Articles:  A Simple Guide to Better Wildflower Macrophotography

What is Macrophotography?

To me, macrophotography, sometimes also referred to as close-up photography, is magical because it takes us into a smaller universe of vibrant colors, exquisite details and extraordinary patterns that can literally take your breath away. This is especially the case when doing macrophotography of wildflowers which provide an incredible variety of shapes and colors that could potentially keep a photographer engaged for a lifetime.

Macrophotography can be challenging because it involves moving in close and magnifying what is there beyond our normal perception of it. As a consequence, we need to pay a lot of attention to every detail we see in the view finder because it will have a huge impact on the overall look and feel of the image. Where we place the subject in the frame (i.e. composition) is critical; even the smallest movement left-right, up-down, can substantially change its impact. Patience comes in real handy here. We also need a way to focus closer and magnify the size of the subject on the digital sensor or film, which typically entails the use of specialized equipment such as macro lenses, extension tubes, teleconverters, and screw on diopters/close-up lenses.

Below I provide some suggestions and things to think about when attempting to create a close-up image of a wildflower in the field. These comments also apply to photographing domestic flowers. My emphasis is on producing a beautiful close-up image rather than a botanical documentation of a wildflower for purposes of identification. Nevertheless, the suggestions offered here also can be used to enhance images for documentation.

This series of images of Blue-eyed Grass illustrates how we can go from an initial view of them in the field to a dramatic close-up. The suggestions below will hopefully enable you to do the same with any wildflower.

Image of Violet from a distanceImage of Violet a little closerImage of Violet even closerImage of Violet through a macro lens

Simplify

Often, too much other material (e.g., other flowers, leaves) is contained in the frame and competes with your main flower subject. If you try to arrange your composition to eliminate unwanted material and to simplify what is in the frame, it will increase the overall impact of the image. Sometimes this means moving in closer and increasing magnification, removing material, changing the camera’s angle, or selecting a different flower and location.

Flower Selection

In the field, I typically take some time to look around and then go to the flowers that attract me, whether I’m searching for a particular species or not. Usually it’s the flower’s color that first calls my attention and then upon closer inspection, it’s the shapes, patterns and intricate details that speak to me. Generally I select flowers that are in prime condition and, if possible, without holes in their petals or leaves. Yes, you could potentially correct any minor “imperfections” in post-processing, e.g., in Photoshop, and I will do that if necessary to further bring out the beauty of the flower. But generally, I try to capture the best image possible of a “perfect” flower at the time of photographing because of the enjoyment I derive by doing so. I also find beauty in flowers in various stages of decay and will photograph them in the same manner as a prime flower.

Rough Composition/Placement

After initially selecting a flower, I then take my camera and macro lens in hand and begin to focus the lens on the flower. Whether you use a macro lens or achieve increased magnification by some other means, first try setting your lens at its highest magnification, look through the viewfinder, and move your body forward (or back) until the flower comes into focus. If you feel like you are too close-in, then decrease the magnification while still looking through the viewfinder and move your body back until the flower comes into focus again. Keep doing this until you have a rough composition and magnification that you like. Note the height, angle and distance the front of your lens is from the flower. This is where you want to get your lens when your camera is mounted on your tripod. Trying to do macrophotography by hand is frustrating to say the least. You’ll have more keepers if you work from a tripod. A tripod without a center column and without interconnecting spokes between the legs will allow you to spread the legs out and get close to the ground.

There are many angles, heights and magnifications you can possibly use to photograph the same flower. While your camera is still in your hands, continue to look around the flower through the viewfinder for other rough compositions as described above. Check under the flower and behind it for other interesting perspectives, colors and patterns. If you have a live LCD panel on the back of your digital camera, try using the viewfinder and notice the difference in what you see and your experience doing so. Try both vertical and horizontal orientations and extreme tilting when in vertical.

Try to identify exactly what it is about the flower that attracted you and then work to make those elements stand out in the frame. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to capture those elements and recreate the experience you had when first viewing the flower. The same idea applies to other types of photography.

And here’s an important point while you are focusing: pay attention to the background.

