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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