This article has been updated March 21, 2013 to include current product information.
As children, we all learned that April showers bring May flowers. As photographers, we know that this change of seasons presents the perfect opportunity to grab a camera and head outdoors to capture the first blooms of spring.
From the lowly but lovely dandelion to the exotic Bird of Paradise — and every type of blossom in between — flowers make beautiful subjects with unlimited creative possibilities. And you may not have to stray any farther than your backyard to find the perfect model for your lens. If you don’t have a yard to photograph, you can visit a local park, botanical garden or even the yard of a friend with nice flowers (with the latter’s permission, of course!).
But whether you photograph flowers rooted in the earth or arranged in a vase, the most interesting images are captured using close-up or macro techniques. Get up close to a flower with your camera and you can create an intimate portrait that reveals details that are otherwise invisible to the eye. Get even closer and the result may be a visual abstract that is both beautiful and intriguing. With that in mind, here are gear recommendations as well as some tips and tricks to help you get started taking your own stunning images of flowers.
You have a number of different choices in lenses when shooting close-ups of flowers, each with its own set of benefits (and possible drawbacks, depending on what you want to accomplish).
Macro lenses are, of course, ideal for capturing a flower’s fine details. In fact, many are designed to deliver 1x, or 1:1 (life size) magnification for the ultimate in close-ups. At life size magnification, macro lenses will project an image onto your camera's imaging sensor that's the same size as the actual subject being photographed. The maximum close-up magnification for macro lenses, as well as a lens' minimum focusing distance, is printed on the lens’ focus ring and can also be found in detailed product specs.
Although you may think that the terms "macro" and "telephoto" don’t fit, they do. In addition to "standard" focal length macro lenses, there are a number of telephoto macro lenses as well (such as Canon’s EF 180mm Macro and the superb EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens). Here’s perhaps the key point in evaluating the different focal lengths available in true macro lenses: the longer the focal length, the greater the working distance. This is the actual distance between the front-most part of the lens and subject, with the lens at a macro focus distance.
Two different macro lenses can each fill the frame with the same-size subject at 1:1 (life-size) magnification. With a 100mm macro lens, you’d be roughly six inches from the subject. Using the 180mm macro lens at its closest focus distance, you’ll get the same magnification (the flower would look the same size in the final image), but the front of the lens will be almost a foot from the subject — a potential benefit for nature shooters who want to photograph bees on flowers, or minimize the risk of casting a shadow on flowers they’re photographing.
Another great macro lens choice for users of APS-C sensor cameras (EOS 7D, EOS 20D~60D and all digital Rebel models) is Canon’s EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM macro lens. It’s significantly smaller and lighter than the 100mm or 180mm lenses mentioned above, super-sharp and focuses from infinity to full 1:1 (life-size) magnification. With the 1.6x "crop factor" of the APS-C size imaging sensor, the 60mm lens gives a field of view equivalent to what you’d see with a 100mm lens on a full-frame camera. Since the actual 60mm focal length is shorter than the aforementioned 100mm and 180mm lenses, the working distance at maximum magnification is shorter. At its minimum focus distance, the front of the EF-S 60mm lens is about 4 inches (10cm) from the subject.
If you don’t yet own a macro lens, no worries. You can still take beautiful close-ups of flowers with non-macro lenses. The standard zoom lens may be the ideal first place to look — lenses like Canon’s 24–105mm f/4L IS or EF-S 18–55mm can focus as close as roughly 1.5 feet (0.5m) or less, when set to their minimum focus distance. Objects nearest the camera at wide-angle zoom settings become disproportionately large at these close distances, giving them added visual emphasis. And, at telephoto zoom settings, these lenses can bring you surprisingly close to larger flowers, or to clusters of smaller ones.