Backgrounds

The background is as important as your subject and will either enhance the image or detract from it. If you are new to macrophotography or have not really paid a lot of attention to your backgrounds, it might be a bit of a challenge to simultaneously look through your viewfinder while focusing on a flower and also pay attention to the background. With a little practice, it will come more easily.

The colors in the background are the most important elements to consider and these colors are provided by the flowers, grasses, leaves, etc. that are behind the flower you focus on. Colors that are complementary to those of the flower work well (e.g., a yellow violet against a blue background). Dark or black backgrounds generally work better than very bright or white ones.

Image of violet demonstrating background

Depending upon how much out of focus the background is, it may or may not compete for attention with the flower – the more out of focus, the less competition (see the series of Blue-eyed Grass images above). The farther away the background, the more out of focus it will be. Wider open apertures (i.e. lower numbered f-stops), higher magnifications, and longer focal-length lenses (e.g., 200mm vs. 100 mm vs. 50 mm) will provide more out-of-focus backgrounds and also less depth of field.

If the background doesn’t enhance the image, you can place crushed flowers, leaves, etc. into the background. But before doing so, remove any distracting material from the background, such as dried grasses, shiny leaves, light colored pebbles, and the like. I carry small tweezers for this purpose. Be careful not to put shiny or very light material into the background because they will distract from the flower. If you are going to add to the background, do so after your camera is on a tripod and you have your beginning rough composition. Look through your viewfinder as you place items in the background so you can see how they affect the background and the image as a whole. If you do it after you have your final composition, you might accidentally move the flower or worse bend it and ruin your composition. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way and several times!

I’ve tried artificial backgrounds (computer printouts, cloth) but didn’t like the look of them. Part of the fun of macrophotography is problem solving and trying out different approaches. If you try artificial backgrounds, let me know how it turned out. The challenge is to create artificial backgrounds that look realistic and work well.

Fine Tune Your Composition

Assuming that you now have your camera on a tripod and your initial composition in vertical or horizontal orientation, clean up the background and, if necessary, add to the background. Now begin to fine tune your composition, concentrating on placement of the flower in the frame of your viewfinder by moving your camera relative to the flower. By deciding which part or parts of the flower you want to showcase (presumably the ones that strike you the most), you can work to accentuate those by where you place them in the frame.

There is no fast and easy guideline as to where to place the flower in the frame, because there may be several placements that work well depending upon the particular flower. If you are shooting in a vertical orientation, there will be less room to the sides of the flower than above and below it in the frame. In this case, putting the flower head near or just above the middle of the frame tends to create an image with more visual impact than placing it lower or higher in the frame, especially if you have a leading line, such as the flower stem, leading the eye up into the flower.

Image of flower demonstrating fine tuning - the first stepImage of flower demonstrating fine tuning - the second stepImage of flower demonstrating fine tuning - the third step

Putting the flower in the middle of the frame often feels static and less interesting than ones placed off-center. However, flower heads that fill the frame and have their center in the middle of the frame can work well. Likewise, flowers and stems that are straight up-and-down appear static, whereas a slight tilt gives them more “life.” Try to provide a bit of space around the sides of the flower so that it does not feel constrained or boxed in – give it a bit of room to “breathe.”

If you have a flower head that hangs down (e.g., shooting stars, fairy lanterns, columbines), try putting the flower head in the upper half of the frame so that it creates the feeling of moving down into the frame. If you place it in the bottom of the frame, especially with lots of empty space above it, it will look like it is going out of the frame and feel lop-sided as in the view below of a Shooting Star.

Image of flower demonstrating fine tuning - the forth stepImage of flower demonstrating fine tuning - the fifth step

If you are shooting with your camera in a horizontal orientation, there typically will be a lot of space on the left and right of the flower. Unless the flower is filling the frame or you have a cluster or group of flowers, a horizontal orientation often does not work as well as a vertical orientation. Try both orientations when shooting the same flower and see how it works out.

Image demonstrating proper framing for a horizonal imageImage demonstrating proper framing for a horizonal imageImage demonstrating proper framing for a horizonal image

Manual Focus

If you leave the focusing up to the camera, it may select an area of the flower that does not work well compositionally and/or it may have a difficult time finding a contrast edge to focus on. Try taking your camera lens off of autofocus and use manual focus so that you can make the creative decision as to where to focus.

