14 Jun 2010 The Anatomy of a Flowerscape (Podcast 247)
In Episode #244 of this Podcast, I talked about a couple of recent trips to a local park here in Tokyo, where I’d one week found myself a little bit dry on the creative front, and then the following week, forced myself to go back to face my demons and reacquaint myself with my creative muse. I had been shooting Flowerscapes, a type of flower photograph that I named, and take pride in shooting.
Also last month, the MBP/WebSpy Photography Assignment theme was Flowerscapes, and I was quite surprised by the reaction to some of the members of the community over this theme. Some people really got it, and went out and got some great Flowerscape shots of their own. Other people didn’t really get it, and came back with basically flower close-up shots or macro images. Although many were very nice photographs, they were not what I would call Flowerscapes, so today, I figured I’d talk a little bit about how the Flowerscapes theme that I’ve been shooting for some five years now came about, and give a few more pointers on what I consider to be a good flowerscape image.
The History of Flowerscapes
So, first a bit about the history of Flowerscapes – although I’d been shooting Flowers for a number of year before this, I remember clearly the day the Flowerscape was born. It was May the 21st, 2005, five years and a day before my revisit to the Showa Memorial Park to face my demons a few weeks ago. It also just so turns out that five years and a day before that, I’d been in the same park, but it was a different field.
The park rotates what they plant in their fields every few years, and five years ago, the Corn Poppies were on the other side of the park, probably about a mile from my recent poppy images. I’d been doing some macro work, and I also went on to shoot with my 24mm Tilt/Shift lens, laying the focus plane down across the heads of the poppies to get each and every one of them in focus. In between these two types of shot though, I reached for my 100-400mm lens and shot image number 636, which you can see right now in the Enhanced Podcast or in iTunes, or on my Podcasts page or blog if you are at a computer.
I can still remember my excitement as I raised my then 20D camera to my eye with 100-400mm lens fitted and saw the beautiful red poppies, with the afternoon light filtering through the frail petals. This particular patch of poppies was partially shaded by a large tree, which explains why many of the poppy buds and some of the flower heads are dark. This was something else that I was to play with a lot more to this day, using shaded subjects with a bright background for effect, but we won’t go into that today.
One thing I had not yet gotten down in my technique was the shallow depth-of-field. I shot this scene at F8 – I was young and impressionable. Apart from that though, I’d fallen in love with the look. I was probably more excited about what I was seeing through the lens, because of course, unless I hit the Depth-of-Field preview button, the lens aperture would have been wide open, and I would have been treated to a much dreamier looking scene to the one I captured. Only by one stop mind, as this lens stops down to F5.6 at 400mm. This was the start of a love affair with Flowerscapes though, that gets me out on spring and summer, and autumn days, to this day, and hopefully for many years to come.
Fast forward by two and a half years, and I’d figured out that to shoot my Flowerscapes, I needed a wider aperture lens, and to keep the aperture open, as we can see in this image, which I called Cosmos Rhapsody. I didn’t get here in one fell swoop of course. As of May 2010 there are 84 images in my online gallery that are tagged with the Flowerscape keyword, and this image is the 61st out of that 84, so I’d uploaded 23 other flowerscapes before this. It was though another pivotal photo in the history of flowerscapes, and I certainly recall the excitement of looking through the 70-200mm F2.8, and seeing once again, the beautiful quality of late afternoon light, once again filtering through trees. I shot this wide open at F2.8, and it had the dreamy look that I wanted, helped actually by a little bit of flare as the sun hit the front element of the lens.
I’d learned to keep my eye on the edges of the frame more, and although in many flowerscapes you can’t always avoid cutting flowers off at the edge of the frame, you can make sure that the image has an overall balance and pleasing look to it, as I believe I achieved here.
Fast forward another six months, and I was back in my poppy haunt, the Showa Memorial Park, this time shooting what I believe are Icelandic poppies, and my favorite shot of all of these is one that is in my Flowerscapes Fine Art Print Folio, Poppy Heaven. This was shot with the 300mm F2.8 that I bought with one of the main purposes of shooting Flowerscapes in mind. I wanted to get further into a patch of flowers, when you can’t actually step further in. I’d fallen out of love with the 100-400mm since buying the 70-200mm F2.8, and even the 70-200 wasn’t performing as well as I’d like on the sharpness front, when used with the 1Ds Mark III, which is what I was now shooting with as my main camera.
The 300mm F2.8 lens had become my best friend, and is pretty much still my best friend today, although the new 70-200mm F2.8 version II is giving it a good run for its money, with it’s incredible sharpness. They are both F2.8 so I am really enjoying having the flexibility to get in there and frame my Flowerscapes how I want to. I do use other lenses, and I sometimes stick the the 1.4X Extender on them, for added flexibility, but these are probably my two main Flowerscape lenses now.
The Anatomy of a Flowerscape
In the Poppy Heaven image I’d really started to explore the idea of having just a huge expanse of vivid bokeh taking up the majority of the frame, with the flower subjects almost taking backstage, although of course the images wouldn’t stand up without the sharp main subjects. I shot this at F3.2, so the Depth-of-Field is tiny. Only the foreground white poppy on the left is totally sharp, but that’s OK, in my book. The idea is to make just a few, or sometimes only one flower swim in a sea of bokeh.
