My first thought was flowers.
This was an easy enough choice to make, as flowers are a source of beauty, offer an endless variety of form and color and are readily available in gardens and stores.
But, when I started photographing flowers, I was hugely disappointed in the images I produced at first.
It took me several months, a lot of practice, research, reading and attending workshops run by flower photographers whose work I admired – people like Joshua Taylor Jr. and Corey Hilz – before I unlocked the secrets of creating a successful flower photograph.
I’m sharing those secrets in this blog post. There are basically two key elements.
The first is to isolate the subject. This means finding a flower that is growing alone or, if you come upon a clump of flowers, looking around the edges to identify one or more flowers that stand slightly apart from the rest. Finding these outliers will make it easier to isolate the subject and create a clean composition.
For example, the blog image was created by photographing two flowers from among a large clump of lilies that I came upon in the National Botanic Garden in Washington, DC. The second image shows the whole clump of lilies which, while they looked beautiful to the naked eye, make a lousy image when photographed altogether. I have circled the two lilies that were growing on the edge of the clump, which are the ones featured in the blog image.
The second element in creating a successful image is to simplify the composition.
This means deciding what is the subject of the photo and stripping out everything else that is not the subject. In this case, my subject was the two lilies, so I had to take care to exclude everything but them from my composition.
You can see, from the second image, that the scene around this clump of lilies was very busy: there was a concrete wall to one side, a separating rope, and several other plants growing nearby in the cramped greenhouse. In crafting my image, I had to find a way to take out all these distracting elements.
The first thing I did was to get down low and shoot the lilies at their own height. Secondly, I chose a shallow depth of field – f3.5 – in order to blur the foliage of the plants in the background.
Of course, shooting at f3.5 meant that only a small section of the flowers would be in focus. To overcome this problem, I took eight separate photographs of the flowers, with exactly the same composition and exposure settings but focusing manually on a different area of the plants in each photo, until I was sure I had all of the flowers in focus from front to back. I then focus-stacked these eight images, using a software program called Helicon Focus, into a single, in-focus image.
Photographing the lilies with a smaller aperture, say, f11 or f16, would have kept more of the lilies in focus but would also have resulted in part or all of the plants in the background being in focus, too. This would have distracted the viewer’s eye from the main subject of the image.
Shooting with such a shallow depth of field enabled me to throw the background into a soft blur, which helps to simplify the composition: as only the lilies are in focus, that’s where the viewer’s eye comes to rest and stays. As a photographer, that’s precisely what I am trying to achieve.
A neutral background is an essential element in a successful flower photo. Distracting elements or conflicting colors in the background can ruin an image. Indeed, this is such an important consideration that some flower photographers make a point of finding a pleasing background first, then look for a flower to put in front of it.
In this case, I didn’t have the luxury of changing the background but, with a little thought and careful aperture selection, I was able to overcome the challenges of an unpromising-looking scene and get my pleasing background, anyway.
So, to create a successful flower photograph, isolate the subject and simplify the composition.