Where to Focus

Unless you are going for a more abstract look, it often helps to have some part of the flower in focus. What part and how much to have in focus is a creative choice. It’s relatively simple to focus on one point and let the rest of the flower be out of focus, especially if you use a wider-open, lower-numbered f-stop (e.g., f4). As you increase magnification, it becomes more challenging to get everything (e.g., the whole flower head) in focus because depth of field decreases with increased magnification. If you increase your f-stop (e.g., to f22), the background will become more in focus and potentially compete with the flower.

Distracting Elements

Hot spots on or near the flower and light, out-of-focus items in the background tend to distract and pull the eye away from the flowe as in the example below. Either remove these distracting elements or cover them up (e.g., with a leaf or petal). Of course, you can clone these out in post-processing but by doing it at the time of composing the image, you reduce the amount of time needed in post-processing and you also learn to pay more attention to details when composing which will transfer to other types of photography.

Image demonstrating removing destracting elements from a red flowerImage demonstrating removing destracting elements from a red flower

Image demonstrating removing destracting elements from a red flower

Mergers

Two flowers that have a bit of space between them will stand out more than two flowers that overlap each other. The overlapped parts will tend to visually merge together, especially if they are the same color. Photograph them while overlapped, and then try separating them (use a twig, blade of grass, tweezers, etc.) and photograph them again. Check which one appeals to you more.

Image of yellow flower demostrating MergersImage of yellow flower demostrating Mergers

Intrusions

We tend to look in the middle of the viewfinder and ignore or don’t see what’s on the edges. Try looking around the outside edges of the viewfinder– it doesn’t matter where you start, just try to do it consistently. Look for anything coming in from the edges that you don’t want in the image or anything you might be cutting off, that you don’t want cut off. Carefully check all the four corners. If your viewfinder is not a 100% viewfinder, you will end up with a little bit more coming in all around the edges and corners. Yes, you can often clone out things that are intruding when you process your image, however, doing so at the time you are arranging your composition will help you pay more attention and see things you would not ordinarily see and ultimately improve your photography and it will save you time in post-processing. The intrusion is obvious in the royal blue larkspur image (left) and less obvious in the first Shooting Star image.

Image of purple flower demostrating IntrusionsImage of yellow flower demostrating IntrusionsImage of magenta flower demostrating IntrusionsImage of magenta flower demostrating Intrusions

Use of Lines

Stems are the primary lines that can be used to enhance your image, along with edges of flower petals, leaves, and if focused in close on the throat of the flower, the stamens (pollen bearing parts) and pistil. Sometimes the stem lines may be subtle as in the Blue-Eyed Grass (left) or more obvious as in the pink-colored Filaree (right).

Image of purple flower demostrating Use of LinesImage of purple flower demostrating Use of Lines

The stems or petals may be more prominent as in the red stems of Beach Strawberry (below, left), or the curve of a petal as in the California Poppy (center), or the back of a flower (right).

Image of red vine demonstrating Use of LinesImage of poppy demonstrating Use of Lines

Image of yellow flower demonstrating Use of Lines

Shoot Through Flowers

A color accent or wash can be achieved by shooting through flower petals in front of your lens while focusing on your subject flower. This can be achieved by where you place your camera and lens or by holding a flower in front of the lens. By holding a flower in front of the lens, you can place it anywhere you want and where it “works” to complement the image.

Image of puple flower demonstrating the technique, Shoot Through FlowersImage of puple flower demonstrating the technique, Shoot Through Flowers

Up Close and Personal

Beginning macrophotographers tend to photograph flowers from a distance (and thus lower magnification) and as a consequence the flower tends to be smaller in the frame. In addition, the background often overpowers the flower rather than complementing it, and may add other issues like distracting elements in the background as shown below (left) in the image of a Johnny-Nip. Try moving in closer and increasing the magnification to make the flower stand out in all its glory (below, right).

