Spring at last! After a long winter, spring announces its arrival with one of nature’s most spectacular displays – the blooming of tulips. There are over 3,000 registered varieties of tulips, and those are divided into 15 groups based on the shape, size and blooming time. Although Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands has long been on my bucket list of destinations to photograph tulips, there are many festivals across the United States with beautiful displays. From Albany, New York on the east coast to Skagit Valley, Washington on the west coast, Michigan, Kansas and Iowa all hold tulip festivals. Many major botanical gardens have spectacular displays of tulips, as well. Tulip bulbs are planted in fall before the first frost and their bloom schedule in the spring is totally up to Mother Nature. Typically, tulips bloom between early-to-mid-April and mid-May, but each season and each region can vary due to weather. Some tulip festival websites have “tulip trackers,” where you can check to see the progress of the blooms.
Let’s explore some ideas on how to successfully capture the beauty of spring tulips. Keep in mind that many of the principles discussed here can be applied to photographing any flower. Spring brings us many beautiful varieties of flowers and the weather to finally be outside photographing them.
A macro lens, such as 100mm macro or 180mm macro, is important to help you get close to your subject. A longer focal length zoom, such as a 70-200mm, will help you capture tulips set back in gardens and the added compression of the longer focal length will help blur backgrounds more effectively. Creative lenses such as Lensbaby lenses are perfect for capturing the beauty of a tulip in a more artistic way. A diffuser and reflector are necessary pieces of equipment for any flower photography to control light. The diffuser helps to soften harsher light and a reflector will help bounce light into darker areas of the flower. If a tripod helps you get good sharp images, by all means use it. A tripod with a tilting center column that allows you to get close to the ground is helpful when photographing flowers such as tulips. A Platypod is also a useful tool for getting up under the tulip and capturing low-growing varieties. Be prepared to be down on the ground when you photograph tulips.
Spring weather can be unpredictable and the frequency of wind and rain can discourage many from venturing out to photograph. Strong wind can make photographing flowers outside almost impossible, but don’t pass up a day with lighter wind. If you are patient, there are almost always lulls in the wind. Photograph in the early morning when wind tends to be calmer. Look for varieties of tulips that grow lower to the ground and aren’t as affected by wind. Don’t let a little rain discourage you either. Photographing tulips or any flower covered in raindrops adds beautiful textural interest.
Most flowers are best photographed in soft, diffuse light. When photographing tulips, I most often choose to work in this kind of light. Early morning light is ideal for tulips and you are often blessed with dew drops and less wind during spring mornings. When light is less than perfect or your only option is to photograph mid-day, a diffuser will help soften the harsh light. Backlighting tulips in strong light is the one exception to this softer light rule, however. Tulips are one of the rare exceptions in the flower world as they can also be beautifully photographed in stronger light, even full sun. Position yourself so that the sun is in front of you and filling the tulip with light. The tulip’s cup-like structure, overlapping petals and strong color make it perfect for capturing stronger light within the tulip and causing it to glow. Be careful of lens flare or sun spots reflecting off your lens. Always use a lens hood when shooting with backlight.
Photographing tulips up-close is the perfect opportunity to slow down and study your subjects more carefully. When you look at a tulip garden as a whole you see a sea of color. At first glance tulips may all look similar. Get down low and take a closer look. By taking the time to look closely at your subjects, you are likely to find the true jewels in the garden – those tulips with interesting details and hints of personality. You will discover that each tulip is unique, some with interesting curves, lines, textures or variations. If you are lucky you might find a tulip with an interesting twist or curl to the leaf, a graceful curve of the petal. Make those interesting details or more abstract elements the focal point of your composition.
Tulips can be captured in many different ways. Our first inclination might be to shoot down into the tulip to capture the inner pistil and stamens within the tulip. Don’t stop there – work your subject and photograph it in as many ways as you come up with. Tulips are beautiful from the side, from underneath or even behind a tulip bending toward the ground. You might start by photographing the whole flower and then move in closer and closer, filling the entire frame with the flower. Remember that you don’t need to include the whole flower in your composition. Your viewer will still perceive it as a tulip without the whole flower being in the frame. Moving in and emphasizing details within the flower can create an impactful image.
Just as you experiment with compositions, also experiment with aperture. Tulips are the perfect subject for experimenting with shooting using selective focus. Selective focus is used to bring the viewer’s eye to one area of an image. This is done by focusing on the part of the subject you want to emphasize or draw the eye to, and letting the rest fall into a beautiful blur. Selective focus requires a shallow depth of field or shooting in the lower/wider apertures (i.e. f/2-f/4). Focus on a curve within the tulip or a petal edge and let the rest fall dreamily out of focus. You might choose to photograph the tulip with a higher aperture to bring out more detail. Be aware that the higher your aperture, the more detail will appear in your background, as well. Choose an aperture that will get the essential parts of the tulip in focus but create a nice blurred background.
As with any flower or macro photography, pay special attention to your backgrounds. Position yourself to get the cleanest background possible, eliminating distracting spots of light or stems interfering with your composition. Look for darker foliage or colorful backgrounds and choose an aperture that will maintain a blurred background. Consider using a longer focal length lens – the added compression will help blur your background. Lensbaby lenses with their beautiful blur, will create stunning backgrounds. Capturing the colors of the tulip garden surrounding your subject can create a beautiful image. Get down low, choose a wider aperture and position yourself to get the many blurred colors of the garden in your frame.
Photographing tulips is a fun way to kick off the outdoor flower photography season and put your macro photography skills to work. After a long winter, it is exhilarating to be outside and to witness the emergence of spring. Take these tips and practice seeing flowers in a different, more abstract way and enjoy the beauty and color that nature has to offer. Always remember to play and experiment and try new ways of photographing your subjects. This is how we grow as photographers and discover new ways of seeing the world around us.