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Consider the following image:

Tree

Now this is a golden opportunity! A cherry tree in full bloom! And it has pink blooms, not those boring white ones. And today it's a bright, sunny day, the sky is a brilliant blue, and there's not a cloud in sight. I've got my best lens with me... Oh man, this is gonna be good!

What I actually came home with is about half a dozen pictures like this:

Flowers #1

and this:

Flowers #2

and this:

Flowers #3

Now these aren't awful pictures. But they're not really spectacular either. I feel like I've wasted my subject. You can see that they all have cool stuff in them, and yet... I don't know... It just feels like it could be better somehow.

I guess basically the problem boils down to "there's an entire bush full of cool stuff in front of me; where do I point the lens?"

I realise this question is kinda vague, but if I could pin down the problem more exactly, I probably wouldn't have a problem any more.

  • 28
    This is one of those questions we should have more of. – null Nov 20 '16 at 12:12
  • ...and a few hours later, some rather interesting answers... – MathematicalOrchid Nov 21 '16 at 9:03
  • A clarification: are you more interested in the aesthetic qualities of the flowers, or depicting flowering plants (stems, leaves, overall structure, silhouette) in a way that might be pertinent to a botanist or suitable for a field guide? – user151841 Nov 21 '16 at 13:16
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    @user151841 I'm more interested in making pretty pictures rather than scientific accuracy. – MathematicalOrchid Nov 21 '16 at 13:30
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    "And today it's a bright, sunny day, the sky is a brilliant blue, and there's not a cloud in sight." That's the time the light is harsh or in most cases not suitable for color photography and especially digital photography (digital photography performs best in bleak circumstances). A piece of advice: try shooting around golden hour or when the light is less harsh. One of the best times to get out is before sunrise and at sunset for subjects like nature photography etc. – 6754534367 Nov 21 '16 at 15:23
58

#1. Keep it Simple

Cherry tree flowers are beautiful. Branches, sticks and leaves... not so much.

With cherry tree blossoms, compose simple shots. Try looking a bit closer.

enter image description here

#2. Evaluate Focus and Depth of Field

Use blur and out-of-focus areas to draw attention. The effect is called Bokeh. Macro lenses and telephoto lenses work well with flowers by adding a rich Bokeh blurr and smoothing the background colors.

Example: You could focus on one area and fade off into endless petals and color.

enter image description here

#3. Composition - Imagine & Create

Play with the composition. For example, with one cluster of flowers leaning slightly up, the shot will feel uplifting. Find parts of the flower or plant that interests you, focus and capture what you see. You can start with a closeup of a single flower and work your way out.

Cherry Blossoms

NOTE: To get pro shots outside you will need to get control of your lighting, the subject and your environment.

  1. Subject: Isolate clusters of flowers without sticks or leaves in the background.
  2. Lighting: Avoid direct sunlight, shadows and get the light even. Add bottom, side lighting and back lighting. Use a diffuser and reflectors.
  3. Camera Position: Ideally get the camera even or slightly above the subject.

Go Prepared. In addition to my camera, lenses and flashes I would bring:

  • Tripods (extra to hold reflectors & backgrounds)
  • Reflectors (gold makes it look like sun rays)
  • Large diffusers
  • Backgrounds (white, black felt)
  • Spray bottle to make dew
  • Snips to trim branches (primp shots as needed)
  • Clips and wire
  • Assistant

Keep Calm: When everything is just right, the wind will start blowing your subject and each image will be out of focus and blurry. No worries. The wind will stop. Keep calm and carry on.

David Coleman has spent time with cherry blossoms and knows them well: https://cherryblossomwatch.com/

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    Nineteen revisions in eight hours! And I thought I was making too much edits... In all cases, +1 for a great answer. – Arseni Mourzenko Nov 20 '16 at 23:46
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    The third photo makes a particularly nice use of "rule of three"/nine-square-grid, as well as the unusual inversion where the "subject" in the middle is out of focus and the flowers form a border around it. – pjc50 Nov 21 '16 at 15:01
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Bokeh

One of the aspects which is lacking from your photos is bokeh. In all three photos, and especially the last two, the background is too sharp; I imagine that the photos were taken around 𝑓/5.6. By using a faster lens, you can isolate your subject from the background. Here's an example, which is far from being a good photo (especially since the composition is wrong), but still illustrates my point:

stem with flowers in sharp focus, background completely blurred

Shot at 50mm 𝑓/2.8.

Background

Even with bokeh, flowers in the foreground and flowers in the background will rarely make a great photo. It is much easier to shoot the flowers on a background such as the sky or the grass to ensure enough contrast between the flowers and the background. The following photo shows a common mistake I make when shooting flowers:

flowers with background a similar colour to the leaves

While bokeh is here, the background at the top of the photo is virtually the same as the petals of the flowers. With not enough contrast, the subject is lost. It would be better to recompose the photo to include the blue sky or the green grass. A dark background won't work here, because of the dark branch at the bottom of the photo.

Note that entirely flat backgrounds may look boring. For instance, on the next photo, it is unclear if the background is actual grass or an artificial background:

flowers with uniform green background

Poor composition and the annoying out-of-focus flower in the top middle of the photo make the photo even worse.

Focus

When using 𝑓/2.8 or a larger aperture, it is essential to keep most of your subject in focus. Out-of-focus flowers which fill a large part of the photo should be avoided. In general, blurry elements which are closer to the camera compared to the in-focus subject look wrong, but if they are further away, it may look OK.¹

For instance, the next photo is an example of wrong focus: the flower in the middle of the photo is blurry, which makes the whole photo look blurry and badly done. However, the flowers on the right side don't look particularly wrong, since they are further from the camera and are at the edge of the photo.

