Thinking Outside of the Box

Hi everyone.  Thank you for sticking with me.  I’m happy to be back and share one of my passions with you.  Today is going to be about photographing flowers and the practice of thinking “outside the box”.  One of the most common mistakes for those just getting into photography is photographing their subject in the center of the camera’s frame.  You see something pretty.  You look through the view finder.  The subject is in the center of the frame and you snap the picture.  There are some occasions where this might work but not often.  Not only will I harp on composition and the but also creative ways to shoot your subject.

http:// flower 1

The picture above (flower 1) has a soft dreamy look to it.  A peer of mine said to me at one time “it looks like a painting now…imagine how much more it would if it were on canvas!”.  Every time I go out and shoot I try to get my results in camera because I’m not a professional graphics artist.  My work with Light Room and Photo Shop is just basic enhancements right now.

The effect the I was able to achieve with the flower above is a mixture of having the right equipment and knowing how to maximize your camera’s settings.  For all of you who shoot with your camera phones…you’ll need to be really good with post production work to get this.  For everyone else (even those with point a shoot camera’s) this is obtainable.


So let’s start with everyone who’s using point and shoot camera’s.  Most point and shoot camera’s have a macro setting thus allowing you to get closer to your subject.  The problem here is (at least from my understanding), most of those camera’s macro capabilities work only at the wide end of the camera’s lens zoom range.  This will make it difficult to get enough of the foreground and background out of focus for this type of effect.  Don’t worry though because there is a way to get by this obstacle without doing a ton of post editing…use a close-up filter.

Hopefully your camera’s lens has front threads that allow you to use screw-on-filters (or you’ll have to hand hold the filter).  I have read reviews of some camera’s who’s lens has what appears to be threads but doesn’t take filters so you may want to check your camera’s manual to be sure.  The close-up filter’s only objective is to allow you to obtain focus at a closer distance.  Your lens and f-stop play a big roll in how much of the dreamy effect you get.

Okay.  So you went out and bought a set of close-up filters and now you’re ready to go and shoot.  Great!  One piece of equipment I find to be very important when it comes to this type of work is a tripod and remote release.  Most everyone has a tripod (whether you spent $50 or $2000) but many do not have remote releases. Good news is, if you camera is able to accept remote release, you can get one for less than $10.  If your camera doesn’t allow the use of one or you don’t have a store close enough, again don’t fear, you can use your camera’s self timer feature.  The remote (or self timer) is simply to eliminate as much camera vibration as possible.  If you have a light weight tripod then I would suggest finding away to use your camera bag as a hanging weight.  This will help with vibrations caused by the breeze.

Now you are at the door.  Everything’s in hand.  Don’t go out yet!  Take the time to get your camera out first and check your camera’s settings.  Make sure that you turn off your camera’s macro feature because you have the close-up filters.  I’m not saying you can’t use them at the same time, I just want you to become comfortable with just the filters first.    Most of the camera’s out now allow you to shoot manual, aperture priority, shutter priority or use programmed scene settings.  Of course there is auto but no…you will stop using auto from this point on.  Right?  Right!  While I prefer complete control (using the manual setting) I want to make this as simple as possible for you until you get more comfortable with your camera.  With that being said…set your camera to aperture priority.  Now set your aperture to it’s widest setting (hopefully that will be between (f/1.4 to f/5.6 depending on the focal length you are shooting at).  The lower the number the more of your foreground and background will be out of focus.  Now let’s go out!

http:// flower 3

Now that you are out “in the field” and your camera is set up for shooting, it’s time to start.  Remember when I had you set your f-stop (aperture) to it’s lowest number?  This is so you have a starting point.  When you shoot, you will start there and with each picture (of the same subject) you will adjust the f-stop upwards one stop at a time.  I suggest that your last shot is at f/8.  This way when you get it on your computer you’ll be able to compare them and see what “feels” right to you.  Shooting for that soft dreamy look is a part of the “outside the box” thinking I mentioned but you want to constantly find ways to add more “punch” or “uniqueness” to your flower pictures.  We often will look for the “perfect” flower but this is where you have to really begin to look at what’s around you.  What do you think would be more interesting?  A perfect flower or a flower that has one petal that is bent?  The flower that is a little imperfect has character and a story to tell if it could talk.

http:// flower 4 (example of finding something with character or uniqueness)

I mentioned in an earlier blog about composition (rule of thirds) and I will continue to do so in other blogs.  It’s one of those elements that helps you go from “snap shooter” to a “photographer”.  I won’t guarantee instant professionalism but you will begin to stand out from casual shooters.  In the example of the first flower picture my point of focus is the green top of the middle stem.  It is the only thing I want in focus.  You’ll notice how the base of the the subject starts off in the lower thirds (both horizontally and vertically) and the point of focus ends up just to the right of being dead center (horizontally) but it’s top is in the upper thirds (vertically).  This is working with the compositional “rules of thirds”.  The flower (or point of focus) is not in the center of the frame.  It is at a point that allows your eyes to be drawn to it.

