Goodbye, summer: Five tips for photographing dying flowers

We’ve reached that time of year again: summer winding down, a crisp note in the morning air, birds flying south in earnest. Also, sad times for the macro photographer, because the flowers have begun to die. And, as all good macro photographers know, a dead flower is a non-photogenic flower. Nobody wants to see the image of a flower, boldly portrayed in all its brown, wilting glory. Right?

Not quite!

It turns out that while the dying flower isn’t necessarily the ideal photographic subject, it’s far from a lost cause. There are images to be had. You just have to take a little more time to compose, a little more time to think carefully about what you want to be seen—and what you don’t.

Read on for some tips!

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Tip 1: Get in close

Oftentimes, flower photographers are tempted to record their whole subject: stem, petals, pistil/stamen. And while this approach can make for some great images, it’s not the end of flower photography—sometimes, the key image isn’t captured by shooting everything. Instead, pick a flower. Examine your specimen. Look for the elements of the flower that are still in decent shape, because oftentimes, the flower doesn’t go all at once. Parts remain vibrant, even while the rest fades away.

Once you’ve found these photogenic aspects of your flower, consider them carefully. Do you see anything that might create a composition all on its own? Maybe some overlapping petals? Some colorful stamen?

If so, then ignore all the surrounding wilt, and capture your hard earned close-up!

                                                I focused on the petals of this poppy, rather than the less pleasing center. 

                                               I focused on the petals of this poppy, rather than the less pleasing center. 

Tip 2: Use a shallow depth of field

Now, this tip can be combined with Tip 1, or it can be used all on its own. Because the thing is, the part of the flower that really matters for photographic purposes is the part that is in focus. And what happens when you use a shallow depth of field? Everything is blown out of focus, except for that narrow strip, that tiny line of sharpness that constitutes the focal plane. As long as that remains photogenic, the condition of the rest of the flower isn’t going to matter much.

So, as before: identify the parts of the flower that are still vibrant. Set your f-stop somewhere in the f/2.8 to f/5.6 range—the closer you are to the flower, the less important this becomes, as the size of your plane of focus becomes smaller and smaller.

And then...focus carefully on the photogenic parts of the flower (you’re probably going to want to do this manually), and take your shot.

          The plane of focus on this flower was quite thin, which prevents the eye from lingering on the less photogenic aspects of this flower.

         The plane of focus on this flower was quite thin, which prevents the eye from lingering on the less photogenic aspects of this flower.

Tip 3: Silhouettes

Even once they’ve started to die, many flowers keep their general form, which means that they are still prime subjects for silhouettes.

Get out late on a clear day, so that the sun is just above the horizon. Find a flower—the more isolated, the better—and position it between yourself and the sun. You don’t have to include the sun itself in your shot, but try to get the flower framed against a bright part of the sky. (Note: be careful not to look at the sun through your camera lens while doing this, because it can be quite painful and damaging, especially when magnified by a macro lens. To make this easier, try using Live View.)

Then, set your exposure by metering off the sky behind the flower. In general, I like to compensate by overexposing just a bit. This prevents the sky from becoming an unpleasant gray color, and keeps it nice and bright.

 This flower wasn't at its peak, and so I aimed for a silhouette that focused on shape, rather than details. 

This flower wasn't at its peak, and so I aimed for a silhouette that focused on shape, rather than details. 

Tip 4: Miss focus...on purpose

We’ve already gotten in close, used some shallow depth of field, maybe captured a nice abstract or two. But we’re not done yet—oh, no. There’s still time for things to get wild. Here’s how:

Step 1: Frame your image, pretending that the flower is totally healthy—except go for a slightly narrower composition than you normally would. That is, leave a bit less space around the flower, a quarter of an inch or so.

Step 2: Focus on the flower...and then, careful to maintain the same composition, move the camera physically backwards, so that your plane of focus moves just in front of the flower. In your viewfinder or LCD, you should see a flower that’s almost in focus, but not quite.

Step 3: Take the image, and check the LCD. If you’ve done it right, you should be able to make out the general shape of the flower, but no real details—which is exactly what we’re going for. This sort of look can work especially well on a carefully selected background.

A word of warning: you’re going to have to be careful not to overdo this effect. Too out of focus, and the viewer won’t be able to tell what’s going on in the shot. Leave a little to the imagination of the viewer, but not too much. Moderation is key.  

                                     I deliberately missed focus on this coneflower, leading to a more painterly image.

                                    I deliberately missed focus on this coneflower, leading to a more painterly image.

Tip 5: Embrace the skeletal flower

So far, I’ve given tips on making your flowers appear vibrant and healthy. But there’s another option, one that has a lot of merit: embrace the autumn. Try to capture the somber mood of a dying flower, the bleak feeling of the coming winter...

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Six reasons why you should be a macro photographer

Maybe you’re a beginner, just got your first camera, and you’re trying to learn to navigate the world of photography. Or you’ve been photographing for a while, but you’re looking for something different, something new. How do you decide the best direction for your photography? How do you find that photographic genre that really clicks with you, that makes you want to keep venturing out of the house, keep improving?

This can be a tough problem. Newcomers to a photographic genre aren’t necessarily aware of the benefits and drawbacks of that genre. But as you gain experience, you start to understand what that type of photography is all about, and maybe you wish you had known some of those things at the beginning…

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Why Shoot Macro?

I’m primarily a macro photographer. And, after a few years of practice, I’ve noticed certain characteristics of macro photography that make it distinct from other photographic genres. Aside from the whole, “We shoot small things” bit, I mean. These might not be obvious to the newcomer, but can become significant in the long run. So I’ve compiled a list: six reasons why you should be a macro photographer.

