We don't have to be gardeners or visit stately homes or grounds, with their perfectly manicured floral displays, to photograph flowers. There's an abundance of pretty specimens out in the wild, you just sometimes have to open your eyes to the details below your feet.
Whether you're on a stroll in the country or by the river fishing, there's almost guaranteed to be a wildflower or two poking out from the undergrowth. And even if you don't have a garden at home a windowbox can be ideal to cultivate a small, but colourful display or potential photography subjects.
Peter Bargh takes the Pentax K20D on a floral voyage of discovery and sets a number of challenges for this flagship SLR.
CHALLENGE 1 – ISOLATING DETAIL
Flowers often grow in clumps and they can often look untidy when photographed in a group. The 18-55mm lens that comes as standard with the Pentax K20D has a 35mm equivalent of 80mm at the telephoto setting. This narrower angle means you can concentrate attention on a smaller part of the flower clump.
In this photo a single stem of the Crocosmia perennial has been isolated by shooting from a low-angle and postioning it against a clean background.
What's even more impressive is the lens' macro mode which lets you go as close as 25cm from the subject. This means you can fill the frame with something just 6cm wide, making it perfect for photography of single roses and larger flowers.
If you prefer a more specialist approach consider buying the superb new Pentax 100mm Digital Macro lens. It has a brighter view and, more importantly, its narrower focal length and true macro range allow you to fill the frame with a subject just over 2cm wide, all from a slightly longer distance of 30cm from the subject. This is the perfect way to isolate flowers at a distance.
CHALLENGE 2 – PIN-POINT FOCUS
It's essential when taking close-up photos that you are accurate with your focusing and, with flower photography, select the optimum depth-of-field. This is the amount of sharpness from the closest to furthest point of your subject. The greater the depth-of-field the more will be sharp.
You don't want a flower with a very sharp background or the work you've done isolating one flower will be ruined by clutter. But you also don't want too limited depth-of-field that half the flower is out of focus.
The K20D has a depth-of-field preview button that can be used to check how much is in focus. Turn the on/off switch to the aperture symbol and the lens will stop down and show how much is in focus. You can also set the K20D to aperture-priority mode taking complete control of the depth-of-field.
Here I focused on a single bud of an Allium umbel. The 100mm was set to f/2.8 to ensure shallow depth-of-field.
The K20D has a variety of focusing modes, so you can be precise about the focusing point. You can let the camera use the automatic focus point selector or, for manual control, use the spot focus mode and lock focus for very precise subject placement in the frame.
CHALLENGE 3 – KEEP IT STEADY
It's all well and good having the camera lens focused pin sharp, but you need to ensure the camera is steady too. If the shutter speed drops below 1/30sec it's unlikely that you'll be able to hand-hold the camera.
Normally, you'd have to reach for a tripod but the K20D has a Shake Reduction (SR) feature that allows you to shoot at lower shutter speeds without camera shake so a tripod is less of a necessity. The Pentax SR system is electromagnetically controlled to detect camera shake and moves a free floating image sensor to compensate. As SR is built into the camera body any lens, right back to screw thread, can be used to take advantage of this feature.
In the shot above I took advantage of Shake Reduction while shading the flower with my free hand to prevent harsh shadows from the midday sunlight. The new Pentax 35mm f/2.8 Macro is ideal for this kind of photography as it allows you to get just 13cm from the subject.
If you do decide to use a tripod you can take advantage of the K20D's two second delay to remove any contact when the shutter fires and eliminate any camera shake. In this mode the mirror locks up before the shot is taken to reduce vibration.
CHALLENGE 4 – LOW ANGLE AND LIVE VIEW
Many of the more interesting floral displays are low to the ground and it's not always easy to get a good view from a high eye-point. Here's one reason why the Live View feature of the Pentax K20D really comes into its own.
Live View displays the view the lens is seeing on the large rear LCD so it's possible to hold the camera at a low position and see the image without straining your back.
I used it on this shot of clover to ensure a ground level angle.
Live View is also perfect to move the camera in among flower beds and get an insider view. If you set the lens to manual you can see the effect of the focus point too and Live View acts as a depth-of-field preview. I've used Live View in shaded woodlands and open parks and it really does help.
CHALLENGE 5 – COLOUR
If there's one subject where you need really vibrant but natural colours it's flower photography.