The telephoto zoom lens you own now may work beautifully in photographing close-ups of flowers. Frequently-used lenses such as a 70-300mm, 70-200mm or 55-250mm can produce effective, frame-filling images when used at their longest focal lengths, and focused at or near their minimum focus distance. You won't get the true life-size, 1:1 magnification of a macro lens, but you can often fill the frame with a cluster of two or three typical-sized flowers. Their telephoto focal lengths will beautifully blur-out backgrounds, so focus carefully on one part of the subject so that it jumps out at the viewer. It’s important in any close-up shooting, all the more so with telephoto lenses, to critically focus on one part of the subject and be willing to let other areas in front and in back drift out of focus.
Flowers are a subject where your choice of lens aperture can often influence the look of your finished images. For broader views of entire areas of a garden, you’ll usually want the sharp, crisp look that comes with smaller apertures (higher f/numbers, such as f/11 or f/16). But don’t overlook the possibilities of getting in close with a wide-angle lens, deliberately picking a wide aperture (low f/number, like f/4 or f/5.6), to throw backgrounds out of focus. With telephoto images, a close-up shot with wide aperture can really change the look of your images and forces a viewer’s attention on just the area you’ve focused upon — but you’ve got to carefully put the sharpest focus on one part of the flower(s).
In ultra-close shots with macro lenses, most of the time, you’ll want small apertures to get reasonable sharpness from front to back of the flower. Shooting in Av (aperture-priority) mode and pre-setting the aperture you want is a direct way to get the effect you’re looking for, and still have the convenience of automatic exposure.
Speaking of exposure, when shooting light-colored flowers (or any light-colored subject), it’s possible for the camera’s metering system to be “fooled” and under-expose the scene a bit. If the first image on your LCD monitor looks a bit dark, use your camera’s Exposure Compensation (+/- control) to deliberately lighten the exposure and take another shot. There’s no “correct” compensation value to apply every time; you’ll need to experiment to see what works well in a given situation. While the LCD monitor is not 100% accurate, it will give you a good idea of how your exposure settings will look.
Since you’ll be shooting at high magnification, any slight movement of the camera (or the flower) may cause a blurry picture or make it difficult to lock in autofocus. To avoid these problems, consider a sturdy tripod whenever possible. Smaller, tabletop-type tripods may fit better in tight spaces, but check the specifications to make sure it’s sturdy enough to hold the weight and bulk of your camera and lens.
Positioning the lens close to a flower can be problematic, especially if you want to shoot straight down. Bending over to shoot may be the most logical first step but it will strain your back and the odd angle of your body will also make it more difficult to hold the camera steady. Some tripods have a reversible center column so you can position the camera face down near the flower.
For more serious macro enthusiasts, another option for angling the camera into a difficult position is to use a tripod macro arm. This accessory is essentially a metal bar that attaches to the tripod, allowing the camera to be placed close to the flower at various distances and angles. Not only will it save a lot of wear and tear on your back or your knees, but it will help avoid shadows that often occur when you’re standing above the flower while taking a picture. At unusual camera angles, the rotating vari-angle LCD monitor of some cameras, combined with Live View, can make a world of difference in easy composing and critical focusing.
Because focus is so critical with this type of photography, a focusing rail — another attachable tripod accessory — allows you to very precisely move the camera and a macro lens forward, back, left and right for fine-tuning the focus. In other words, rather than adjusting the focus on the lens, you move the camera back and forth until optimal focus is achieved. Focusing rails aren’t always used by macro shooters, but they become especially valuable when working at magnifications greater than life-size.
On a tripod, using Live View significantly helps to minimize camera shake when you fire the shutter. Another accessory to help minimize camera movement is a remote release. For EOS Rebel models and some mid-range SLRs, Canon’s single-pin Remote Switch RS-60E3 is available. And, for higher-end EOS cameras, either the Remote Switch RS-80N3 or the Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3 can be connected to the camera’s remote socket. Wireless remote controllers are also available for many EOS models, such as the RC-6 and RC-1 models.
Lighting close-up shots can be tricky so it’s important to pay particular attention to the type, intensity and angle of light regardless of whether you use natural or artificial light or a combination of the two.
