The memory seems almost like a dream. I walk alone among great fields of vibrant lupine and golden poppies, photographing magnificent landscapes of brilliant color set against red-rock peaks and intense blue sky. Then I look closely, go to my knees and spend an hour capturing all the delicate intricacies of individual columbine, the background a soft pigmented blur. I see a rufous hummingbird defending its territory atop a monument plant on a hillside of lavender larkspur and hot-pink paintbrush, and it becomes one of my most iconic photographs. Then reality calls me back to the present.
To experience and photograph colorful fields of wildflowers is a photographer’s dream come true, but the problem is that massive blooms are increasingly rare, and when they do appear, they are overrun by people seeking to experience them first-hand or decimated by livestock grazing on vulnerable public lands. Even three decades ago, when I began the project that culminated in my book Golden Poppies of California, there were only three really good blooms in the 15 years that I dedicated to the work. But if you love to photograph flowers as I do, sometimes we must wake up to reality and look for places that are more predictable and less wild—but still rich with creative opportunity. Here, we’ll explore locations such as commercial and botanical gardens and some of the techniques I use to achieve unique and satisfying images in those more controlled environments.
Finding Flowers To Photograph
Botanical gardens offer an extended time span of flower photography due to their curated grounds that present regional varieties across the seasons, from spring to fall. In Canada, I love the Butchart Gardens near Victoria, B.C. In the U.S., I’ve given spring workshops in association with the Chicago Botanic Garden, Brookside Gardens in Maryland, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado, the desert-oriented Tucson Botanical Garden, tropical gardens in Hawaii and Florida, the Oregon Garden in Silverton, and Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum.
Other specialty gardens are more seasonal in orientation, such as my very favorite, Keukenhof Tulip Garden in Holland, with 90 acres of incredible artistic floral compositions in April. Here in the Northwest, there are many commercial growers that open their fields and demonstration plots to the public and encourage flower photography. I’ll frequent tulip fields in early April, iris and peony gardens in May, rose gardens in June, lavender fields in July, and dahlias in August. Some will charge for parking and possibly require scheduled tickets for entrance to control crowds; it’s well worth it.
Sometimes we’re so focused on traveling to remote locations that we are unaware of the flower photo opportunities in our own communities. In our small city of Bend, Oregon, the public gardens are seeded around town, and by summer, we enjoy a profusion of colorful blooms, from cosmos to sunflowers. I can roam these lovely “wildflower” displays close to home. If you’re open to variety, flowers are not hard to find.
Photo Etiquette In Gardens & Fields
First, I encourage an attitude of gratitude toward the staff, the growers and the field workers for sharing the beauty of their gardens with the public. Still, I am sometimes shocked by the reckless behavior of other visitors, and it especially pains me to see photographers with professional gear acting unprofessionally in garden settings. So, it’s worth noting these basic rules.
Botanical gardens are formal, the rules of access are typically posted, and it’s important for photographers to be watchful so as not to impede or endanger others with our tripods and gear packs. In commercial fields, the atmosphere is more casual, but guests are asked not to step into the flower beds or walk down rows of cultivated plants. Nonetheless, you’ll see folks with cell phones lying down in the blooms taking selfies, just as they do in poppy fields, and the growers do not appreciate it. Confine yourself to the demonstration gardens and stay on the paths at the edges of the fields. Here’s where you begin to see the advantages of a close-focusing telephoto zoom; these reach into the fields for you without disturbing anything.
Commercial growers typically have fresh-cut flowers and potted plants available for purchase. I go equipped with a large bucket to transport several bunches back home, both to support the grower and to use as subjects for high-magnification macro images in the studio.
Flower Photography Equipment
The continuing evolution of digital photography has brought us to a good place. Mirrorless technology offers some capabilities especially relevant to floral subjects, with higher resolution for bigger enlargements and possible cropping; built-in focus bracketing; and cleaner high ISOs when needed in low light, for faster shutter speeds or greater depth of field. Still, I always bring along a tripod. Yes, they are a pain, but they greatly increase the yield of extremely sharp images over hand-held shooting, and several of my favorite capture techniques can only be accomplished with a tripod base. Using the tripod slows me down in a good way by promoting more precision in my framing and composition. It also gets the camera and lens out of my hands and off my neck while I contemplate the next exposure.