The PRIME image processing engine of the K20D is very good when left in auto mode, but you can also customise the image parameters in the custom mode with a choice of six presets: Bright, Natural, Portrait, Landscape, Vibrant and Monotone, along with sliders for fine tuning Hue, Tone, Contrast and Sharpness. There's no excuse for not getting brilliant flower photos with this amount of control.
You should already be isolating the flower, explained in challenge 1. Now consider the background colour. Does it clash with the colour of the petals? If so, consider introducing a sheet of coloured card behind the flower, or move position to change the natural background.
It's surprising how little a shift in position can affect the background, like this shot, where I offset the flowers against a rich blue sky. Sometimes contrasting colours can work well and should be aimed for if you're after graphical results, while harmonizing colours will often give you more muted photos. The smc Pentax-DA 16-50mm f/2.8 is a great all-purpose lens that gives you the close focus and wide-angle capabilities needed for a shot like this.
It's worth setting your camera from default sRGB mode to AdobeRGB at this stage too as this provides a wider colour range making it better for printing. You can convert to sRGB later if you save for web, but you can't increase the colour range by converting to AdobeRGB after.
CHALLENGE 6 – METERING
The K20D has the three metering patterns; multi-segment, spot and center-weighted. In most cases you can keep the camera on multi-segment, as this pattern has 16 areas that readings are taken from to determine the correct exposure. If the flower head is offset the camera will notice and adjust accordingly. Likewise, if the flower is backlit the exposure time will be increased to compensate.
If you have a small flower head in the frame it can be better to switch to spot metering. Here a reading is taken from a small area of the screen. The camera will produce an exposure that's based on 18% grey, so if the flower is light or dark you can then adjust the exposure compensation to suit, setting it to make the flower lighter or darker.
In the shot to the left I have included the background to show location. The dark slate would normally cause the metering to overexpose any detail in the flowers, but spot metering has made light work of the scene.I used the standard 18-55mm at the 18mm setting for this shot.
Another option is to make the most of the built-in flash. With a guide number of 13 the K20D's flash is just enough to pump out some light to fill in the shadow areas and give a brighter, less contrasty flower photo in bright sunlight. Like the camera, the flash has an exposure compensation feature, which can be reduced on shady days to provide a more subtle balancing light to add sparkle to the foreground flower without affecting the natural look. The flash output can be reduced by two stops.
If you want to be really technical you could shoot a series of exposures, called bracketing, and then combine these exposures in a High Dynamic Range (HDR) program to gain maximum range of tones. With the K20D you can choose to shoot a 3 or 5 frame autobracket. You can even go into the extended mode and bracket White balance, Hue, Sharpness, Contrast or Saturation.
CHALLENGE 7 – SHOOT IN RAW
Most of the challenges so far have relied on the K20D's processing power, but there's another option; to shoot in RAW. If you set this mode the camera records the image, but doesn't apply any form of processing.
The K20D uses Adobe's RAW file format, which is called DNG, and is short for what it is - a digital negative. You can dodge & burn, adjust tones and tweak colours, just like you did in the printing days of 35mm, but a RAW file also lets you reduce lens fringing, increase sharpness, add or remove vignetting and adjust exposure.
To make the most out of your K20D it's worth shooting RAW either using Adobe's DNG or Pentax own PEF format. You get fewer shots per memory card, but those shots will be far more versatile.
After you've set yourself a few of these challenges you'll be printing your flower pics out and hanging them on the wall. Enjoy the Pentax experience!
Which lens for flower photography?
As you've seen from above the standard DA 18-55mm has a decent macro facility that will get you started in flower photography, but with a close-up focusing point of 25cm it will become limited if this becomes your specialised subject. If this is the case you'd be better investing in a true Macro lens and Pentax have three to choose from. As well as giving you great macro features the new compact DA 35mm Macro Limited (right) is also a good general purpose standard lens, and equates to 53mm on 35mm format. This lens has the Quick-shift Focus System where you can switch from autofocus to manual in an instant.
Choose the D FA 50mm Macro if you require a specialist macro lens that doubles up as a useful portrait lens, or the D FA 100mm Macro as a combined close-up/wildlife lens.
If you feel a macro lens is too restricting for your other photography needs, but you want a closer focusing capability, you could upgrade from your standard 18-55mm kit lens to the new DA* 16-50mm f/2.8 ED AL[IF]SDM.