Flowers, many of which out of focus

Too much is too much

It's also better in general to avoid shooting too many flowers at the same time.

For instance, in the following photo, colors are nice, but there is absolutely no subject to focus on.

It might be more interesting to focus on individual flowers, and compose the background with both the dark leaves from the center of the photo and the yellow flowers behind them. The leaves will give enough contrast between the in-focus flowers and the yellow bokeh. This would bring another benefit of getting rid of the grayish sky at the top of the photo: since the goal here is to fill the photo with the yellow color, the sky is annoying.

Picture almost entirely filled with yellow flowers

Make the photo interesting

All illustrations below are from 1x. Click on each photo to go to the corresponding page.

Aside from their technical issues explained above, all the photos I've shown have one flaw: they are snapshots, not works of art.

The way you compose the shot may make a difference between a snapshot and a photograph one would like to display on a wall. You may either make the flower itself a work of art:

Purple flower

Photo by Jacky Parker.

Or combine it with other elements, such as insects:

Yellow flower with blue caterpillars

Photo by Fabien Bravin.

or use it as an essential part of your composition:

tree branch with flowers highlights cyclist at bottom of image

Photo by Takanobu Nushi.


¹ This doesn't mean you should focus on the closest object in every photo. For instance, if you are shooting portraits, you'll usually focus on the eyes, even if it means that the nose will be slightly out of focus at 𝑓/1.8.

  • More aperture? That's interesting... I was considering using less, so there's fewer bits out of focus. I think your comment about foreground blur vs background blur is insightful though. – MathematicalOrchid Nov 21 '16 at 12:03
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    Also, I have totally done the thing where the entire frame is just full of flowers. In my head, it seems like it'll look like an endless array of wonderful flowers... In reality, it just looks a bit of a mess. – MathematicalOrchid Nov 21 '16 at 12:21
  • @MathematicalOrchid, an entire frame full of flowers can work, it just usually doesn't. – Mark Nov 22 '16 at 0:11
  • @MathematicalOrchid: All in focus flowers could work if the flowers are part of the scene, just like the very last photo in my answer. However if the whole scene is just flowers, it would rarely be interesting. – Arseni Mourzenko Nov 22 '16 at 0:29
  • Even your bad shots are pretty good. – tjt263 Nov 23 '16 at 20:08
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And today it's a bright, sunny day, the sky is a brilliant blue, and there's not a cloud in sight.

One tricked I picked up along the way is an overcast sky can be the best situation for capturing the range of colors that flowers display.

With directly overhead, bright sunlight, you get strong highlights and shadows, making it harder to capture a range of colors. When it's overcast, the sky acts as a giant softbox, giving you a tighter, more subtle range.

http://digital-photography-school.com/8-tips-for-photographing-wildflowers/

  1. Wait for an overcast or cloudy day

Direct sunlight will cast harsh shadows and create bright highlights on wildflowers, causing a disaster for exposure.

So, the best time to photograph wildflowers is on an overcast day, because the clouds act as the perfect light diffuser: creating the most perfectly balanced light you can get.

If you can’t wait for an overcast day, cloudy days are good too: just wait for a cloud to cover the sun before taking your shot.

To get the softly diffused light in this photo, I waited for an overcast sky. (Photo by Steve Berardi)

  • I've heard this "cloudy sky is the perfect lightbox" before... But whenever I take photos on a cloudy day, the pictures all look grey and miserable. Even in the picture you posted, the colours are all very dull and unimpressive, and the background is flat green. Maybe it's just a bad example picture, but I don't find it especially striking. – MathematicalOrchid Nov 24 '16 at 13:00
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You had bright sky as background against the flowers. And you did not isolate flowers too. Isolate the flowers. Use lens at longer end. Keep aperture number low. Bokeh gives that special look to the flowers. Well lit flowers and a dark background works like a charm.

You need a bit of post processing too. Specially the Vibrancy part which will make weak colors stronger without saturating the existing strong ones.

Never knew that cherry flowers can be yellow too. Maybe I went overboard in post processing.

enter image description here

2

Photographing flowers is no different than photographing anything else.

Without a clear subject, your photographs will be rubbish.

Assuming you already know how to compose a good photograph, just apply those principles that you already know:

  • Lighting
  • Location in the frame (e.g. rule of 3rds or harmonious triangles)
  • Focus
  • Background

Those rules don't magically go out the window because you're photographing a plant and not people (or a building).

Look at your flower and decide what your subject should be. Is it this bloom, or that bloom? Do you want to show the whole plant? Or just a branch? If your lens can focus/zoom for macro, maybe you want the subject to be the stamen or a drop of water.

Now that you've got your subject, how do you want to compose it? If you want it minimal, see if you can move around so you've got the blue sky as a background. If you want to focus on a single flower in a bunch, you're going to need a wide open aperture. Keep going. Wider. There you go!

Maybe you want to frame your flowery subject. Or maybe you want to use the flowers to frame something else. If you have a tripod you can easily use yourself as a prop. Even if not, you can still probably hold the flower or a branch in a way that makes for a pleasing composition. (You can even do this without being in the shot. Plants are flexible - if the composition is just slightly off, you can totally fix it!)

Above all, just be thoughtful. Don't get so excited that here's such a gorgeous flower and let me spray and pray. Take a minute and plan the photograph that you actually want to capture - then go get it.

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