Image of flower demonstrating the technique, Up Close and PersonalImage of flower demonstrating the technique, Up Close and Personal

Plane of Focus

In macrophotography, it is often difficult to get everything in focus from front to back, and it may not be necessary to do so. However, you can increase the likelihood of getting various parts of your flower in focus if you keep the back of your camera parallel to those parts of the flower. If, for example, you wanted to get all of the petals of the flower in focus and the flower head is tilted from front to back, then tilt your camera so that the back of the camera is parallel to the petals of the flower head and thus in the same plane of focus as the flower head.

Depth of Field (DOF)

When you look through your viewfinder, you are looking through the largest opening of your lens. When you press the shutter (or preferably by using a cable release), the lens closes down to whatever opening (f-stop) you have it set at, which generally is not the f-stop you were looking through. As a consequence, you may be getting more in focus than you intended to, such as the background. The area in front of and behind your subject that is acceptably in focus is referred to as the depth-of-field (DOF) and is determined by the focal length of your lens, the magnification used, and the aperture (f-stop). In general as you move in closer and increase the magnification of your subject on your camera’s sensor (e.g., go from 1/4 life size to 1/2 life size to 1/1 life size), the DOF decreases. Higher numbered f-stops (e.g., f16, f22), give more depth-of-field, whereas smaller f-stop numbers (e.g., f5.6), yield less depth-of-field.

You can check your DOF by using your depth-of-field preview button if your camera body has one (or possibly by using the “M” [manual] setting on your lens). If you are shooting at a higher-numbered f-stop and you use your depth-of-field preview button, the viewfinder may be very dark making it difficult to see what is in focus. Your eye needs a little time to adjust to the reduction in light caused by the smaller lens opening. So, the easiest way to check the DOF is to look through the viewfinder and then press the DOF preview button and keep it pressed, open up the aperture (go to a lower number f-stop, e.g., f5.6) until you can see the flower clearly. With the DOP preview button still pressed and still looking through the viewfinder, slowly begin to close down the aperture (go to higher numbered f-stops, e.g., f8, f11, etc.) until you reach the desired depth of field and hence the f-stop you will use. Then adjust the shutter speed for the exposure you want. You can check your DOF after you take a shot by zooming in on your LCD panel on your digital camera.

Increasing Depth of Field

You can potentially get the whole flower in focus without the background also coming into focus by using Focus Stacking. With focus stacking, you take a series of images of the same flower from front to back (or back to front), and change your focus point each time so that each shot overlaps the previous one and then combine the images together into a single image with software (e.g., CombineZP, HeliconFocus. Each subsequent image is taken so that the area of overlap is in focus as is the area behind the overlap (which will then become the overlap area for the next image). This technique is challenging with wildflowers in the field because of wind movement. Here’s a tutorial and a video on image stacking.

Manual Exposure

If you have your camera on any of the programmed modes (P, Av, S/Tv), the camera selects an exposure that will give you a medium-toned rendering. In many cases this will work fine, especially if your subject is medium toned. If your flower is brighter or darker than medium, then typically you will want to change your exposure to capture the tonality of the flower.

You can either use auto-exposure bracketing, change the exposure afterwards in whatever software you use (e.g., Photoshop), or use manual exposure at the time of shooting. With auto-exposure bracketing, you set your camera to take additional images automatically at different exposures – this may be problematic because of potential wind movements during the time of the exposure.

I always shoot in manual exposure and then check the histogram right afterwards (see below). By shooting in manual mode, you have total control of the exposure because you can set the f-stop and shutter speeds independently. It also forces you to think more about what you are doing at the time of image capture which will help you learn more about what you are doing and why.

Try to take your exposure reading under the final lighting conditions you will be using – if using natural daylight, then with that lighting. If using diffusers and reflectors, take your exposure readings with the diffuser and reflector in place.

Histograms and Exposure

One of the primary advantages of digital cameras is that you can get immediate feedback by reviewing the image as shot and checking your exposure with the histogram displayed on your LCD panel. The histogram shows the pixel brightness levels as shot (that is, your exposure) on a black and white scale regardless of what the colors are in the image. It is comparable to Levels in Photoshop. All the way to the right of the histogram is absolute white and all the way to the left is absolute black.

