Photograph by Clive Nichols.
When you look at a flower you would think that it would be a rather simple item to photograph. It doesn't run away when you get too close, they don't require hair and make-up and they're also found in the great outdoors which means if your photographing them you get the added benefit of lots of fresh air. However, when you talk to the people who work as flower photographers you learn quite quickly that flowers come with their own set of problems.
Planning and knowledge is the key when it comes to photographing flowers and gardens. You need to know when the gardens will look their best, what flowers will be out at a particular time of year, what time of day they look their best and most importantly what type of shot you want.
“On very rare occasions I have been in gardens where the light has suddenly become amazing but usually I plan to be in a particular location at a certain time as I know the garden or flower will look at it's best,” said Garden photographer Clive Nichols. “Knowing what gardens look good when is vital. Some gardens peak for maybe 2 weeks in a year and you need to know when that is.”
The internet and libraries are brilliant places to learn about the seasons, flowers and where some of the best gardens in the world can be found. But if you don't fancy jumping on a plane your own garden is a good enough place to start. Remember you will be in these places for long periods of time so warm, waterproof clothing is essential as is something to rest on, as a lot of time is spent kneeling or laying on the ground. Once you're outdoors you have to decide what your subject is. Do you want a macro shot of a petal, a close-up of a flower head or do you want to photograph an entire garden or flower bed?
“I like to shoot them all,” said Clive. “But sometimes I will really get involved in one. I went twice for two weeks to Provence and the gardens there were so good I shot 12 gig of images and hardly took any plant portraits.”
We'll be discussing Clive's landscape gardens later but first lets look at macro photography. Plants are fragile and when you are working only a few inches away from them they must look photogenic. To take a perfect macro or close-up shot the flower must be perfect so examine the specimen carefully before you take your picture. This close-up way of working means you will be focusing a few inches away from the flower so a good macro lens like Clive's 180mm Canon lens is essential. When you're shooting macro, focus is important and often your plane of focus will be very shallow so make sure you know what part of the flower you want to photograph. To ensure focus is kept on the subject Clive often uses an appropriate aperture to throw the background out of focus and he only uses manual focus settings as this gives him the freedom to choose what to focus on.
“With flower close ups you really need a plan. You need to know what type of picture you want to take and really go for that style,” said Clive.
An intermediate f-stop like f/8 will mean the background is blurred while the flower is sharp. You can experiment with the depth-of-field but remember the flower is your focus and a stop such as f/22 will bring the background into focus and as a result attention will be taken away from the flower. Try to choose a flower that has a empty space behind it so the background is less distracting and if your photographing a group of flowers make sure they're all the same distance from the camera so they look sharp.
Even though it's possible to take good pictures of flowers hand-held Clive suggests you always use a tripod, particularly when shooting macro work.
Photograph by Clive Nichols. A blurred background means the eye is focused on the flower.
“I always use a Manfrotto tripod as they're solid,” said Clive.
As a lot of work is done close to the ground a mini tripod or one where the centre column can be moved from a vertical to a horizontal position would be very useful. You can also buy tripods where the legs can be extended and lowered incredibly close to the ground. With your tripod set-up and camera poised for a shot you will now probably meet the factor that makes all flower photographer's lives difficult, the wind. Wind will move the smallest of leaves and as a result you will need to make sure you are shooting on a low ISO but also remember to have a high enough shutter speed so the image is still.
“One of the biggest problems with outdoor photography is the wind. I try to shoot on still days, checking the weather all the time for wind speeds of less than 5mph,” said Clive.
To stop the focal point changing when the flower moves in the breeze you could always fasten the flower down. This doesn't mean strapping it to the ground however, a simple piece of garden cane or small piece of wire hooked into the ground can support the flower and stop it moving. Just make sure the support isn't in your photograph and if you're anywhere but in your own garden remember to take your props with you after you've finished. Of course you could always consider taking the picture on a day which isn't so windy but if the conditions are right and the weather is perfect sometimes waiting isn't always an option. Surprisingly Clive says the best conditions to take photographs of flowers are when it's overcast.