Other ways of getting more out of this style (and let me say that this can work with any style) is to look for uniqueness within the scene.  Sometimes you may even have to create that “uniqueness” by trying different camera angles (see example of flower 3).  That’s the beauty and fun of digital photography though.  You can try things out and shoot as much as you want without spending extra money (on film).  Another great piece of equipment to use (if you can) is an external flash (not your built in flash) AND a white and a black mesh screen.  You understand the flash but why the mesh screen?  A mesh screen cut into a square large enough to be rubber banned over the front of your lens will create a foggy/misty look providing that the mesh holes are big enough for the lens to focus on your subject.  Just go to your local lenin store and look at the material that is used to make veils.  This is also a great trick for portraits!

Now this is for everyone out there (point and shooters and dslr users)…another filter that will help you get this effect (if you are struggling to get it) is the “soft focus” filter or the soft focus lens for dslr.  Depending on how much you are willing to spend the lens of course will produce better results than the filter (but not by much).  You’ll still want to practice with using the lower f-stop range but the soft focus filter will get you quicker results.  If you are wondering…no…I did not use one (soft focus filter) nor do I own one but I understand what my camera and equipment can do.

For my fellow dslr users out there you have a few more options in equipment because you can change your lens and we know we can take screw on filters.  Besides the close-up filter we have the choice of using a dedicated macro lens, extension tubes or a bellows.  Bellows are great BUT a good one is not cheap so I have shied away from using those.  The cheap alternative (and I’ve mentioned this in another blog and it’s something that I own) is the extension tube.  They come in sets of three and can be purchased for less than $100.  They have no glass so there is no loss of image quality and you can use one tube or all three (which will really get you in close) at the same time.  Some support auto focusing but more times than not you’ll find that auto focusing in macro/close-up work is often frustrating (even if you are using a dedicated macro lens and no tubes).

Take a good look at the photo’s above.  You’ll notice that flower 2 (shot with a 35mm non macro lens attached to an extension tube) seems to have more depth (or separation) in the scene than flower 1 (shot with a dedicated 150mm macro lens) and flower 3 (shot with 70-200mm “macro” lens and extension tube).  Something that’s important to know in fine art photography (this also plays into filmmaking) is that the wider the lens (or the wider you shoot with your zoom…if you don’t have a prime lens) the more sense of “space” (the amount of space between your subject and everything around it) or separation.  In flower 1 and 3 you can see that those scenes are more of what we call “crushed”.  There is no sense of space or separation in relation to the subject and what is in front of it and behind it.

I know this makes it sound more complicated and involved just to get to this effect but it’s not.  Not really anyway.  If you have a zoom lens and an extension tube then just play around with different focal lengths.  Just remember the closer you can get to you subject (without being right on top of it) the easier it will be to get the dreamy look.  Use that LCD on the back of your camera!  Often when you are out in the field shooting flowers and such the the lcd is hard to see due to the bright sun.  A quick easy fix for this (because you are using a tripod) is to use an umbrella!  Not just any umbrella mind you.  No.  Look for umbrellas for baby strollers or lounge chairs.  These are great (except on really windy days of course) because they just clamp to the tripod leg and blocks the sun from the LCD screen.  In live view you are able to see the effects automatically your settings will render before you even shoot.  This will of course use up your battery faster but you are practicing and learning so who cares!

Here is the breakdown of each shot above to give you some starting point!

Flower 1…Nikon D7000, Sigma 150mm macro lens, external flash used with diffuser, f/5.6 @ 1/80th sec and ISO 200 (tripod and remote release used).

Flower 2…Nikon D800, Nikon 35mm lens, 12mm extension tube, f/2 @ 1/8000th sec and ISO 400 (tripod and remote release used but no flash).

Flower 3…Nikon D60, Tamron 70-200mm “macro” lens at 200mm, 12mm extension tube, f/5.6 @ 1/125th sec and ISO 320 (tripod and remote release but no flash).

A quick note on the Tamron 70-200 lens.  This isn’t a true macro lens but they (Tamron) list it as a macro lens because it allows you to get close enough to your subject for a 1:3 reproduction rate (most zooms allow for about a 1:6 reproduction rate).  A true macro lens is 1:1.

There you have it.  If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask and if you have an image that you took and would like feed back on it or would like it featured on the blog let me know.  Now get out there and shoot!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s