Updated: Jun 2, 2018
The old adage to stop and smell the roses is sage advice, and to photographers it’s time to stop and photograph the Penstemons, Poppies and Paintbrushes. Yes, spring has finally arrived and wildflowers have begun their beauty pageant.
Starting in lower elevations and the more southern latitudes in the US, a wildflower photographer can spend five months following their blooms as the season moves uphill and further north. Finding and photographing wildflowers is a satisfying experience. There’s something to be said about discovering the beauty of these little gems.
Finding wildflowers is a relatively straight forward job. If you own a backyard, you’ll find them there. Oh, to one person they may be called weeds, but to another they are flowers. A weed is just a plant in the wrong place. Of course the really startling beauties in the wildflower world are out there in the wild, uncultivated patches of land. Have you ever seen the bizarre but beautiful shape of Clarkia unguiculata? It looks like an alien octopus monster out of a horror sci-fi movie (with apologies to Clarkia unguiculata’s mother).
So here are eight useful tips I’ve gleaned over the years to help you get started on your wild flower portfolio.
1. Look for the best specimen.
Capturing a great image starts with a great subject in the peak of bloom and free of blemishes or insect damage. Some individual flowers of the same species will be more saturated in color than other individuals. Take the time to find the best specimen for your tastes.
2. Use a Tripod
Using a tripod steadies the shot and helps you compose your image. Hand holding the camera can tempt you to just click away without much for composition. I use the Manfrotto 055XPROB Pro that has a built-in low angle adapter in the center column for ground level shots. You can buy it from Amazon here.
3. Use a telephoto lens
A long lens will help you isolate the flower against an out-of-focus background, providing a nice bokeh (blurred background). Use a lens with a short minimum focus distance of at most 5 feet so you can fill the frame with the flower. I use a 70 - 200mm and a 300mm lens for most of my work.
4. Ensure the camera is parallel to the most important feature of the flower.
There is only one geometrical plane of total sharpness in every photo, so to maximize sharpness, make sure your camera is parallel to the flower’s most important plane, and carefully focus on this plane. In most cases this means positioning the front of the lens so that it is parallel to the petals of the flower.
5. Carefully consider the background
It’s easy to focus all your attention on an individual flower and forget about the background. But, a good background will draw more attention to your subject. Backgrounds that are helpful are ones that are darker, or offer contrast to the color of the flower. Select a background that is separated a little from the flower(s) allows you to create a nice bokeh. Using a low aperture setting of around f5.6 will help increase the blurriness of the background.
6. Deal with the wind
Every photographer has faced the bane of wildflower photography – wind. Even a slight breeze will cause your delicate beauties to sway. The best time to avoid wind is early in the morning. Using a wind break can be helpful (mine doubles as a reflector to bounce light into the image). Waiting for the breeze to die down and then shooting a burst of photos is another trick you can try.
7. Seek diffused light
Overcast days provide great light for photographing wildflowers, as do the ‘golden hours’ near sunset or sunrise. Be aware that some flowers won’t open their petals before the sun comes up, however. In direct sunlight, use a diffuser to soften the harshness. Another workaround is to find flowers that are in deep shade and use fill flash to bring out the vibrancy of the colors.
8. Spot meter
Flower petals are deceptively bright and it is easy to overexpose them. Spot meter on the brightest portion of the flower. Review the shot with the RGB histogram to ensure each color channel is properly exposed. In my experience, the reds of a flower are the easiest to overexpose, and by using the RGB histogram I can easily see if any of the colors are blown out.
Wildflowers are gorgeous and can be wonderful to photograph, but don’t forget to tread lightly so that others may enjoy them as well. Be a good steward of the land and leave no trace behind. In my own value system I take that one step further and remove items of trash that I invariably find when shooting wildflowers.
So get out there and start shooting!
About the author. JS Engelbrecht cut his teeth in photography in the fashion industry before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty." Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. He is also a gifted teacher and guide for local photographers. Click here to see his fine art gallery.