Flower Photography: How to Capture Stunning Waterlily Photos

Summer is here and, as a flower photographer, that means photographing some of the most beloved flowers – waterlilies and lotus flowers. They are a popular subject for those who enjoy flower photography and garden landscapes. I’ll share with you some tips on how to capture these stunning aquatic flowers. I am often asked, “what is the difference between a waterlily and a lotus?” Waterlilies and their leaves or pads grow close to the water, whereas lotus flowers and their leaves can grow to six feet in height. Waterlilies are abundant in aquatic ponds and the blooms last for a longer time, but lotus flowers might be a little harder to catch. Once they bloom, the flowers usually only last a day or two and a strong wind can send those delicate petals flying. The lotus is often distinguishable by its distinctive seed pod in the middle.

Flower Photography example of Lotus, Chicago Botanic Garden

Lotus, Chicago Botanic Garden | Lens: 70-300mm | Aperture: f/20


As with most flowers, it is important to photograph waterlilies and lotuses in soft, more subdued light. Bright sun will create harsh contrast and this is not flattering to any flower. Generally, most flowers are best photographed during the early morning or early evening in the summer to capture the most beautiful light. Most aquatic bloomers, however, don’t begin to open until mid-morning and they start to close up mid-afternoon. Your opportunity for capturing a fully open flower is when the light is highest and most intense. I recommend waiting to photograph these flowers on a day with some cloud cover. Bright overcast light is perfect light for photographing aquatic blooms. This light will intensify the color of the flowers and help keep backgrounds darker. There are some night-blooming waterlilies that are the exception to this bloom schedule, and these will begin to open a few hours before dark and continue to bloom through the next morning when they close up for the day.

You may ask “why not use a diffuser to soften the light?” By all means, use a diffuser for flowers that are close to the edge of an aquatic pond but most waterlilies and lotuses are going to be too far away to diffuse the light. You must rely on the clouds to act as your diffuser. If you have stronger light and you can’t wait for an overcast day, a polarizing filter will help control brighter light, but this is not my preferred way to photograph these flowers. Even on overcast days, a polarizer might be necessary to eliminate the glare on the waxy surfaces of the lily pads.

Flower Photography example of Night Blooming Waterlily, Longwood Gardens

Night Blooming Waterlily, Longwood Gardens | Lens: 70-300mm | Aperture: f/16


Lens Choice

My preferred lens for photographing aquatic blooms is a 70-300mm. Any longer focal length zoom will work. I am often zoomed to 300mm to get in as close as possible to capture details within the flower. For photographing flowers close to the edge, I might switch over to my 100mm macro or my 180mm macro. If close enough to my subject I love to create a softer image with my Lensbaby Velvet 85mm. A wider angle lens is preferred if you are capturing a larger view of an aquatic pond.

Flower Photography example with a Lensbaby Velvet 85mm Lens

Waterlily, Garfield Park Conservatory | Lensbaby Velvet 85mm | Aperture: f/4



I am often asked how I capture dark backgrounds in my water lily and lotus images. Shooting in overcast light will help control your backgrounds by eliminating the hot spots and reflections caused by harsher light. Positioning yourself will also make a difference. Before putting your camera on a tripod or pressing that shutter button, move around a bit looking through your viewfinder to see what angle/position creates the best, least distracting background. Cloning out roots or debris in the water may be necessary in post processing but positioning can often eliminate a lot of work later. The biggest factor in those nice backgrounds is the fact that most aquatic gardens add a harmless black dye to the water. The dye helps control algae growth and make the pond appear deeper and more aesthetically pleasing. It is a great bonus for photographers, as well. It darkens out root systems and pots below the surface and makes post processing much simpler. Another strategy I use when photographing aquatic flowers is to underexpose slightly to help further darken the water and bring out the intense color of the flowers.

Flower Photography of waterlily with its reflection

Waterlily and Reflection, Chicago Botanic Garden | Lens: 70-200mm | Aperture: f/13


Composition & Aperture

Play, experiment and try as many compositions and angles as you can come up with. You may find yourself close to the ground capturing the waterlily and reflection from the side, or you may be able to position yourself right over the lily to emphasize the pattern and symmetry of the flower. Including the beautiful patterned lily pads and reflections of the flower in the water make for a more interesting composition. Zooming in and giving a close-up view of the inner parts of the flowers can create an impactful and interesting composition. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees often linger around waterlilies and lotuses and, with luck, you might capture one in your image.  Experiment with aperture, as well. If my intent is to get the entire flower from front to back in focus, then I might be shooting at an aperture as high as f20. Other times I might use a lower aperture to achieve a softer, dreamer look or isolate details with the flower using selective focus. As with any flower, there is no right or wrong aperture to use – it all depends on your vision and what you are trying to convey in your image.

  • Selective Focus photo of waterlily

    Waterlily, Chicago Botanic Garden | Lens: 70-300mm | Aperture: f/5.6

  • Lotus, Chicago Botanic Garden, 70-300mm, f/20

    Lotus, Chicago Botanic Garden | Lens: 70-300mm | Aperture: f/20

  •  Waterlily, Chicago Botanic Garden, 70-300mm, f13

    Waterlily, Chicago Botanic Garden | Lens: 70-300mm | Aperture: f/13

Waterlilies and lotuses are a favorite subject for summer flower photography. Most botanic gardens have waterlily ponds or lakes where these flowers are abundant and easy to capture. Plan your visit for an overcast day, or better yet, try to catch the waterlilies right after a rain, covered with raindrops. Pack that longer zoom so you can get in close and capture the details of these beautiful flowers and, as always, experiment with compositions and apertures to create different effects.

About Author Anne Belmont

As a nature photographer specializing in flower photography, Anne’s passion lies in capturing the beauty of flowers and other botanical subjects up-close. It is the small, often unnoticed details that draw Anne to her subjects. It is her belief that if we slow down and look at nature in a more contemplative way, we will find subjects that convey impact and emotion, causing the eye to linger a little longer. A life-long involvement in the arts and a first career as an art therapist have shaped the way that she views art and the creative process and have reinforced her belief in the healing power of both art and nature in our lives.