Use extension tubes
Getting beautiful portraits of individual flowers, leaves, or other plants means getting close. Very close. So close that you might be wanting to work beyond the minimum focusing distance your lens allows, and you’re moving into the realm of macro photography. But you don’t have to break the bank buying new macro lenses. You can accomplish the same overall look by using extension tubes and your existing lenses.
An extension tube is a hollow ring that sits between your camera and your lens, moving the glass farther from the sensor. This let’s you get closer to your subject while maintaining focus and great image quality. They’re also a fraction of the cost of a new macro lens.
My favorite combo is my nifty 50mm f/1.4 and EF 12 II. This is a great pairing for a light-weight, simple set-up that gives me tack sharp images. The portrait of the hairy cat’s-ear flowers was shot with this combo. You can try different extension tubes with different lenses to find an ideal combo for your style.
2. Environment portraits
Use a wide-angle Lens
Most of the time less is more. But sometimes, more is much more – and that’s the case with environment portraits! Try getting creative with wide-angle lenses that allow you to capture not just the subject but it’s habitat as well.
This is a great approach that works for any size subject, from small mushrooms to larger ferns. Incorporating more of the scene gives people a sense of place when they’re looking at the image and helps them to imagine being there in that location.
It also an excellent strategy for capturing story-telling images of plants where including that context is important. That might be a unique growing site, or maybe an interesting symbiotic relationship with neighboring plants.
When taking this approach to creative plant photography, I use either a 16-35mm lens at the wide end, or I use a 15mm diagonal fisheye. There’s more distortion to manage with the fisheye, but it’s a truly excellent tool. Both of the images below were captured using it.
3. Add drama with light
Use backlight, flash, and diffusers
Light is your most powerful tool in photography. After all, the word photography means “light drawing”. So why not use light to its fullest potential?
The first thing I love to do is play with backlight. Angling myself so the sun is behind my subject, I play with settings until I get a great outcome. With this skunk cabbage portrait, I positioned the sun so it was cutting through the conifer trees behind the skunk cabbage. By setting my camera for f/20 or f/22, I could get that great starburst from the sun as it peeked out from the tree. It adds that much-needed element of interest to what would be a pretty boring photo.
The best part about flower photography is you’re usually working on a scale small enough that you can make the most out of even the most harsh light. If you’re photographing in mid-day, you can ensure your colors pop and your shadows aren’t too harsh by using a diffuser. Or, you can use fill flash. Use one, or even two, flashes, and set them up with a shutter release cable or wireless remote trigger. Play with positioning them above, to the side, behind, or anywhere around the flower that creates some interesting drama.
Check out the two images of the Pacific bleeding heart flower below. The image on the right is natural light only. The image on the left includes a tiny bit of light from a flash set nearly behind the flowers. The light adds wonderful dimensionality, color and texture to the image. Flash is certainly worth bringing into your plant photography tool kit.
4. Create simplicity with depth of field
Adjust your aperture to isolate your subject
If you’re struggling with a cluttered background and want your subject to stand out from the rest of the greenery, the simple act of adjusting your aperture can make a huge difference. The lower the f-stop number, the smoother the background and the more you isolate your subject and make it POP.
Remember that the closer you get to your subject, the narrower that depth of field gets. So depending on your f-stop and where you place your lens in proximity to the flower, you might be isolating not just the flower from the background, but even a single petal or stamen from the flower as a whole. This strategy lends the opportunity to get emotive or even abstract images from common garden flowers.
5. Change your angle
Get a bird’s eye and a bug’s eye view
One of the most overlooked yet easiest creative approaches is changing your angle. It’s intuitive to take a photo of a plant from the angle you normally see it at standing height. Even if you kneel to get closer, you might maintain that same angle.
Try getting directly above the plant at a distance for a bird’s eye view, or get way low – even under the plant – for a unique bug’s eye view. You never know what details and patterns you’ll discover by changing things up!