If you plan to shoot outdoors in your garden, track the light throughout the day to see what time(s) offer the most pleasing conditions. Generally, early morning and late afternoon/early evening cast the sweetest golden light. Mid-day sunlight is often harsh, casting strong shadows and obliterating the flower’s fine details and gentle lines. If you want to shoot during the middle of the day, you can use a diffuser (usually a translucent piece of material stretched over a wire ring or frame) to soften the strong rays of the sun.
Shade and overcast skies also provide good macro shooting conditions, so don’t think that you have to search for a sunny spot or wait until the sun comes out to take pictures.
Artificial light from built-in or accessory flashes can be used to complement natural light and add some pop to the picture. As with sunlight, the goal here is to achieve smooth, soft lighting. You may want to cover the camera’s built-in flash with a translucent material (paper, cloth, etc.) to diffuse the light or bounce the output from a Speedlite (if you’re outdoors, get a friend to hold a piece of white foam core or reflector and angle the flash towards the board/reflector).
This is a perfect opportunity to try wireless flash, if you’ve got a speedlite like the 270EX II, 320EX, 430EX II, or higher-end unit that can function in “slave” mode. Some newer EOS models, like the EOS 60D, Rebel T4i and EOS 7D can use their built-in flash to trigger one or more slave units off-camera — a perfect way to get started with off-camera, wireless flash. Simply holding a speedlite off-camera can completely change the look of the lighting and the look of your pictures.
Special macro flash units such as Canon’s Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX and Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX are, as their names imply, designed specifically for macro shooting. Either can be directly attached to most Canon macro lenses. The Twin Lite set-up, which includes two small flashes and a bracket, is extremely versatile — you can angle the flashes and even adjust flash output on each separately. Some photographers prefer this type of directional lighting because it adds depth and texture to the image — unlike its sibling the Ring Lite, which delivers a more “flat” lighting effect.
The Ring Lite delivers a different look. Consisting of dual curved tubes, ring lights works well for soft and smooth lighting even when it is an inch or two from the flower. It can also be used for dramatic effects, too, by illuminating the flower and underexposing the background to black.
Whatever lighting option you choose, be sure to set your white balance to match the color temperature of the light you’re shooting under (i.e., Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Flash, etc.). Try setting a custom white balance before you shoot or, better yet, shoot in RAW (or RAW+ JPEG). You can always adjust the white balance—and other parameters—in post-processing.
Half (or even most) of the fun when shooting flowers is experimenting with composition. Try a variation of angles — straight down into the center of the flower, at the same level, or even angle the camera low to shoot up at a flower (this is especially interesting if your camera has a rotating, vari-angle LCD monitor).
Again, pay attention to the light. Shooting with the light coming in from the side or the back of the flower’s petals can add depth and interest to the composition.
Composition is key. Your primary subject, whether it’s a part of one flower or a wide view of a bed of flowers, needs to be prominent in the image. This doesn’t mean it should be dead-centered! The best pictures are often those with pleasingly off-center subjects. And remember, the viewer’s eye will always be attracted first to whatever is sharp in the scene, so put that focus on the critical part of your subject!
Another factor to consider is the background. Simple backgrounds work best since they won’t distract from the main subject. Although most macro lenses will blur the background whenever you focus close, you can also set the f/stop to a lower number to decrease depth-of-field until you get the look you want (many DSLRs have a depth-of-field preview button so you can see what the shot will look like). Of course, if you decrease the depth-of-field to blur the background, more of the flower will also be out of focus so your f/stop setting is, in part, a creative decision.
Check out some different Picture Styles on your EOS DSLR (you can also create your own settings or download additional Styles from the Canon web site). If you like bright and vivid colors, try pumping up camera’s saturation level or try shooting in black and white or sepia for a different approach.
To add a little something special, spritz the flower with water and use the droplet(s) as your focus point. Of course, nature often creates the same effect when it rains but the do-it-yourself version gives you more control. These ideas should be more than enough to get you started on your adventures in close-up flower photography. Remember to experiment and have fun — soon you’ll have a collection of images that you’ll be proud to display at home or on the Web.
The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.