A Flowerscape doesn’t have to be just about the flowers. In September 2008, I shot a number of images where a dragonfly stopped by while I was shooting my Flowerscapes, and I just had to make him the star of the show for a few frames. This was shot with the 300mm F2.8 and the 1.4X Extender, so an effective focal length of 420mm at F4. See how I’ve been mindful of where all the elemsents around the edge of the frame fall? Scan the edges of the frame as you compose your shots, and move forward or back if you are using a prime lens, or zoom in or out to get the most balanced framing. LiveView can really help too, as it enables you to almost see the finished picture while you are shooting. It’s surprising how much easier it is to clean up your composition when you see the image on the LCD as compared to through the finder. You also see how the camera sees the scene too of course, as the dynamic range and color balance is all their on the LCD. Sometimes looking through the viewfinder doesn’t give you this feedback.
Things to Look Out For
One thing that I do a lot when scouting for Flowerscape images is look for subjects of contrasting color. Way back in Episode 31 I spoke about the use of Contrasting or Complimentary Colours. In that Podcast I talked about how colors opposite each other on the color wheel have the most contrast, and colors one third apart are also very complimentary. I’ll put a link to our color wheel in the show notes, but you can literally try this out for yourself. Select colors that are close to the ones in my recent image Lensbaby Blue, and you’ll find that they are one third apart on the color wheel. As the name implies, this was shot with a Lensbaby Composer. This one was one of the few images that I actually liked from my first recent visit to the poppy fields, when I wasn’t feeling very creative. Despite the Lensbaby being an excellent tool, I often find myself reaching for it when I need to mix things up a little bit creatively, as I did on this day.
A Flowerscape can be close to a Landscape photograph, as in my image Trees Company (below), from my most recent demon facing visit, where everything just seemed to flow and happen so naturally. Here the flowers don’t even take up half the screen, but it’s definitely still a flowerscape, because the flowers are such a major part of the shot. Without the vivid red across the bottom third to half of the image, it would be nothing at all. I actually did stop down a little for this shot though, to F5.6, as I wanted to give us some more detail in the tree, which was certainly a major contributor to the shot. The main thing to note though is that the depth-of-field is still shallow enough to give us separation between the tree and the background, and for the foreground poppies to go nicely out of focus.
I do like to go crazy with the bokeh though, and although this is not to everyone’s liking, I use foreground bokeh in my flowerscapes, with as much effect if not more than your standard background bokeh, as in this image, Wild Bokeh (right)! Here I positioned myself so that there were a number of poppy flower heads above the poppy horizon line, so they are hanging in the air like balls of fire. Of course, I aligned my main subject, the white poppy, again a contrast in color compared to the surrounding red poppies, so that it is viewed through a nicely balanced opening in the foreground bokeh.
Finally, we’re going to finish on my favorite image from my recent trip, and at this point in time, probably my favorite Flowerscape so far, called Lone White (below). This is one of those shots where I felt that everything came together perfectly. The lone white poppy is surrounded by a sea of red, with just enough green in the poppy buds and seed pods to add a splash of interest. As the breeze blew the poppy heads around, I waited for the red poppy in front of the white one to move almost completely out of the way, but just overlapping slightly. As I tried for this one I obviously shot a number of images, but this one with just a little teasing bit of overlap works best in my opinion.
There are some flower heads cut off on either side of the frame, but I chose to allow that to happen. I felt that the belt of sharpness worked well going right across the top third of the frame. Note too that I chose the height of my camera so that the dark horizon as the poppy field changed to trees, fell along the top of the frame. I feel this adds balance to the entire image, as do the greens in the bottom corners.
Things to Avoid
Although it can sometimes look at though the bright patches of color are overexposed, especially when they are out of focus and between two contrasting colors, try not to overexpose any of the color channels. Keep your eyes on the RGB Histogram. It can start to look really nasty if you don’t keep your image optimally exposed. By optimally, I don’t necessarily mean zero on your camera’s meter. I generally shoot in manual mode and rarely even look to see where the caret is on the meter scale. All I care about is that I am as close to the right shoulder as possible, for the brightest and most vivid colors, and yet I don’t want to be touching the right shoulder, with any of the channels.
Try not to use deep depth-of-field, unless you really need to. The F8 image that we looked at early was deeper than it should have been, and the F5.6 image that we looked at was only that deep to give us some detail in the leaves on the tree. Any more depth-of-field would have killed that shot. It’s always tempting to go deeper, and I used to bracket my apertures until I was confident that I was simply not using the deeper depth-of-field versions I was going home with.
Make sure you have a definite main subject or subjects. Flowerscapes where there is no color or subject contrast are not as strong as those that have something like the white flower against the sea of red that we just looked at. Even if it’s the same type of flowers, and the same color and everything, look for one that is taller than the others, and set the height of your tripod to accentuate that, or align it with the trunk of a tree or something. Just find a way to make something stand out and you’ll improve the shot no end.
At the end of the day though, the most important thing about this and any kind of photography, is to enjoy yourself. These few guidelines are just that, guidelines. There are no rules, and I am certainly making this up as I go along. The more I shoot Flowerscapes, the more I feel I am improving on them, but it’s still very much an open book. If you feel like giving it a bash yourself, knock yourself out.
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