Bong S. Eliab
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University
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Flower and Close-up Photography
Photographing close-up subjects is extremely challenging. Few people can do it well. The closer you get to your subject, the shallower the depth of field, so if you're photographing the inside of a rose, for example, your depth of field will measure in fractions of an inch. Also, the slightest movement of subject or camera will result in blurry photos. When doing close-up work, you must plan ahead. As you gain in magnification, precise camera positioning becomes critical. In many situations, you must position your camera so that you are parallel to the subject; you simply cannot stop down enough to get everything in focus.
How much of the flower should you get in focus? At the very least, the heart, or "essence," of the flower should be in focus. Many amateurs, especially those who are sloppy about focusing, stop here. More often, you want the whole blossom in focus, and to do that takes a lot of work and planning. (Some creative photographers go to the other extreme, creating highly abstract flower photos with only tiny bits in focus, such as the line of a stamen, or the edge of a petal or stem.)
If you could order ideal weather for photographing flowers, plan on a day of soft overcast, with its diffused light and low contrast. Fog or misty rain can add great water droplet effects. Since we can't always create perfect weather, manufacturers have created "diffusion tents," simply made of thin white fabric on a frame. You can make your own with a white sheet, although you'll lose one or more stops of light. You can tack dark, opaque fabric on one side of this "tent" to create directional lighting (in this case, also known as subtractive lighting). And you can bring along a spray water bottle, such as those found in gardening departments, for those dew-drop effects.
As with flowers, soft light is best for close-up work. Overcast days also bring out the warm colors found in autumn leaves. Sunlit days are okay, too, great for dramatic backlighting and spotlighting. Good timing helps. If you can, go out just after a storm has brought down fresh leaves. See how the greens and other cool colors balance with the warm colors. Use a warming filter for photographing leaves in the shade. Color enhancing filters also help. A saturated film such as Fuji's Velvia produces eye-popping colors.
35mm SLR cameras are typically used for flower photography, though some photographers will use larger-format equipment. Automated exposure often won't work, because precise exposure is essential, so you need to be able to switch to manual mode. You may want to use a gray card in difficult lighting situations. Since you often must use long exposures to gain that critical depth of field, reciprocity failure can occur. For important photos, then, bracket.
Lenses and Other Close-up Equipment
Almost any lens will work for flower photography, from 28 to 200. Wide-angles give that feeling of depth, while telephotos allow highly selective depth of field. A "normal" 50mm lens only focuses as close as 18 inches, so you may want to consider equipment that will let you get closer to your subject. A good macro lens helps (Nikon calls them micro lenses). True macro lenses will let you focus from infinity right on down to 1:2 without changing equipment, which means your subject is half life-size on your 35mm film. True macro lenses are also extremely sharp and feature great depth of field settings such as f/32. Not all so-called macro lenses go extra-close. For example, you may have a lens called a telephoto zoom macro lens. Without its so-called macro capability it might focus as close as four feet. With the macro capability it will focus as close as three feet. When buying a macro lens, consider that the longer the focal length, the greater the distance from your subject. Longer macros, such as a 105mm macro, will lessen the chance of disturbing your subject (as in insects, for example) and lessen the possibilities of shadows from the camera equipment. You also have more room to position flash units and other equipment.
If you don't feel you can afford a macro lens, there are many inexpensive alternatives. You can get close-up filters (diopters, ranging in strength from 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest) that attach in various combinations to the front of your standard lens. (Caution, if you put more than two of these on the front of a lens, especially a wide-angle lens, you may get vignetting, in which the corners of the image are inadvertently darkened.) You can buy extension tubes or bellows (for very precise control), which are glassless rings or accordion-like devices that fit between the camera body and lens. Also, you can buy a lens reversing ring, so that you simply reverse your standard lens. (A free, low-tech trick for close-up work in the field when you've forgotten your close-up equipment is to simply remove your lens and reverse it; it's not precise, but it's worth a try.) Tele-extenders (also known as lens extenders, teleconverters and lens extenders) can help you narrow this distance. With tubes, bellows or reversing rings, you must set your exposure manually. This can get a bit tricky, as the greater the magnification, the more exposure required. For example, with a 50mm lens and extension equipment added so that your image is life-size on your film, you'll need an exposure of 4x (4 times the exposure required at normal distances).
