Spring has been springing for over a month now, and that can only mean one thing: wildflowers! Across the country, flowers are popping up in all their colorful glory. With their inherent beauty and aesthetic appeal, wildflowers make the perfect subject matter for nature photographs. But all too often wildflower photos come out bland and less-than-impressive. So how to transform a carpet of flowers into an eye-catching photo? Check out these tips to turn your flower photos into works of art.
1) Get low
The best thing you can do to improve your wildflower photos is simple: get down low and get close to your flowers. Most people have a tendency to stand above wildflowers and to shoot down directly on top of them. This is a sure-fire way to make the flowers in your shots seem small and insignificant. By getting down low you bring the flowers much closer to the camera, increasing their impact and presence. Shooting from down low also provides an uncommon perspective on the flowers which will elevate the interest of your images. And shooting from ankle-high has another benefit: the low perspective makes flower fields appear vast and expansive. By photographing from a few inches above the flowers, you can make paltry carpets of flowers seem limitless.
2) Shoot under cloudy conditions, or bring a portable sunshade or large diffuser
In the real world, sunshine and wildflowers go hand in hand. In photographs they don’t. Direct sunlight is incredibly harsh and sets up an extreme dynamic range which your camera simply can’t capture. Deal with this problem by going out shooting when it’s overcast. The clouds act like an enormous soft box casting diffuse and even light across the landscape. This even light will get rid of those pitch-black shadows and nuclear-bright highlights caused by direct sun, as well as pump up the color saturation of the flowers in your photos.
If shooting on a cloudy day isn’t an option, bring a large sunshade (like an umbrella) or diffuser with you when you go out to shoot. These will block the direct light and allow you shoot under much more even lighting conditions. As soon as you start avoiding direct sunlight, you’ll see a huge improvement in your flower shots.
3) Shoot in the early morning
Wildflowers tend to grow in plains, prairies, and other open spaces. As many frustrated flower photographers will tell you, these places can be windy! And there are few things more aggravating than shooting a subject that just won’t SIT STILL. Unfortunately, wind is one of those things you just can’t control (unless of course you carry a giant deflector around with you). However, winds tend to die off overnight, making early mornings generally the calmest time of the day. So get up at daybreak and find yourself rewarded with stationary flowers.
4) Freeze the flowers by using a faster shutter speed
If you got up early but the wind is still making a nuisance of itself, speed up your shutter speed in order to freeze the flowers in place in your images. There are a few ways you can go about doing this: the first is to open up the aperture on your camera (i.e. using a lower f-number, like f/4). A wider aperture lets more light into your camera at once which means you can use a faster shutter and maintain a correct exposure. The downside of using a wide aperture is that you lose depth of field (DOF), which means details in the back or the front of your image will be out of focus. If you are shooting a landscape where everything needs to be in sharp focus, opening up the aperture is not a viable option.
If you need to maintain a deep DOF while increasing your shutter speed, it’s time to boost your ISO, which is your camera’s sensitivity. By boosting the ISO, you are allowing your camera to make a good exposure with less light, which means you can have a deep DOF and a fast shutter speed. The trade-off here is grain in your images: the higher the ISO, the more grain you will see in your shots. But today’s DSLRs have amazing noise control, and you might be able to shoot as high as ISO800 before you decide the grain is too significant.
Depending on how you feel about using Photoshop to composite images, another option you have is called Focus Stacking. This is when you take a shot using a wide aperture to maintain a fast shutter speed while focusing as close to the camera as possible. Then you take another shot with the same settings while focusing slightly farther away, then another while focusing even farther away. Keep this up until you have a series of images where the only thing changing between them is where the focus point is. You can then blend these images together in Photoshop to create a composite image which is sharp from front to back.
5) Use a shallow DOF to isolate one flower
Another great trick is to use a shallow DOF to call attention to a single wildflower. Use a low f-number (f/4 for example) combined with a longer focal length, and you can create a lovely portrait of a single subject while rendering the background as a pleasing, out-of-focus blur. This can be especially effective if shooting a flower against a different color background.
6) Practice good wildflower etiquette
Wildflowers are gorgeous and can be wonderful to photograph, but don’t forget to tread lightly so that others may enjoy them as well. Shoot from the edges of wildflower fields. Don’t walk, hop, skip, jump, roll, or lay in the flowers. As tempting as it is to frolic in a field of flowers, these activities can crush and kill the flowers, as well as hinder their growth in following seasons. Be good to the flowers and they will be good to us by coming back year after year.
Now get out there, and get shooting!