Wildflower Portraits: 10 Tips for Taking Great Close-up Images of Native Plants

Submitted by Donna Bollenbach, Suncoast Chapter / Nature Photographer

Taking great close-up images of wildflowers is no different than taking great photographs of people, except the wildflowers won’t ever tell you they look “too fat” or “too old” or “too plain.” But, like people portraits, there are a few tips to taking outstanding wildflower portraits:

1. Get close, but be mindful: If it is the flower you are after, get as close as you can without damaging the plant or the habitat. If you want people to be able to identify a plant from your image, be sure to include features that are unique to the species, such as leaves, fruits or seeds.

Celestial Lily,  Nemastylis floridana, a rare endemic.

2. Be level: The closer you are to a subject, the less depth-of-field you will achieve. So, position your camera so the lens is parallel with the flower, or other feature of the plant, that you want to be the sharpest. If you have a depth of field preview on your camera, use it.

Green Metallic Bee, Agapostemon spp. on False Foxglove, Agalinis spp.

3. Use a tripod: Lenses with optical stabilizers are great when carrying a tripod is prohibitive, but whenever possible, I use a tripod. A tripod not only helps me achieve a higher percentage of sharp images, but it forces me to slow down and consider the composition, background and depth of field before releasing the shutter.

Pineland Water-willow, Justicia angusta 

4. Control the background: Background clutter probably ruins more photographs than poor light or poor composition. Control the background by repositioning the camera, using a longer lens (which will blur the background), or coming in closer to eliminate the background. The best advice when it comes to backgrounds is to “keep it simple.”

Zebra Swallowtail, Eurytides marcellus, on Yellow Colic Root, Aletris lutea

5. Watch the weather: Too much light and wind will make wildflower photography more difficult. Overcast days with little or no wind are ideal, but not always possible. If the light is too harsh, wait for a cloud to move in, or use a man made diffuser (such as a white umbrella). Constant wind makes close-up photography nearly impossible, but in a mild breeze, there will usually be a break when you can shoot. Flash can be used to to fill in shadows or increase shutter speed, but should be used sparingly. 

Drumhead, Polygala cruciata

6. Choose the best blossom: If you are shooting wildflowers at their peak, and you have more than one flower to choose from, look for the one that is most attractive and representative of its species. If applicable, make sure it has all its petals, good color, and appears healthy and vibrant. Of course, if your intent is capture the beauty of a wildflower after it goes to seed, you would focus on other details.

Adam's Needle, Yucca filamentosa

7. Find Perspective: A photographer’s ability to find a unique perspective on a common subject is what separates a mediocre image from a great one. Many beginning photographers shoot from wherever they happen to be standing. Often, this means they are shooting down on the subject. A seasoned nature photographer knows that sometimes you need to get low, even on your belly, to get a great shot. Before pressing the shutter, walk around your subject, stand-up, lie-low and change between zoom and wide-angle lenses to find the best perspective.

Yellow Pitcherplant, Sarracenia flava
8. Diversify:  Next time you photograph a wildflower, think of it as a person, and consider using one or more of these portrait perspectives to capture its unique features:

           Profile: The profile, or side view exudes grace and beauty. Lines are prominent. 

Scarlet creeper, Ipomoea hederifolia

Forked Blue Curls, Trichostema dichotomum

Three-quarter : The ¾ or “Look over my shoulder” view accents form and shape.

Yellow Butterwort, Pinguicula lutea
Scarlet creeper, Ipomoea hederifolia

Frontal: The frontal or full face view defines symmetry and balance.

Purple Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata

Prickly Pear Cactus, Opuntia spp. 

8. Bugs are a bonus: Bees, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles add a special dimension to wildflower photography. Consider them a bonus. If one happens to fly in the frame when you are shooting, just keep shooting. But, don’t rely on luck. Patience is the key when photographing insects visiting flowers. Rather than chase bees and butterflies around a field, it is much easier to stay focused on one flower and wait for a pollinator come to you.

Progressive Bee Fly ,Exoprosopa spp, on  Blushing Scrub Mint, Dicerandra Modesta,

9. Tell a story: Capturing a close-up of a wildflower does not mean you cannot capture some of the environment where it lives or its relationship to wildlife. One of my favorite techniques is to use a wide-angle lens to get close to my subject, yet show enough of the background to reveal its natural habitat. Even without the habitat, your close-up image will tell a story if it reveals the form and function of a wildflower. 

Donna Bollenbach has been photographing nature for over 20 years. She has written articles, taught workshops, and published an e-book on the art of nature photography. The last five years her primary subject has been Florida Native Plants. She is currently working on a database of her images. Donna is President of the Suncoast Chapter, Social Media Director for the Florida Native Plant Society, and editor of this blog. Her Facebook Page is Natives, Naturally

I was asked what equipment I shoot with, so here is the list, but you should not feel limited by your equipment. You can follow most of these tips even if you are shooting with a cell phone. In any case, I shoot with a Nikon D300 (12 megapixels) (usually on a tripod), a 180 Sigma macro lens and a 17-80 Nikon wide angle zoom. I also have a Panasonic point and shoot with macro capability and a lens that zooms from 55 to 400mm.Most of the images I take with the Panasonic are wide angle close-ups, like the one above.  

Calling all Florida Native Plant Photographers: In 2017 I would like to feature a native wildflower that is currently in bloom each week on this blog. It would be called "Wednesday's Wildflower." I have seen many wonderful images of wildflowers by FNPS members on social media. If you would like to submit your images, along with a species profile for "Wednesday's Wildflower" please send me an email and I will send you more information. 


Anonymous said…
Thank you for your generous tips and gorgeous images.
Unknown said…
For some macro work high-res digicams (bridge cameras, compact digital cameras) are great b/c the smaller lens field affords far more depth of field than 35mm format. The downside is that their sensors aren't as sharp & perform worse in lower light, but they're easier to handle & a great deal cheaper than the 35mm form factor.

OTOH with larger format interchangeable lens cameras, another cool trick is to use macro spacers behind telephoto lenses (300mm - 500mm). It makes tracking pollinators a bit easier & you can stand way back from the subject & not disturb it.

Some telephoto zoom & prime lenses also have a special macro mode, which accomplishes the same thing ... it projects the lens assembly forward, losing infinity & up to a stop of light, but gaining medium macro at a surprising distance.

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