Groundhog Day never made much sense to me. I can never remember what it means if the groundhog sees its shadow. It’s snowdrops and crocuses that are, for me, the most reliable signs that the season of Spring is getting closer. My heart sings when I see the purple hues of crocuses just barely breaking through a layer of snow. Yes, even after a long, cold winter spent cooped up in my house, the world will soon be filled with vibrant flowers and fragrance hanging in the air. It is at this time of the year that I look forward to pursuing outdoor flower photography in my own back yard. I am completely in awe of the effect such dainty flowers have on my mood. It’s like a gloomy curtain is lifted; the anticipation of spring brightens my outlook on life.
I think many of us are looking forward to the first warm, fresh days of 2021 and the return of life in the Spring. There’s a reason so many religions and cultures celebrate the season! Let’s celebrate by making snow drops and crocuses the subject of our flower photography. They are just 2 to 4 inches in height and are challenging to photography. Here are some of my best tips for photographing these flowers in your own back yard.
Flower Photography Equipment
Snowdrops and Crocuses aren’t rare, hard to find subjects. If you don’t have them growing in your own backyard, look in your neighbors’ gardens or along local woodland paths in North America and you should find some. Nonetheless, make sure to dress in layers and wear good shoes while you’re out. March and April can get cold and muddy, so I bring kneeling pads and a yoga mat for getting down low to the ground. Even a trash bag will do in a pinch. I am not afraid to get my clothes or myself dirty, but a little extra cushioning never hurts.
Flower photography requires us to get close to our subject, so I always carry my go-to macro photography lens. A minimum focal distance of less than six inches give me an ideal depth of field that I am looking for. Each lens reflects and refracts light in its own way, and I use this effect strategically to produce bokeh – evocative, abstract effects – in my flower photography compositions. I like to pack a few vintage lenses like the Helios 44-2 and Helios 44-5 for my bokeh experiments when I am out photographing flowers.
A 12-inch reflector and a diffuser are constant companions, as well as a small light like the Lume cube for any supplemental lighting. Small subjects like these that are so close to the ground may be shaded or need a little extra help to shine in your photos. So make sure to bring these along.
Stabilizing accessories help ensure that a windy day won’t ruin your crocus and snowdrop shoots. It is much more fun when the subject isn’t blowing away in a stiff breeze. A plamp, for example, is an articulating arm with clamps on both ends that anchors to a tripod leg and helps keep your subject steady. I would suggest also carrying a small spray bottle filled with water. This will allow you to add moisture to create interesting effects for your flower photography as seen in the photo below:
I do not use a tripod for crocuses and snowdrops because it’s a pain to adjust the tripod to 2 to 3 inches above the ground. Hand-held shooting is better here. If you are working in low light conditions, however, use a beanbag, gorilla pod or a platypod to stabilize your camera. This helps reduce noise, by keeping your ISO setting low especially when working at faster shutter speeds.
Get as low as you can go to get best flower photography composition for snow drops and crocuses. Lower! This is where your yoga mat or a waterproof jacket is crucial. These small plants look great close up, at ground level, so embrace the wet Spring weather and get a little muddy.
In the image above you can see how small these crocuses are. This image was taken with higher perspective to illustrate a point: if you don’t get down to the ground and change your point of view, all you get are snapshots.
How close should you get? As close as you can, I say. My favorite crocus and snowdrop shots show off every fine detail of the petite leaves and stems. This really depends on your vision for your flower photography composition. Do you want to showcase the background, what do is add? Or do you really just want to see the flower? The closer you can get, the more intimate a portrait you’ll produce.
Above flower photos where captured using a macro photography lens and get to close to the flowers and isolate one bud or flower. I then used the sun to light the scene and a shallow depth of field to create a pleasing blur. In this case, I am shooting through the grass so you see nice blur in both background and foreground.
Light for Flower Photography
Bright spring sunshine is great for a walk but be mindful that it may cause burnt-out highlights in your photos. I prefer hazy Spring sunshine for photographing flowers because it creates awesome backlighting on the pale petals of crocuses and snowdrops. An overcast day creates even tones without the need for a diffuser. Here are the examples of what beautiful hazy light can do for your flower photography:
The small size of crocuses and snowdrops means that you can easily control the light around them, making them easy and forgiving to shoot. Your small light, portable reflector, and diffuser can help you create soft and moody lighting in most settings. If I want the best sunlight, however, I’d wait to shoot until after 3:00 PM for photographing flowers. The sun is warm and low on the horizon.
It is critical to find a good focal point, where viewers’ eyes can rest. It can be the base of the flower, the center, or the stamen. Auto focus is not your friend here, since you are working very close to the subject. Manual focus works best for closeup flower photography. Your depth of field is shallow at your widest aperture, so it’s important to decide exactly which part of the flower you want to be sharp. No, not all of the flower has to be in focus but you must be strategic about what you highlight and what you don’t. Use this as a chance to practice your manual focus skills. Live view and focus assist on your digital or mirrorless camera can also help you check that you’ve got it perfectly right.
If you fill the frame with a flower, there is no need to worry about the background. But if there is a background in your image, make sure it isn’t cluttered. Avoid bright colors in the background which can compete with the subject with a a very shallow depth of field. Consider also experimenting with ICM (intentional camera movement) in low light to create special effects to your flower photography. With a little controlled movement, a slight blur, or tracing of color, you can introduce a feeling of mystery.
Aperture and Depth of Field
If the background is messy, use a wide aperture like 3.5 to 5.6 to throw it out of focus and tighten up the flower photography composition.
I have a controversial take on ISO setting – I leave mine at 400 and I’m not afraid to bump it up if needed depending on the wind. This may be contrary to some professional photographers who are particular about using ISO 100. Just hear me out, though. It is easier to fix a noisy image than a blurry image. How many of your images are going to be printed? Are they going on a billboard? The answer is probably no – sharing online or smaller prints look fine at ISO 400. And so, on a windy spring day, I use ISO 400 to gain faster shutter speeds and create crisp flower photographs. Using Aperture Priority Mode and exposure compensation ensures that, even with aperture adjustments, the images are at the right exposure.
Vintage lenses like Helios and Pentacon have their own challenges, but the effort is worth it. I can get a these crazy swirly bokeh in the background.
It is time to celebrate spring, new life, and new flower photography projects! Crocuses and snowdrops are popping up everywhere where I am (New Jersey). Even for those of you farther north, these beautiful reminders of the year to come are on their way. Get up close and personal with some early spring flowers this week. They are a great way to practice your macro photography skills and celebrate the coming spring.