Tips From a Pro: Harold Davis on Getting Better Flower Photos

They're beautiful, cheap, and don't require a model release

harold davis pro flowers main
harold davis pro flowers main

Flowers are one of the most photographed subjects on the planet, which makes taking a compelling photo of them that much more difficult. Experienced pro, Harold Davis shared a few strategies with us about getting the best out of your floral photos. For more, you can check out his book, Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds With Harold Davis from Focal Press.

Some people will say that flower photographs of just about any kind have become a cliche. How do you respond to them?

Flowers show more variety of form, shape, color, and texture than almost any other subject you can imagine. There's no reason what so ever that when you photograph flowers that they have to be cliches if you think creatively.

What are some methods you use to make flowers look interesting?

One of the most delicious things about flowers from a photographer's point of view is the translucency of the petals of many species. Instead of lighting it from the front, you can look for backlighting. You can get this outdoors by getting down on the ground and shooting up through them or you can put a setting or rising sun behind the flower. I'll also often use a lightbox and sit the flower on it.

Can you walk us through your typical set-up when shooting on a light box?

Let's say I have a light box set up vertically and a flower clamped in place in front of it. Normally, I'll have a really simple light set up with a single light source in front to balance the back lighting. I like to use daylight if I can, sometimes augmented with a gold metallic reflector to add some warmth. You don't need to get very high-tech.

If daylight isn't available, what kind of lighting rig do you prefer?

I have the nikon Macro flash lighting kit, so sometimes I use that. Other times I'll sync up a few small flashes with a wireless Commander and light it that way. Generally, though, I prefer to use continuous light. It helps to be able to see what you're doing and they're never in motion so there's no real discernible advantage.

You can really use shadows to emphasize the shapes in a flower. The internal shapes of things like the stamen and pistols are very graceful. If you get them close to a light source, you can add the shadows to the actual curves of the flowers themselves.

A good portion of your work is done with macro gear. Why are flowers such a good subject from up close?

When you get in close to a flower, it looks very different than it does from far away, which is why flower macros can be very interesting. You have shapes that people don't see with their normal eye.

What are some common hurdles people encounter when getting into floral macros?

At my workshops, a lot of people ask me, "Do I need to buy an expensive macro lens to get good close-up shots?" The answers no, you don't. You can get a set of extension tubes for a very affordable price. They're hollow tubes that go between the lens and the body. They let you get pretty close. You can also use close-up filters, which can be quite good if you get the right ones.

One of the biggest problems with shooting flower macros is that you'll often get in your own way. The lens will get reflected by the flower, or you'll get between the light source and the flower, or you'll get pollen on your lens. What often works well is to use a telephoto macro. Something in the 85-200mm range.

How do you deal with the extremely narrow depth of field to macro photography?

You want to use a tripod. A lot of my workshop students seem to be afraid of it for some reason, but it's crucial. You want to end up with the focal plane as parallel as possible to the subject matter. It's amazing how slight variations in camera position can have huge impact on overall apparent sharpness. You have to make those decisions very consciously.

Can you run us through some common camera settings when shooting flower macros?

I would encourage people to use manual exposure mode for this kind of photography. The light can be variable, so God knows what you'll get if you put it on program automatic. If you put it on aperture priority and stop it way down, you're going to get an average reading and that may not be what you want for a creative exposure. But, you want to be at your smallest aperture for maximum depth of field and then manually bracket using shutter speed.

Have you studied any traditional flower arrangement techniques? If so, has that knowledge help improve your photos?

I have studied a bit of Japanese flower arrangement and that's usually where I tell people to look if they're trying to find inspiration in that way. Their methods of arrangement are complex and extremely beautiful. I also suggest people take a look at the expressionist paintings of flowers. If you're trying to make great images, you shouldn't restrict yourself to looking at just photography. Impressionists like Claude Monet and expressionists like Emil Nolde make huge use of complimentary colors. In arranging flowers for photography, it's worth going back and taking a look at the old color wheel. If you're shooting a red flower and you want to make a great background, blue would be a good choice for that.

Do you need to go to an expensive florist to get your subjects?

Honestly, I've found that many of the flowers I get from places like Trader Joe's or even Costco to be just as good when it comes to photography as the ones you get from an expensive florist. You have to look them over carefully, though, unless you want to spend a lot of time fixing things up in Photoshop.

What are some good flowers to get started with?

Calla lilies are wonderful because they have an incredible shape. Roses are hard to beat and around Mother's Day there should be plenty of them around to experiment with. The spirality in the center can be just fascinating. I also love shooting poppies, but they're difficult to photograph.

Why?

You're not really going to get a poppy that great for photography at a florist. They don't last as cut flowers and they die to quickly. If you really want to shoot them right, kind of have to grow them. It's extra work, but it makes the whole thing that much more rewarding.

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