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All in bloom - a field guide to flower photography

All in bloom - a field guide to flower photography - Tackle one of the most colourful subjects with the help of our nature expert, Jason Smalley.

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Category : Flowers and Plants
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Tackle one of the most colourful subjects with the help of our nature expert.
Words & pictures Jason Smalley

I'm sprawled out in the midst of a horribly ant infested meadow, eye glued to the viewfinder of my Canon EOS 3, waiting for my subject to stop for half a second. It's not a lot to ask is it? Just half a second of serenity. As my neck begins to ache from the past fifteen minutes of suffering I choose to throw in the towel and pack up my 600mm lens. The intimate portrait of a beautiful purple beast down here in Barnock Holes nature reserve will have to remain a memory.

Patience is indeed a virtue for nature photographers but sometimes it becomes quite obvious that the subject of your interest isn't going to play ball and you will have to wait till next time, next year, to try again. Flora photography can be so unbelievably frustrating, not to mention time consuming and utterly absorbing.

Dip your toes into this field and it seems easy, but the deeper you wade the more difficulties surface. Actually locating your subject can be as simple or as desperately difficult as you choose to make it. Generalists will stumble across potential images everywhere, even in the depths of winter, however those who decide to specialise on one particular family will find the going gets tougher as they search out the rarer species whose locations are jealously guarded by those in the know.


The 300mm f/4 allowed me to pull in close on one daisy while throwing the rest totally out of focus. Extension rings are needed to focus this close with longer lenses.

Whether the object of your desire is the ultra rare Lady's Slipper Orchid, a particularly attractive Dandelion strewn field or a rose at the bottom of the garden, there are a few guidelines to bear in mind. Firstly, unless you're in your garden, don't garden the shot! Sometimes it's very tempting to remove any vegetation and stems that have the cheek not to help our compositional plans. Cutting back or trampling over lush growth can seriously damage sensitive habitats and so is to be avoided at all costs, even more so when working in nature reserves or around rare specimens. Simply take a reel of garden twine with you and tie back whatever is in the way! And watch where you put your feet...all five of them.



In high, mountainous habitat the majority of plants tend to be small and low growing, forming mats in crevices. The 100mm macro lens enabled me to close in to show the detail. A small aperture captured maximum detail.

Secondly, never assume that the first bloom you come across is the one for you. Chances are there will be a better one nearby, so go hunting. It's all too easy to begin shooting the first specimen of a new species, spending valuable daylight minutes and expending film only to happen across an even more photogenic one around the corner. Choose a flower that is freshly opened, free from damage and easily accessible and then take some time working out the optimum viewpoint.

In most fields of nature photography 35mm is the format to use, and this is the case with plant photography. Larger formats present several difficulties, the longer lenses need to be stopped down further to achieve a good depth-of-field, close focussing is more challenging and it will be very costly to take the number of shots sometimes necessary to get a still image. However medium-format systems are second to none when it comes to habitat shots, particularly when used with a wide-angle lens and a low viewpoint. Compacts are even more limiting, adding parallax problems to the equation. When working close up, the image seen through the viewfinder is quite different to what the taking lens sees, making macro work something of a guessing game even when the camera has a close focus setting.

Digital cameras are another matter altogether. I find the Nikon Coolpix to be eminently suitable for close up work. The rotating LCD screen makes framing and composition a breeze and the lens will focus closer than most 35mm macros. Combined with a lightweight tripod such as the Manfrotto Carbon One, a ball & socket head, cable release, power pack and lots of megabytes of storage this is the perfect minimalist set-up for the photographer who doesn't need slides and photographer's stoop from a day out shooting.

But for those of us who have to use film, choose Velvia. Although it can have a problem with blues in some lighting conditions this eminent emulsion from Fuji takes some beating. When shooting bluebells and similarly coloured blooms it can help to utilise the more neutral rendition given by Sensia, so I've been told. I always cope.

Most 35mm SLRs are supplied with a mid range zoom which just happens to be a good first lens for flora work, especially if it has a macro mode. The wider end is ideal when trying to show the plant in its environment, complete with a field of grazing animals, sandy dunes or whatever. For a more in depth shot the macro mode can be used, shooting at the telephoto end with a wide aperture selected to blur the background. The ultimate kit includes everything from an ultra wide zoom (17mm) to a 300mm telephoto, including a 100mm macro of course. The widest possible lens is great for getting maximum depth-of-field, in fact my Canon 17-35mm f/2.8 zoom has a range that stretches from a couple of centimetres to infinity, when working at 17mm and f/22! The workhorse lens has to be the 100mm macro backed up by a 300mm telephoto for the ultimate background knockout. Not forgetting of course something to cover the medium range, primarily 35mm to 80mm.