“I tend to shoot on soft overcast days but if it's sunny I shoot against the light at dawn or dusk for a dramatic effect.”
Overcast days let you take pictures without glaring, harsh light which you get from direct sun. Mid-day light should be avoided for this reason. Clive also avoids the harsh light of flash and only uses the light nature gives him. Reflectors and diffusers are also a useful tool, particularly when working indoors on days when the weather is bad.
Clive uses matrix metering where the camera measures the intensity of the light in several points of the scene. The camera then combines the results to find the settings for the best exposure. But if you want to be a little more accurate other flower photography sites recommend you use a grey card or take an incident reading as this way the colour of the flower will not affect the reading.
Photograph by Clive Nichols.
Landscape photographers read the light and Clive believes this is an important skill for garden photographers to also have. This skill is particularly important when photographing a single flower. Thanks to flowers having thin, translucent petals, back lighting a flower can make the colour jump out of the photograph but light streaming from behind you towards the subject can also produce breathtaking results too. Be observant and walk around the flower you are photographing to see where the light works best. Pay attention to shadows, sometimes they can be appealing other times they can ruin a good shot, particularly if it's your own shadow that gets in the way. Angle is another important factor when shooting a flower head. Laying flat on the ground will give you a low-level viewpoint, as if you were an ant looking up at the flower. You could also shoot down onto the flower, your choices are endless. Your choices grow even more when you take a step back and start to focus your attentions on the full garden.
Photograph by Clive Nichols. The building in the background gives your eyes something to focus on and helps with composition.
Shooting full gardens takes a lot of planning and if your like Clive a group of good friends is always helpful too.
“I will contact garden owners in advance so when I arrive they are happy for me to shoot. Many of the owners are now my friends and they are happy for me to shoot at any time of day, even if it is five o'clock in the morning.”
Autumn and winter take even more planning as you have to find gardens that peak in that season and then find the perfect weather which is usually mist, frost, fog or snow.
On his website, Clive says: “Great garden photographs are the holy grail of garden photography. Quite simply, they are extremely difficult to take. Not only has the light got to be right, but the garden itself must be at its absolute best. Being in the right place at the right time is essential.”
For garden vistas Clive uses a 16-35mm and a 24-70 mm wide angle lens, as well as a 100mm-400mm zoom and 2 shift lenses (24mm and 45mm) for architectural shots.
Architecture often appears when Clive wants to create a frame. Doorways, gates, windows and arches can all be used to frame a scene and they will help draw the eye to the focal point. Don't forget about natural frames either. Be on the look out for scenes that are framed by trees or hedges as these can create a not so obvious but still successful frame. Creating a frame with your hands as you move around the garden can also help you visualise how the image will look when taken.
Photograph by Clive Nichols. The lines in the image help create depth in the photograph.
Taking pictures along garden paths or along the edge of a long row of poppies in a field can create brilliant photographic results. They lead your eye from front to back which creates depth in the photograph. Having an object to focus on at the end of the path can also help with composition as again this gives something for the eye to be drawn to.
For longer shots focus isn't as crucial as it is for macro work especially if you are taking a picture of a field of poppies as the focus can extend for miles. Light and angle can again alter the image so be sure to walk around and look through your viewfinder to find the best position to take the photograph.
Sometimes the flowers can act as blocks of colour that compliment what the eye is drawn to. This is just another example of how you can create an unusual and interesting garden image. Colour is important for floral photography. Greens need to be lush and petals need to be vibrant and Clive has just the thing to help with this.
“Flowers are colourful so you don't really need to enhance colours all that often. I used to use a Msoo Velvia plug-in to enrich the greens but Canon's new Raw converter gives superbly rich colours if you tweak the vibrancy and saturation sliders. Flower photography is wonderful I have one of the best jobs in the world.”
Flowers are vibrant, colourful and interesting to photograph. Just remember, when close fill the frame with their colour and if shooting further away try using frames to add interest to your subject. Be patient and take your time that way you too can produce great floral and garden pictures.