Flash and Close-up Work
If you're serious about close-up photography, you may want to purchase a ring flash, which is a soft flash that mounts on the front of your camera lens. Otherwise, you can use your standard flash with a PC cord so that your flash is some distance from your subject (whatever your flash manual indicates for closest distance). Ideally, work at a 30-degree angle or so, above your subject. Manufacturers make all kinds of flash brackets so you don't have to hand-hold the flash while making the exposure. You can reduce the intensity of your flash if you have variable settings, or you can place one or more layers of white fabric over the head of your flash. Flash lighting can get extremely complicated in close-up photography. Best is to take a series of exposures and keep careful notes on your settings.
And Other Gear
A good, sturdy tripod is essential for quality flower photography. Besides steadying the camera, it allows you to compose precisely. Try to find a tripod with a center post that can be reversed (awkward in any case), or get a camera clamp that will attach to one of the tripod legs. A tripod head with a focusing rail enables more precise composition. Benbo makes an extremely versatile tripod for close-up photography. A polarizing filter can transform/intensify the colors of flowers. With today's color-intense films, however, it is easy to overdo this effect.
On some cameras you can easily create a double exposure (check your manual). If so, try this trick. Take one photo of your flower that's sharp. The exposure should be half that of a normal exposure (one stop darker than what your camera meter tells you). Then, on the same frame, take another picture (again, half the exposure) and at the same time change the point of focus so that the flowers are deliberately blurry. You can get a beautiful halloed effect.
Here's another just-for-fun trick. Set up your garden sprinkler so that it's watering your favorite flowers. Use a telephoto lens so your camera doesn't get wet. Position your camera so that your flowers are backlit. And voila: instant rain.
You can create your own mini-studio in the field for photographing flowers. In addition to the diffusion tent mentioned above, you can bring a piece of black velvet along to absorb background light for a dramatic effect. You can use a black umbrella or cloth on a rack of some kind to cut light from one side. Or try construction paper in various colors. You can bend light with a length of aluminum foil crumpled and then bent around a piece of cardboard, or use a space blanket or shaving mirror that you can hang from a branch. Clothes pins or garbage ties can slow down flower movement. A cheap, lightweight tripod can serve as a stand for this equipment.These tools alter the botanical "reality" of the flower's environment, but make for a more dramatic composition. If you're photographing wildflowers, don't use any tools that will jeopardize the survival of the flowers, some of which are rare.
This kind of close-up photography relies on all the tricks mentioned above, plus a few more. All animals have a "comfort zone," so a telephoto macro will help. Also, some photographers serious about their insect work will gently place the critter in freezer for a few minutes to slow them down. This works very well with butterflies. For moving critters, you must either use a flash or a fast film, because of the need for great depth of field.
A Couple of Masters Speak
Linda Waidhofer produces some of the most beautiful wildflower images ever and has produced a number of coffee-table books on wildflowers of the Rockies. She says, "I guess my goal is much less a wildflower image, than a strong composition-that involves wildflowers." Most such compositions involve a search for simplicity. Waidhofer thinks in terms of the geometry of the frame, which starts with the parallel sides of its rectangular frame. Triangles, often marked by strong diagonals, abound. She always uses a tripod, and for maximum sharpness, hyperfocal focusing. Also, selective focusing allows some elements of the photograph to be soft (out of focus) for an ethereal, abstract look. Long lenses are great for this kind of work. A depth-of-field preview button, if you have one on your camera, helps you see exactly what you are going to get. Waidhofer prefers shooting in the morning, when there is less wind.
Syllabus | Notes | Papers | Projects
All Rights Reserved 2001
Ateneo de Davao University
10 June 2002