 – Composition
Use the Rule of Thirds as a guide to better placement of your flower. You may also experiment with the similar Golden Mean ratio. You don’t need to be exact, but use these to help guide you when composing a picture. Many cameras have a grid that can be turned on to help with this. Whatever you decide on, typically you don’t want your subject right in the middle of the picture if you have room to move it around. Use off-set focus points if you have them. For some reason, odd numbers work better with flowers, like 1, 3 and 5. Move in closer and simplify your composition. The decision whether to use vertical or horizontal framing is a personal one, but generally, I use vertical (portrait) for single tall stalks and horizontal (landscape) for multiple stalks where I need width.
Place your flowers at angles in the picture instead of straight up and down, especially on vertical shots. In nature few flowers are pointed exactly straight up. Look for that perfect flower to shoot. If you have a group of flowers and want the best one to stand out, use a shallow depth of field and focus on that flower, blurring out the rest. There’s usually one better than all the rest in any group and look for just the right angle on it. Be aware of how the light catches it and the background. If the background is cluttered, move in closer or find a different perspective.
Practice cropping your pictures with the camera as you take them, not later in post processing. Take your time, simplify and work it. Make the flower the reason for the picture, not just part of the picture. When working with wildflowers, you have plenty of time to evaluate all the possibilities that go into making a good picture. Don’t shoot every wildflower face on. Consider all angles of the bloom for the best and most interesting image and focus point. I use live view and the articulating LCD on my D5100 to help get the camera into the correct position for the best perspective of the flower. It helps with those low impossible angles that the viewfinder can get itself into. I also have used a right angle viewer attachment on my older D80, which does not have live view, but it’s more clumsy to use.
8 – Post Processing
With digital cameras, it all seems to be about post processing and making the perfect picture on the computer (dreamer). First you need to make the decision if you’re going to shoot in JPEG or RAW format. Many DSLR camera’s let you do both at once. It’s really amazing what you can do with RAW images with the modern software out now. I still use Nikon’s commercial program Capture NX 2 for my RAW images. You can take an average flower picture and make it pop and RAW gives you so much control over exposure, contrast, white balance etc. I recommend trying RAW, but only if you are willing to invest in the software and time to post process it correctly. Capture NX 2 also works well with Tiff and JPEG images. As of July 2014, Capture NX2 has been replaced by Capture NX-D, which does not offer control points, but is a free download at this time. One point to keep in mind is that RAW is a proprietary format and as in the case of Nikon NX2, when it was discontinued by Nikon, the edits done in it will be recognized by other software, even NH-D. You can start from scratch again on the original raw file, assuming you still have it.
Look at the two pictures below. The first picture was taken as a JPEG, then resized and sharpened using IrfanView. The second picture was taken as a RAW and processed using Nikon’s Capture NX 2. JPEG’s can be very effective if you get the exposure and white balance correct in camera and many believe it is the way to go. Many people, including some professionals, prefer JPEG’s for there speed and convenience. There are many free programs like IrfanView or Nikon’s Capture NX-D that you can use to work with JPEG’s and they also work with RAW files. Whether you decide to shoot RAW or JPEG, your post processing will be a lot more successful if you follow the rules of good photography. Trying to use post processing to salvage a badly taking picture is not the way to go. This includes everything from excessive cropping to poor focus, exposure or composition, so get it right in the camera and your images will finish out much better. During post processing view your camera information (EXIF data) to see what your settings were when you did good and also when not so good. It’s all a learning experience.
9 – Odds and Ends
Other tips to use. I usually wear knee pads (good waterproof ones), since I often get down close to my work and wildflowers are often on rocky or damp ground. I bought the knee pads after kneeling down to photograph some Hedgehog Cactus (enough said). I also carry some small pruners to trim dead branches that are in the way. I don’t like to trim live branches, but bend them out of the way and then let them go back after taking the shot. Also you will find a small soft brush, tweezers and a magnifying glass handy to remove objects stuck to flowers. If covered with bugs, I find blowing on them or tapping the flower gently makes them move on, but be quick as they soon come back. On my belt I usually have some small pruners in a holster and my collapsible diffuser in it’s cover, along with my knee pads if I am not wearing them, all easy to get at. I now use a waist pack for my other gear when doing a day hike.
10 – The Final Word
Photographing wildflowers or landscapes can be compared to studio photography. To succeed you must work as many of the variables as possible that you have control over. When looking for wildflowers, move slowly and observe carefully. Often the best wildflowers are small ones hidden in the grass or bushes and you don’t want to step on them. When possible, walk on sticks, stones or trails and leave a small footprint. When you do get down to photograph, watch where you kneel or put your feet. You might be killing that rare plant that’s trying to get a start in life. Dress comfortably, but smartly. I wear a lightweight hat, carry a small rain poncho in my pack and wrap a hooded sweatshirt around my waist in the Spring. I have been caught in several Spring squalls (even late blizzards), so be prepared for the weather and protect your gear when needed. I carry a large Ziploc bag that can be pulled over the camera quickly, while still on the tripod. Also wear good hiking shoes. Slipping and falling is not good for you, your camera or the wildflowers. If alone, carry some kind of communication device (cell phone, walkie talkie, etc). Follow all rules, whether on private or public land and enjoy all nature has to offer. leaving no trace of your visit. Remember you’re visiting mother nature’s home, so respect it as an invited guest and please, don’t pick the wildflowers – Bruce Perrault