Whatever lens is bayoneted on, it's the selected aperture that will make or break a flower shot. Too small and the background will be too focussed, competing with the main subject. Too wide and there may not be sufficient detail to make the image work. For environmental plant portraits close down a long way to capture some detail in the background, but still leaving it slightly out of focus to enable the subject to stand out well. With a wide-angle lens try f/8 as a starting point and always remember to check with the depth-of-field preview button if your camera is so well blessed. If the plant can be framed against a plain section of background it may be possible to stop right down and focus using the hyperfocal distance scale on the lens barrel, rendering everything bitingly sharp.


Rather than take a record shot of this pine, I closed in on what I found most interesting. The spiny needle tips are practically the only part in sharp focus due to a wide aperture of f/2.8 on my 100mm macro. It's vital to align the plane of focus with the subject.

For detail shots it can be best to open up a touch. Once again by continuously checking the depth-of-field with the preview button close control over the final image is possible. With a longer lens, 100mm and above, try opening wide and targeting a particular part of the flower's anatomy, letting the petals lose themselves in a sea of colourful blur. This style of image may be of no use for identification purposes but can help tell the tale of why you found that particular bloom worthy of photographing. To build up a useful collection make sure you shoot every aspect of the plant in front of you, covering everything from the perfect record shot which shows every important aspect in sharp detail, individual shots of identifying features and images that link it to its particular habitat. Try to tell the whole story of the plant and its place in the countryside, not forgetting the pollinating insects buzzing around its petals.


This Water Lily (variety 'Fulgens') was shot with a 100mm macro lens from the side of the pond. By selecting a wide aperture of f/5.6 I was able to blur the background.

Choice of viewpoint is of paramount importance in achieving all these goals. Before you even mount your camera onto the tripod wander around the plant viewing it from all sides through various lenses and at different levels. You will probably find that a position close to the plant's imagined eye level will give the best results. Tripods such as the Manfrotto Explorer or the ubiquitous Benbo are made for such situations. It is usually possible to reverse the centre column of a traditionally designed tripod and shoot at ground level, but doing so over and over again is a real pain. And the legs are always in the way! Not to mention the distraction of shooting through an upside-down camera.

We've all heard that the best days to shoot are slightly overcast ones with a veil of high clouds cutting the contrast but letting lots of brightness through. Oh and of course there should be no wind... at all! If we were to wait for these perfect conditions our equipment would gather dust for most of the year. The secret is to find a way of making the best of whatever Mother Nature throws in our direction. Perfect days will happen, but don't hold your breath. That is unless you are shooting close to a very shaky flower where holding your breath and counting to ten can be essential!

If it rains shoot raindrops; flowers and raindrops; leaves and raindrops; rain soaked grasses; glistening tree trunks. When the wind blows make something of the movement with a longish shutter speed or wait for a lull in the breeze. Surrounding the plant with a windbreak, in the form of plastic sheeting supported on stakes, is suggested by many, but I always find this approach unworkable. In my experience draughts simply eddy round into the shelter and still annoy my plant. I much prefer to skewer small canes into the ground near the plant and rest the stem against this relatively sturdy support. Often the only recourse is to wait, eye to viewfinder, belly to ground, getting strange looks from passers by!


Once again the 300mm enabled me to crop tightly into this shot. Working with such a shallow depth-of-field can cause problems so it is necessary to carefully adjust the camera position to get both blooms sharp. The rain adds a glistening element to the image.


I was impressed by the stature and dominance of these blooms. If I had shot from the usual perspective they would have been less imposing so I fitted the 17-35mm and shot from ground level looking up into them. The use of a polarising filter has produced saturated colours.


Windy days are the kiss of death for poppy shooting! The long slender stems that support huge sail like petals tremble in the slightest breeze. Hold your breath, wait and use the fastest shutter speed possible.

Bright sun can be the most difficult to work with as it delivers too much contrast and too many shadows. The solution can lie with various forms of light modifiers. Reflectors are ideal for bouncing light back onto shaded petals, or to pick out the underside of a plant, diffusers are perfect for close up shots but for best effect the diffusion material must be placed virtually on top of the plant.


The problem with Helebores is that the flowers look downwards. I had to shoot from virtually ground level and use a sunlight reflector to bounce some light back onto their faces.


When working in dense shade I find it best to use fill-flash fired through a diffusion screen, with the screen positioned closer to the subject than to the flash. A quick and dirty solution is simple fill flash with the intensity dialled down by about two thirds of a stop. The effect can be somewhat unpredictable and not totally natural looking but if the shot is all-important give it a try. A polarising filter can help get rid of the blue cast caused by a steely hot sky.

Should publication be your goal it is vital that the plants are accurately identified and, in the case of garden flora, the variety noted. The best way of achieving this with wild plants is to carry one of the Collins field guides in your camera bag and name the plant on location. Trying to identify after the event from the images is not recommended, errors will occur. In gardens simply ask the owner or look for the label. Type caption labels and stick them to the slide mounts, enter them in a database and you have the beginnings of a specialist plant library.

The British Isles are well blessed with a diverse flora with each particular habitat type holding a very specific mix, so a collection of images will grow quickly. Always remember to put the subject's welfare first and don't forget the insect repellent!

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