Improve Your Floral Photography with Creative Composition and Depth of Field

Photo by Erika Sneeringer

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you are probably excited Spring is finally here.  A great way to celebrate Spring is to go out and enjoy beautiful flowers.  Spring is the transition of dormant landscapes to lush greenery.  It’s when the world of dull lifeless plants come alive.  This means bright, fresh colors, new flowers and, most importantly, new possibilities for photographers to get out and shoot.  Stop taking boring flower pictures!  Step it up a notch with a fresh, unique perspective that will make your viewer stop and savor the beauty of your photograph.  Here are simple tips for photographing flowers while using creative composition and choosing the correct depth of field.

Quick Tips On Camera Settings

Let’s first start with a few quick tips on camera settings.  If you are not already, try to shoot RAW and in manual mode.  RAW files enable you to have complete control of the details in your photograph during post processing.  Shooting in manual gives you full control of how your photograph is exposed, and you can better capture things exactly as you see them.  

Are you still not quite comfortable shooting in manual? Here is a great article to help you understand the exposure triangle.  Better yet, go check out the Photography Start training guide to help you finally master manual. 

Proper exposure can be monitored by understanding and using your histogram.  It is easy to overexpose and blow out photographs of flowers, especially if you’re taking pictures outside on a sunny day.  Checking your histogram is essential to see if you have the correct exposure. Your histogram is a graph found on your camera’s LCD when you look at the data of your photograph.  The data shows a graph regarding the shadows and highlights to ensure that you don’t lose any details.  

Understand your histogram to ensure correct exposure.
Understand your histogram to ensure correct exposure.

If the graph is too far to the left, it means the image is underexposed and you will lose details in the shadows.  When the graph is too far to the right, it means the image is overexposed and you will lose details in the highlights.  In most circumstances, a properly exposed photograph will not have the graph touching on either the right or the left side.   

Typically you will want to use a fast shutter speed.  This is especially important if it is a windy day.  In contrast, slowing down your shutter speed is a great way to show movement in your photograph for a different look.  By using a fast shutter speed you can quickly capture your flower swaying around in the breeze.  You can also capture those surprise visitors.

Use a fast shutter speed to stop motion such as your flower blowing in the breeze.

1. Depth of Field

Control your depth of field with your aperture (aka f-stops).  Picking the right aperture will vary depending on your vision and the scene you want to capture. If you want to include the entire scene in your photograph you will want to use a narrow aperture.  Narrow aperture means a higher f-stop number.  

For maximum depth of field, you may want to consider focus stacking.  Focus stacking is where you take several photos of one scene with each photo having a different focus point. Then you stack several images and blend them together for one very sharp photograph with the foreground, middleground and background all in focus.  Nick Page will soon be coming out with a video tutorial on exactly how to do this.   

Choosing a wide aperture will give you a nice shallow depth of field and make your flower really stand out.  A wide aperture means a smaller f-stop number. Having a wide aperture will isolate your flower from the rest of the image.  If you are using a macro lens and really want a sharp detailed image of your flower, you can use a wide aperture, take several pictures with different parts of the flower in focus and apply the focus stacking method suggested above.

There are three factors that affect depth of field. Aperture, focal length and the distance you are to your subject.  Using a wide aperture in combination with using a long focal length will give your background nice bokeh while isolating the flower as the main focus in your image.  

A wide aperture in combination of a longer focal length you can get a nice creamy blurred background.

Want to create a more artsy look?  Try a tilt shift or lensbaby which will create silky smooth and dreamy bokeh.  You can read the recent review on the Lensbaby Velvet 56 recently published by Tracy Munson found here. 

2. Be Mindful of Your Background

Look for contrasting colors for your background.
Look for contrasting colors for your background.

Everything in the frame should help your composition.  A distracting element in the background takes away from your photograph.  Try a different angle for a clean background that adds to your composition.  When trying different angles, you should look for high contrasting colors.  You can change your perspective to place the flower in a position to have a contrasting background.  For example, if you’re shooting up at a budding cherry blossom tree against the bright sky your flowers will likely get lost in the shot.  If you move around until the flowers are in front of dark green trees in the distance, your pink flowers will really pop against that dark background.  

Sometimes you may have trouble finding a complementary background.  If every angle you try has a cluttered background, don’t give up and move on.  You can use a reflector or foam board behind your flower creating a nice clean look. Don’t limit your color choices, go bold and buy colorful boards that are easy to carry around to achieve a studio look anywhere.