Before I begin, quick note: if you find all (or some) of these reasons appealing, then maybe macro photography is the thing for you. And if that’s the case, I encourage you to subscribe to this blog, where I will be offering a number of things over the coming months (totally free!).

For instance, I’ll be offering instructional content, both for the beginning and the more advanced student of macro photography, in which I take you through techniques that will help you grow as a photographer. I’ll also be offering photographic exercises, assignments, and challenges, designed in response to some of my struggles--so that you can improve faster than I ever did. And I also intend to take a very hands-on approach to this blog. At various points, I will encourage readers to submit photos to me, for comments and critiques--again, totally free, no caveats! Helping others to grow as photographers is simply something that I enjoy.

So, without further ado: six reasons why you should become a macro photographer!

1.) The locations are accessible

Unlike many genres of photography, macro photography subjects can be found within minutes of your home. Flowers, trees, shrubs, insects: these are the ideal subjects for a macro photographer, and they exist all around us. It might be as easy as stepping out into your garden, or walking up the street to the neighborhood park.

Even if you can’t think of a good location off the top of your head, try a Google search for local parks and nature areas. If you’re lucky, maybe you even have a nearby botanical gardens. Wherever you are, I can almost guarantee that you can find some excellent places to shoot.

             This tulip abstract was taken in my yard, just a few steps from the front door!

            This tulip abstract was taken in my yard, just a few steps from the front door!

 

2.) Macro photography requires minimal planning

Just want to find some subjects and start shooting? Then macro photography may be the thing for you. Not only are good locations easy to find, but there’s not much advance scouting or detailed planning required for a shoot; you can do macro photography in several different types of weather, and the flowers will stick around, regardless of the time of day, regardless of the crowds. With macro photography, it can really just be about getting up and out! Of course, certain subjects may require more careful preparation--but in general, this isn’t something that has to be on the macro photographer’s mind.

 

3.) Macro photography doesn’t require strenuous activity

Certain forms of photography can be quite physically demanding. For instance, it’s not unusual for the bird photographer to spend several hours crouched in the mud, crawling towards that elusive sandpiper on their elbows and knees.

Macro photography? Not so much.

Once you’ve found your subject, you’re free to explore it from various angles. Standing, sitting, kneeling, lying down; all of these are potential points of view for the macro photographer, and you can choose as many or as few as you like.

Are there advantages to spending time on the ground like a contortionist, attempting to make that subject go in front of that background? Certainly. But is it necessary? Absolutely not.

                                This dahlia abstract was taken at eye level. 

                               This dahlia abstract was taken at eye level. 

 

4.) You can do macro photography as part of a social outing

If you’re a busy person (as most of us are) you may have trouble carving out time to actually do photography. You’re working, have kids, trying to keep up a decent social life…Maybe you wonder if you really have time for a hobby.

Well, the thing is: macro photography doesn’t have to be intense, involved, solitary. Macro photography doesn’t require hours of waiting, or long journeys off the grid. Nope! As follows from Reason 1 and Reason 2, macro photography can be done while having a walk in the woods, or at the park. Which also happen to be ideal locations for social outings. Try bringing a friend along!

Don’t get too caught up, though! Otherwise your friend might decide that you’re an unresponsive conversation partner, and choose to pursue other relationships…

5.) Macro photography can be done in the middle of the day

Many types of photography--especially nature photography--are best done during the “golden hours”: early morning and late afternoon. But for some of us, these aren’t the ideal times to be out and about. During the week, we’re too busy, and during the weekend, maybe we want to sleep in, maybe we’ve got things going on.

Which is no problem for the macro photographer.

See, you can get fantastic macro images with a rather common type of midday weather: cloudy skies. When those clouds roll in, the light becomes diffused and soft--which is ideal for capturing evenly lit images of flowers and small nature scenes.

And you don’t have to ruin that nice long weekend sleep-in to get it.

                Cloudy light can be ideal for the macro photographer, allowing pastel colors to be fully expressed.

               Cloudy light can be ideal for the macro photographer, allowing pastel colors to be fully expressed.

6.) Macro photography gets you out and in nature

Over the course of our lives, we can get caught up in our social calendars, our jobs, the fast pace of technology.  We find ourselves spending more time in the work cubicle, or in front of the computer. We find ourselves getting outside less and less…

But macro photography will give you that push. It’ll force you outside, make you start taking walks, breathing in that fresh air. Carefully observing the trees and flowers. Appreciating nature.

Even if you feel that this isn’t something that you want at the moment, I encourage you to try. Sometimes, it takes actually doing an activity before you realize how much you need it.

When I do macro photography, it can be almost meditative. Because it forces me to take a second, to stop, to think about the natural world that exists around us. To figure out how to communicate it through a single image.

It’s powerful stuff, and makes me feel more at peace.

                                              I took this image while on a stroll in the woods with my camera

                                             I took this image while on a stroll in the woods with my camera

To sum up…

Macro photography is an excellent path to follow. The subjects are easy to find, the conditions needed are flexible, and it’ll be good for your overall well-being.

Of course, even if you find none of these reasons appealing, you may still like macro photography. Maybe you want to spend time searching for locations off the grid, or you want to stretch your body to its limits. The thing is, macro is a flexible genre. There are opportunities to take it in many different directions. Just because something isn’t required doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So I encourage everyone to give it a try. It may be just the thing you need...as you start your photographic journey.

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