Photographing Spring Flowers
by: Etta Parker

Today I dug under the snow in our garden and there were the snowdrops. Then quite by accident I noticed the petasites pushing their heads towards the sun while still covered with snow. This is a sure indication that it is again time to look forward to putting our bodies through the various obscene contortions required to photograph beautiful spring flowers. Let's head out!

Finding a subject

We would have a hard time not finding wildflowers in Nova Scotia. It's impossible to miss them! However, if you have trouble finding a particular flower and the time it blooms, contact nature organizations, (especially the Wild Flora Societ y), park naturalists if in a park, consult Roland's Flora of Nova Scotia or rely on field guides that tell where and when flowers you are interested in are blooming. (Note: Most field books are written in another part of Canada or U.S. and the blooming time might vary slightly.)

O.K., we've found a subject, let's say we are in a patch of Dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). My reaction in the past has always been to rush like the devil to set up and start shooting as if the flower was going to fly away. This ti me we won't panic, we'll leave the camera in the bag or take one to look through, take our time and walk around the patch looking for the angle that interests us the most and then we will set up the tripod and camera. Surprisingly, we'll find the flower is still there waiting for us to expose its beauty. Now many a time I've walked around gingerly in a field of flowers searching for the prime composition, only to realize that I couldn't remember where I was when I saw the subject I wanted again. This t ime we'll carry plastic garden markers, or something that works equally well, and mark the ones we think we want to go back to. We'll make several images; some in groups of three or five showing some of the environment in which our subject grows, and several close-ups. Note: We will, of course, pick up all of the markers before we leave the area.


We've found the perfect subject but a few light pine needles on top of the petals loom out at us, and those sticks and dead leaves on the ground are light in color. These would be very distracting in our picture, so we must do some "gardening". Tweezers will be the best thing to pick those off with. Oh yes, and we will be very careful not to destroy any living thing while doing this gardening. We will try to cause as little impact on the area as possible. It is difficult not to flatten the sur rounding vegetation and other flowers since we will many times have to lie in a prone position when photographing low growing plants. This is especially applicable when photographing the rare plants. The Yellow lady slippers (Cypripeduim calceolus), Ramsheads (C. arietinum) and the Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) have all suffered as a result of too much traffic from photographers, and those who dug them up to plant in their garden, or to take a nice bunch home to grandma. These plants are rare and require many years to reach maturity.

There are many that do not condone the picking of wildflowers anywhere, and in some areas it is illegal. Let's leave them for others to enjoy.


We'll work with simple equipment.


We can't do good close up photography without a stable camera support. Our tripod should have the capability to go low to the ground, have a reversing center pole, or we can buy an attachment to fit on the tripod leg. We could use a bean bag in a pinch.

Cable release

We should have a cable release in order to prevent camera shake when shooting. Better check to see that the cable release is not hanging over your lens when shooting. Does not look great in the finished product. We probably should tie something brightly colored on it, because all too frequently it gets left behind.


Any SLR (Single Lens Reflex) 35mm camera will work fine.


We will need a macro lens for doing close up flower photography. I am using my 55 mm lens, an old one but it has a 1:1 (life size) reproduction ratio. The only problem we'll have with the shorter lens is that we will have to be extremely clos e to the subject, and knocking the subject to pieces has been known to happen. Many prefer longer macros (100mm, or even 200mm) to avoid this problem. however, the longer lens I'm also going to use is my 70-200mm lens, which gives a 1:4 ratio, and I'll probably pack my 35-70 wide-angle lens as well. With these three lenses we are ready to take close ups, even just the flower pistil and stamens if we choose. We can also take some group shots showing the subjects environment, or zoom in on a few flowers in a large patch with our 70-200. Both macro and telephoto lenses provide large images, macros do this by focusing closer, while telephotos do this by magnifying or decreasing the angle of view. Telephoto lenses compress or shorten perspective, while lenses shorter than 50mm exaggerate it.

Extension tubes

We'll throw an extension tube in our pack. It is a rigid spacer with no glass placed between the lens and the camera, and increases image size. They can be purchased in different lengths and can be added together for super close ups.


I'll bring a roll of tin foil. We can crumple up sheets of it and simply lay a piece next to the area we want to reflect light back into, such as the dark area of a stem. We can crumple some tinfoil and stick it on a sheet of cardboard, or we can use old pant hanger wires to hold the tin foil and stick it in the ground. A space blanket can also be used or pieces from it. To soften existing light even more we can use a gold piece of foil. We could bring a white umbrella but my experience has b een that I usually am running over hill and dale trying to catch it when the wind was blowing. It does, however, work well when in a calm shooting situation low to the ground.