This background is a teal foam board bought at a local craft store.

3. Change Your Perspective 

Don't hesitate to lay on the ground for the right perspective.
Don't hesitate to lay on the ground for the right perspective.

Don’t just stand there and take a picture from the typical above looking down angle.  Yes the flower is pretty from your eye level, but a photograph from that perspective is boring!  Ask yourself how you can make the photograph interesting. Look at the flower from a higher perspective and a lower perspective. Go left, right and move around to examine each point of view until you find one that is interesting.  Yes, that means that sometimes you need to climb trees or lay on the ground for a more interesting photograph.

Sometimes climbing trees is necessary too. Anything for that awesome shot!

4. Have an Interesting Composition

Composition is more than just a clean background and unique perspective.  Finding an interesting composition of an otherwise mundane object can be tricky.  Rule of thirds, negative space and leading lines are all good techniques to consider with you floral photography. A single flower in the middle of the frame is not always very interesting. When composing an image, think about what you find interesting about the flower and focus on it (pun intended).

This image is a great example of leading lines. Your eyes follow the branches from left to right and top to bottom. This leads your eyes along the entire image following the flow of the cherry blossoms.

If you want to have a single flower in the middle of the frame, try using negative space for added drama.  Flowers are beautiful in their simplicity, so capture their beauty by keeping your image clean and simple.  It may be tempting to have a field of flowers as your center focus.  However, having one small flower in a field of green can have a more dramatic impact while capturing the essence of the flower in that scene.

Use negative space to isolate your subject.

Try both landscape and portrait format. Landscape is when the image is wide and horizontal. Portrait format is when you make your image tall and vertical.  It can completely change the composition of your photo.  A portrait format can give you just that, a portrait of a flower.

Capture the small details with an intimate portrait of a flower.

Flowers make for an excellent foreground element.  Having flowers in the foreground can completely change the message of an image that could be otherwise boring without it.  By having a flower in the foreground, you give your photograph a more interesting perspective.

The flower in this image is essential to the composition. The flower symbolizes life and portrays hope which is the essence of Michael Owen’s mural.
The flower in this image is essential to the composition. The flower symbolizes life and portrays hope which is the essence of Michael Owen’s mural.

Symmetry is visually appealing.  Include strong lines such as rows of flowers or an architectural element that adds to your overall image.  Turn on the grid in your viewfinder to ensure that you are centered and all of the lines are aligned properly.  When you have to rotate or crop your photo in post processing, you can lose some of your image quality.

Tulips at the Peabody Library in Baltimore, Maryland.

5. Hidden Beauty

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder… or perhaps I should say through the lens of the photographer.  

Don't forget weeds! A dandelion is not just a weed but has much more depth to its meaning. A dandelion symbolizes warmth and power of the rising sun.

Don’t overlook pesky weeds as a compelling subject.  Weeds are commonly hand picked by children because through their eyes weeds are just as beautiful as any flower.  Take pictures of the foliage and other elements of the flower often overlooked and not appreciated.  

6. Timing is Key 

Dew drops in the morning.
Dew drops in the morning.

Not a morning person? No problem.  There are a few ways you can create your own dew drops.  One easy way to add water drops to your flowers is to turn on a sprinkler. For more control over your water drops, use part corn syrup and part water in a spray bottle. This will make the drops sticky which will keep them in place on your flower.  (Note: be sure to wash the solution off your flower when you're finished to not attract pesky ants.)  

Often times people wait until it's a beautiful sunny day to go out and shoot flowers. That will leave you combatting harsh mid-day sun.   Mid-day sun on a cloudless day will be hard light. That means it will cast unflattering shadows and make it harder to properly expose your flowers. When shooting with optimal light isn't an option, you still don’t have to throw in the towel.  There are a few options to help you overcome the harsh sunlight.

The easiest thing to do is to find flowers in the shade.  When that is not an option, try using a reflector.  A 5-in-1 reflector is very versatile, hence the name.  You can create your own shade by using the black side to block the sunlight. The translucent side is a perfect way to diffuse the sun.  Don't have a reflector? You can also use a foam board to create your own shade. You can find foam boards in a variety of colors at any craft store for little cost.

7. Indoor Studio 

Even indoors you can look for a contrasting background. Try putting a snoot on the flash on the background for a spot light look.
Have a variety of vases to change up your look.
Have a variety of vases to change up your look.