A flower photography excursion typically offers a variety of opportunities, so I carry a lot of lenses, including macro (both a 100mm and 180mm focal length), a close-focusing telephoto zoom (100-500mm), and a wide-angle to normal zoom with a range of 24 to 105mm. I also have an 11-24mm extreme wide-angle zoom; although it’s an expensive and heavy optic, it offers some interesting perspectives. Altogether, this group offers me a range of 11-500mm that covers it all.
In addition to an electronic flash for fill light, I also carry several small, powerful LED rechargeable lights sourced from Lume Cube. These fit on a bracket attached to the front of the macro lenses to provide the continuous light needed for focus-stacking both in the field and when working in indoor displays. A small LED light panel that runs off a battery provides soft light for close-ups, and I’ve improvised a bracket that places it near the front of the lens.
It’s a lot of gear, but one great thing about working at botanical gardens and commercial fields is that your vehicle will be close by, so carrying extra equipment to accomplish a particular technique is easy.
Garden Techniques For Flower Photography
Most of these techniques rely on a steady subject, so one tip is to arrive early in the morning when the wind is more likely to be still. Then look around and think about how you might approach each opportunity to achieve images that are creative and representative of the garden’s beauty. The following descriptions and the images that accompany this article provide examples of some of my favorite flower photography techniques.
Isolation With A Long Lens
The close-focusing telephoto zooms may be the most important tool for flower-field photography. My current lens of choice is the Canon RF100-500mm F4.5-7.1L lens that focuses to 3.94 feet at 500mm (.33x) and provides a versatile, lightweight combination with Canon mirrorless bodies. This lens facilitates a variety of creative approaches, the most important of which isolates the subject and pulls it away from an out-of-focus background of soft color. With in-camera focus stacking, the depth of field can be controlled. You can also use the long focal length to reach into a flower bed or tree and extract a floral, insect or avian subject from the surrounding foliage.
When you want to use your long lens to capture an entire field in sharp focus without distortion, from the flowers right in front of you to the mountain on the horizon, the technique of focus stacking (or focus bracketing) is a game-changer. To accomplish it, you capture a series of images at different focus points and combine them into a single image post-capture. This can be done manually by moving the focus in small increments. The secret is to have each frame’s depth of field overlap the next frame. Stop the lens down to maximize the depth of field in each frame and take as many frames as needed. You’ll need to work from a tripod and remember, if you have too few images, or they don’t overlap in the sharp area, your result will be unsharp. You can seldom have too many images.
In some newer cameras, focus-stacking capabilities are built in. You set the beginning and endpoints of the area you want to render sharp and the increments and number of frames you want to cover it. The camera does the rest. Post-capture, the images are assembled (stacked) into one file in the computer using software such as Zerene Stacker, Helicon Focus or Photoshop. The technique is useful in any situation where you need additional depth of field, such as extreme landscapes or extreme macro, as described below.
When you want to capture the intricate detail of a complex blossom such as a dahlia, peony or iris, you’ll turn to macro techniques. True macro lenses offer magnification to 1x (life-size) or greater. Specialty macro lenses work at magnifications up to 5x; they are better used in a studio where conditions can be precisely controlled. But in the field, some beautiful details can be extracted from floral subjects using a 1x macro on a tripod, incorporating the focus-bracketing technique described above, and employing the additional lighting needed when working very close to a subject. This strategy is useful in the indoor settings where some growers display samples of the floral varieties they are marketing.
For a different close-up perspective that shows the background in sharp focus while enlarging the foreground for creative emphasis, use a wide-angle lens. Some wide-angle optics focus fairly closely on their own, or you might need to place a short extension tube (8mm to 12mm) behind the lens to make it focus closer. You’ll have considerable depth of field, especially if you stop the lens down to ƒ/16 or ƒ/22. This will work with lenses from 11mm to 28mm. I’ve used a hand-held flash to balance the lighting of the foreground subject with the background natural light. The result uses wide-angle distortion, usually a negative, as a tool to emphasize a foreground element within its environment.
More Creative Ideas For Flower Photography
There are many approaches to flower photography that produce compelling and colorful images. Try moving the camera during exposure for intentional blur, capturing insects as a subject within the flower, catching surface water droplets and reflections on a misty or rainy morning, shooting upward from beneath the flowers to catch a sunburst in the frame, multiple exposures on a single frame, panoramas, HDR effects and aerials from drones (ask first)—just to name a few.
Yes, I will always treasure those special moments in wildflower fields and will never stop looking for more, but a day in the gardens can yield lots of creative satisfaction and beautiful images that look great on the wall.