Flowers are popular subjects for macro photographers, especially when the photographer is new and just learning about color and shape, light and shadow. I was no different when I was a beginner. As an avid gardener, my first passion gave rise to my second: flower photography. I wanted to document the flowers in my garden, which, at the time, included eighty varieties of roses and twenty different varieties of clematis, among others.
As I practiced, my photography skills improved and I learned how to enhance images in post-processing. But I found I was still limited by factors I couldn’t really control, such as weather. Just try and get a tack-sharp focus on a windy day. There’s not much you can do to fix lighting issues on a dreary, rainy day. And it can be hard to get the right angle on a flower whose stem is still attached to its roots.
To overcome this, I would bring my flowers indoors and with the use of a light box, I could create arrangements that helped me elevate my pretty garden snapshots to beautiful fine art.
Choosing and Arranging Your Flowers
Choosing the right kind of flowers and arranging them properly is very important when photographing flowers to highlight their translucency. Look for flowers with petals that allow light to shine through in order to make the most of the backlight. In my experience, the best kinds of flowers for this are calla lilies, tulips, daffodils, peonies, magnolias, poppies, irises, dogwood, cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, and alstroemeria, among others.
Consider other kinds of subject matter that allows for translucency, too. Vegetables, insects, glassware, cellophane, leaves, and the like can make for some really interesting images.
I suggest starting with photographing single flower, then small arrangements (2 or 3), and slowly graduate to arranging 15 to 20 or as many as you can fit on the photo light box.
When you are finished with the flowers, you can use the petals to come up with some interesting photography compositions such as these ones:
Flower photography composition is one of the most important elements of any genre of photography. In photo light box photography, there are different approaches one can adapt. An eastern flower arrangement style, such as Ikebana, focuses on simplicity and emphasizes lines and form. A western-style, however, shows an abundant use of flowers as a mass. My style lies somewhere in between these two. I tend to use as many flowers as possible, but I pay attention to the spacing between the subjects.
Give some thought to what kind of arrangements please you. Start with a rough sketch on a piece of paper. For me, arranging flowers becomes spiritual and meditative. I found that it becomes an internal, non-technical process. Express yourself in various arrangements using the same bunch of flowers. What is your vision? How will you build your images?
Preparing to Photograph
Select your flowers for the shoot and keep them in water until the last possible minute or use florist water tubes to keep them hydrated. Once you start arranging them on your light box, you must move quickly, otherwise they start wilting.
Mount your camera on your tripod with your lens parallel to the ground if you’re shooting overhead. Double-check all of your connectors to make sure they’re secure.
Here are a few tips for getting the flower arrangements correct:
- Slow down and practice the art of flower arrangement. You can find some great how-to videos on YouTube.
- Work your flowers at least 4-5 different ways.
- Learn how to auto-bracket in your camera and how to use exposure compensation.
- Don’t be afraid to use large amounts of empty space in your flower arrangements.
- The stems and leaves of the flowers are as important as the flowers themselves.
If you want to get the most out of your photo light box photography, it’s important to have a DSLR that shoots in RAW format. It’s not that it’s impossible to capture good photos using point and shoot or smart phones, especially if the images are only going to be published on social media.
Photo Light Box
A light box is any translucent surface lit from behind to create high contrast images. Early on I used an X-ray lightbox, but I could see the streaks of yellow in the frame which took a lot of post-processing work to correct. Because of this, it’s important to make sure that the light in the box is uniform from end to end.
The light box I use now is custom-built with daylight-balanced LED bulbs placed uniformly across the box. It’s 2 x 3 feet in size which is big enough to make elaborate arrangements.
You can set up your photo light box either vertically or horizontally, depending on your photography composition. You can buy a photo light box online or build one yourself.
Camera and Lenses
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera would do. I prefer to shoot with either Canon 6D or Sony A7r series. My preferred camera lenses are a Sony 50mm and a Sony 24-105mm for wider more elaborate arrangements. I also love my 90mm Sony macro photography lens. If you’re shooting from above, avoid long zoom lenses as lens creep becomes a problem.
You need a tripod that has a center column that can move in various angles. Other optional equipment includes extension tubes, macro add-on lenses, and a remote release. If you are short like me, a step stool would also be helpful.
Depending upon your photography composition, you may find that you need equipment to hold everything in place. For this reason, I frequently keep the following items handy and use them as needed: Kenzen (also called a metal frog), museum gel/putty, tape or cable ties, and some paper clips.
Because continuous light works best for backlight, daylight-balanced LEDs or natural light from a window may work best. Only use supplemental light if needed. When the flowers are back-lit and you try to light them from the front, you lose the effect of translucency. This creates high key flower images, so it’s important to learn the difference between shooting for high key vs shooting for translucency.
You don’t need to invest in a photo light box and a macro photography lens to specialize in this technique.
- You can use a soft box you already own as long as you have a continuous light source, like daylight-balanced LEDs.
- A large window or glass door can act as a photo light box when diffused by a translucent shower curtain. Simply place the flowers in a vase in front of the window. However, it is important to plan your shoot since the light may change throughout the day. For example, I have a large, south-facing sliding glass door and I know the perfect time photograph is around 3pm to 5pm in spring time to take advantage of the light pouring through the glass.
- While shooting in a greenhouse, you can successfully use the opaque glass panels as a source of light.
When I am working with a large arrangement of flowers, I always shoot for maximum DOF; I use no less than f8. But if I am working with a single flower, I use shallow DOF to create the ethereal look.
- On the tripod: ISO 100 to 200, f-stop 7.1 to 11, aperture priority mode (If you are comfortable with manual mode, go for it), matrix metering
- Handheld: ISO 400 to 800, f-stop 5.6 to 8, shutter speed manageable to avoid shaking, matrix metering
With your flowers arranged on or in front of the light box, shoot your first series of bracketed images (3 or 5). The first one should be +2 stop overexposed, the second at +1, the third at +3 stops. These settings are not written in stone. Use them as a baseline and tweak them as you see fit.
Your white background is rendered gray when you properly expose, so you must use exposure compensation. If you look at the histogram, most of the data should be towards the right half of the graph.
Post-Processing in Photoshop
You can combine your bracketed sequence to transparency in Photoshop, but leave out the last frame if it’s too washed out. In either Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, adjust the white balance, apply lens corrections, and remove chromatic aberrations. Then sync the settings with the rest of your bracketed sequence.
Open all of the bracketed images in Photoshop as layers. Starting with the lightest frame on the bottom and the darkest frame on top, select all the layers and auto-align them. Using layer masks, bring in the details of the flowers from the rest of the layers.
You can also experiment with color profiles and with different plugins like NIK Color Effex, Topaz Impressions, or Alien Skin’s Exposure 4. If you’re interested in textures, you can apply them at this point. When you’re ready to print, consider metallic paper for an especially luminescent final product.
For Outdoor Flower Photography
As nature photographers, I understand that shooting indoors may not be very appealing to many. You can still achieve similar results while shooting outdoors. Use the sky as a light box – the bright light behind the flowers shines through, revealing the translucency that you wouldn’t otherwise see.
Here are a few examples:
Now that you know the flower photography secrets of creating jaw-dropping artistic fine art photos, all you have to do is give it a go. Feel free to share you own tips and techniques in the comments below.