Gray card

Who has a gray card? A gray card has an 18% (medium grey) reflectance value, which all light meters, regardless of type, are set to think they "see". Our subject may be brighter or darker than this "middle of the road" tone. Point the camera at it, set the aperture, and let's bracket a few stops each way, just to be sure.


I am never happy with full flash on nature subjects, as most times the subject looks kind of "waxy". But, we'll take a small flash to fill in dark areas, if we can't position the tin foil to fill in the area to suit us.

Non-photographic items we might need

Of course we'll need a day backpack, better put in a light rainsuit (it is Nova Scotia), and bring insect repellent for the provincial insects that love to consume us while we are working. Sunscreen would be nice to have if the blazing sun happe ns to come out, a pocket- knife with scissors, small pieces of string. Don't cut that twig off, if it's in your way, tie it back with a piece of string. Be careful now, don't cut into the stem, and please release the twig before leaving. A wildflower g uidebook, notebook and pencil in case we want to know and record what we are photographing.

If we are going into back country to do photography we should include some additional gear such as a few sticks of fire starter, a map and compass (know how to use them), as well as extra food and water. In short, based on the type of trip and terrain we'll be going into, we'll think of the worst thing that could happen, and be ready for it.

Diffusion tent

Let's take a diffusion tent so we can work on bright sunny days and in light wind. We could send away and get a commercial one for around $50.00 U.S. Since we're all broke or cheapskates, let's make our own before we go. We can use either old pu p tent poles, or insulation pipe, forming them into a dome shape and laying translucent plastic over the dome. We'll hold the ends of the plastic down with materials found in the area where we are working. Hope no one saw me stick those tent pegs in to use as a last resort!

When I first decided on using a diffusion tent I didn't know if I was supposed to get inside it and shoot out, or put it over the subject and shoot in, or if we both should be in the tent. All approaches work well as long as the plastic is between the subject and the sun, there are no shadows, and the plastic or tent pole doesn't get included in the background. Yes, we could hang the plastic between two trees like a sheet to break the wind or diffuse the bright sun. The plastic reduces contrast by sc attering the light and completely covers the working area to keep out light wind, it also will keep us dry if it's raining, and we like rain for wildflowers but we don't like getting wet.


We'll try to go on overcast, light rainy days, or a day with a hazy sky, and we'll use the famous crumpled tin foil to improve color rendition and shadow detail on our subject. Also, I am taking a small frame with translucent plastic stretched over it to place between the light and the subject. Works well if we don©–t want to set up the diffusion tent. Darn, everything is looking good but I need to simplify the visual strength of the background. Hey, Fred, stand over here a minute and cast a shadow on that area, will ya? Hey, that's better. Thanks. I could have used a hat but I didn©–t have one.

Depth of field focusing

Depth of field is extremely shallow in close up work. The most depth of field is reached by using the smallest aperture. (f22 /f32). Depth of field increases as aperture size decreases (the numbers grow larger). Depth of field doubles every two s tops the aperture is closed down, eg. From f/11 to f/22. Most cameras have a depth of field preview button. Close down (put aperture at a larger number, say f22) then press the depth of field preview button and you can see the areas that are sharp in all zones. If it looks good, shoot!

Here we are in a field of daisies and someone wants a portrait of one group of flowers. She wants the foreground flower to be in focus. Yep, that's right, hold down the depth of field preview button and focus. No, no, don't reposition that subject an d refocus because it looks soft and out of focus when you release the preview button. Wow, that was close, she almost ruined a good shot. The depth of field will extend, say, from the 2-foot mark to infinity at f22, but remember that you're actually loo king through an f2.8 aperature until you release the shutter.


Everybody's writing down what they are doing. Sally is simply jotting down f/stops and shutter speeds while John is writing down everything -including how he feels when he took that orchid. I'm writing down a number on a piece of paper to photograph so that when I get the film back it will be recorded right on the first slide I get back, so I won't be able to lose it before I'm sorting my slides.

Well, it's been a great day, starting to rain a little harder now, but that's o.k. we're all finished. Let's get our gear together so we will be ready to photograph the beautiful blooms that make our land so colorful at the next opportunity.

Nova Scotia Wild Flora Society