Photographing flowers is not limited to warm spring and summer days in the garden.  Pick some fresh flowers or buy a bouquet at the store for a rainy day photography shoot.  It can be helpful to have a nice variety of vases to change up the look of your photos.

You can arrange flowers in a jar or wrap a bouquet in some burlap.  For natural light while shooting indoors, place your subject in front of a window for indirect soft light.  You can add fill flash or create a quick at home studio.  A light tent is a great option for nice, even lighting.  However, sometimes your flower arrangement may not fit.   One solution is to create a v-flat with two white foam boards.  Use one speed light directly behind the flowers pointing on the background and another speedlight in a softbox positioned on the flowers.  This will illuminate the background while evenly lighting your flowers.  

Shot with a DIY v-flat and two speedlights.
Shot with a DIY v-flat and two speedlights.

8. Find a New Location

Find a spring flower show nearby which will have a more unique display than your average neighborhood garden.

Do a little research and find a local garden or park in your area with a spring flower display. You can also visit a nursery or a greenhouse for interesting flowers to photograph.  Finding a new location to photograph is always a fun adventure!  Remember to keep in mind your timing.  Not only do early mornings provide better light, as mentioned above, but it will also be less crowded if you are going to a public park or garden.  If you go in the middle of the day not only will you be combatting the mid-day sun but also the picnic crowds.

9. Add Human Element

Think beyond flowers alone and add human element for a more compelling perspective.  Including a person in your photograph changes the story while giving you more composition possibilities.  Try framing your subject with flowers.  Experiment with having some flowers in both the foreground and background.  If there are no flowers in the foreground, grab a handful of flowers and hold some off to the side in front of your lens.  Then with a wide aperture, focus on your subject in the middleground.  The flowers in front of the lens won’t be in focus which will add bokeh to your foreground.

Hold flowers in front of your lens with a wide aperture for bokeh in the foreground.

With the subject in the middle of this photograph it breaks the rule of thirds. However, it has interesting bokeh in the foreground, branches in the background that lead your eyes across the picture to the subject and into the negative space on the right.  While it is a portrait, the flowers are an important element and the photograph would be incomplete without them.  By framing the subject the flowers help tell the story, Spring is here!

10. Tell A Story

As with any genre of photography, your photograph should tell a story.  Ask yourself what story you are trying to tell with your photograph.  Flower photographs don’t have to be cheery, bright and colorful.  In fact, processing your floral photographs in black and white can add emotion.  A dramatic image that portrays the emotion you want to express will evoke interest causing your photograph to have an impact on its viewer.  A photograph of a flower can be joyous.  It can be simple. It can be sad.  Try expressing deep sorrow through floral photograph.  Post processing is essential to any photograph.  Different processing can completely change the look and feeling of an image. Try a deep contrast for a dramatic moody photograph.  

Tell a story and express your sorrow.

Show Us Your Story!

Go out and photograph flowers using these techniques.  Do you have any other tips for creative composition with floral photography you’d like to share?  If so, please share in the comments below.  Share your favorite photograph you have taken of a flower by posting on Instagram and hashtag #improvefloralphotography.  Be sure to tell us why it’s your favorite.  Of those who post a photo on Instagram with this hashtag on or before April 18, 2016, one lucky winner will be selected at random and will receive a set of these macro extension tubes that you can read more about here!    

12 thoughts on “Improve Your Floral Photography with Creative Composition and Depth of Field”

  1. Adam Danielson

    That last photo is inspiring (ironically …lol). In the spirit of always finding a new angle to shot everyday things – shooting dead flowers is an interesting twist. I also love the idea of finding complimentary foam board and taking “the studio” on the go. I look forward to reading more from you Erika.

    1. Thank you Adam — that picture means a lot to me as it was taken for someone close to me who lost someone that day. I wanted a picture that represented that feeling. It’s definitely fun trying something different. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

  2. Great article Erika. I think I may try some more flower photography this spring because of this article.

    The new approach to the website articles is working quite well. Great to get some new and varied perspectives as well as a more steady stream of articles.

    1. Agreed Peter, I’m very excited about all of the new content daily! I’m enjoying reading the variety of articles as much as I am enjoying writing them. Please be sure to share your flower photographs with #improvefloralphotography on Instagram. You have a beautiful portfolio and I love to see what interesting perspectives you come up with!

  3. Good article. Def made me want to give some flowers another shot…I’ve tried and usually fail. Composition of flowers is much tougher than I thought. Once again, well done article. Great photo examples too!

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