If you over exposure bright areas in the scene where you want to keep detail, it will be washed out and you may not get it back in post-processing. An overexposed bright area will have a histogram that is touching up against the right hand side (typically the area of the image that is overexposed will be flashing in the review image – called “blinkies”).To get a better exposure, change your shutter speed to let in less light and recheck the histogram. Changing your f-stop will change your depth-of-field.

When shooting in RAW, there are more brightness levels or tonal values available in the upper region of the histogram. Half of all the tonal values are available are in the upper fifth of the histogram – the brightest range. Half of the remaining brightness values are in the next fifth and so on. To take advantage of all the tonal values and hence brightness levels available, you can open up more than you might think – meaning let in more light – by “exposing to the right.” As long as you do not over expose, you can get a good exposure (even though it might looked washed out some on the review image you see on the LCD panel). For further discussion of exposing to the right go here.

Underexposure is less of an issue in macrophotography because typically you are controlling the light with the use of diffusers and reflectors or flash. If you under expose darker areas in a scene or flower, you may end up with noise in the shadow areas. Noise shows up either as red, green and blue dots or as a grainy sandpaper look in the dark areas. An under exposed shadow area will have a histogram that is touching up against the left hand side. To get a better exposure and see more detail in the shadows, change your shutter speed to let in more light and recheck the histogram.

For further explanation of histograms go here.

Mirror Lock-Up and Cable Release

Any vibration added to your camera will increase the likelihood of getting out of focus images. Unless you are shooting at high shutter speeds, hand holding your camera will likely result in camera shake. Even the smallest movement while doing macrophotography will have a big impact. Unless you are going for a blurred or more “artsy” look, use a tripod.

Vibration also may be added to the camera when you use your finger to press the shutter button. Use of a cable release or remote switch will eliminate such vibration.

When you look through the camera’s viewfinder you are looking at the image as reflected off of the mirror in your camera body in front of the shutter curtain. When you press the shutter button (or cable release), the mirror moves up and out of the way, the shutter curtain opens and closes, and the mirror returns to its original position. The movement of the mirror can cause vibration (called mirror flap). To eliminate mirror flap, try using the mirror lock-up function of your camera.

Check your camera manual to determine whether in mirror lock-up mode you have to trip the shutter button twice or whether the camera automatically takes a picture after a brief time delay. If there’s a delay, you are at the mercy of the camera and whatever happens during that delay and at the time the picture is taken (e.g., wind). In this case, I suggest taking it off mirror lock-up and wait patiently for any wind to die down.

Diffusers and Reflectors

Image of filterA diffuser is a piece of white translucent nylon attached to a collapsible hoop and is an indispensable tool for macrophotography. The diffuser is placed between the light source (generally the sun) and the subject you are photographing. It softens the light and provides a more even illumination, and as a consequence reduces the contrast and lightens some of what otherwise would have been shadow areas. As you move the diffuser closer to the subject, the illumination increases. Watch that the diffuser does not get into your picture frame (looking all around the viewfinder will help reduce this from happening).

Image of filterReflectors bounce light and are especially useful tools for macrophotography. The ones that are solid gold on one side and silver or white on the other are particularly useful. The soft-gold reflectors generally do not provide a strong or warm enough bounced light. Use the gold side to bounce light onto the subject to add a warm color and to fill in the shadow areas. The gold side is good to use on warm-colored flowers (e.g., oranges, yellows, greens), whereas the silver side is good for cooler-colored flowers (e.g., blues, whites). The reflector is held opposite the flower and facing the sun in order to bounce light onto the flower.

You need to be able to use a diffuser and reflector at the same time, so the 5-in-1 variety of reflectors/diffusers are not worth getting because you can only use one feature (e.g., diffuser) effectively at a time. Get a large enough diffuser to soften the light not only on the flower but on the background. A 32” diffuser is a good choice. A similar size reflector works well. Both can be used as wind barriers.

Ready to Shoot

When you are ready to create your image, take one more look through the viewfinder and all around the outside of the frame. Pay attention to small wind movements. Shoot. Check your histogram. Shoot again. Take several shots with the same exposure and then vary the exposure and examine them later as a learning tool. Try shooting the same flower again from different angles. Remember to breathe, relax and enjoy your time with this miracle of nature.

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