LTP 116: Flowers with Phones

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Spring has very much sprung in the northern hemisphere, and as nature starts to put on its annual show, Bart is finding himself shooting a lot more flowers again. In this solo show Bart shares some techniques he uses to capture compelling shots of flowers with his iPhone.

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As summer approaches here in the northern hemisphere my eye is being caught more and more by pretty flowers, and I want to capture their beauty effectively with my smartphone camera. Getting a shot that contains a flower is easy, but capturing the flower’s true essence and beauty is much more difficult! Even with a ‘big girl camera‘ (as friend of the show Allison Sheridan would say), it’s hard, but on a phone you’re even more constrained.

I don’t have all the answers, and others are almost certainly getting similar and better results in other ways, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned.

For context, I shoot with an iPhone 14Pro, so I have the luxury of three good physical lenses, including a 3x zoom, and of an excellent digital image processing system. I’m sure a lot of my experiences will translate to other phones, but your milage may vary

What’s so Difficult to Capture?
  1. Distractions — mentally, you can focus in on the fine detail at the heart of a forget-me-not flower, but in a photo, the detail in the flower is lost if it’s surrounded by a background full of distracting detail, of that’s all the same colour as the flower itself.
  2. Multiple Scales — sometimes the essence of a flower exists on multiple scales — a Iris has intricate detail in the heart of its big flower, the flowers have a very unusual shape, the flowers actually come on flower heads that have a mix of pointy buds and open flowers, and the tall pointy leaves are as much part of the flower’s whole essence as anything else!
  3. Context — sometimes what makes flowers beautiful is their effect on the landscape around them. A sea of bluebells is a very different thing to a bluebell!
Reducing Distractions
  • Find a ‘hero flower’ that’s separated from the rest and from the background as much as possible, allowing any shallow DOF you can achieve the best chance of blurring away all distractions.
  • Depending on the scale of the flower, macro mode may hinder more than it helps! When you get really close, your biggest enemies are the close focusing distance and a shallow DOF, and those are what macro mode maximises. Once you’re far enough away that you can focus without macro mode, disable macro mode, that will give a much shallower DOF, removing distractions.
  • Again, assuming the subject is big enough that you can get focus, you’ll get a much shallow DOF, and hence a much smoother background if you pull back and zoom in. I take a lot of my flower shots with the 3x optical zoom on my iPhone.
  • A square crop with a perfectly centred subject and a vignette can help reduce distractions and pull the eye away from any that remain.
  • If you’re OK with an abstract shot, get so close there’s nothing, or very little, but the flower in the shot.

As an example, this recent shot of a Meadow Buttercup shows the value of a carefully chosen hero flower. It took me 10 minutes to find one tall enough to get the background to blur where there were no other buttercups or other bright things in the background. To really make the hero flower pop I went with a square crop, centred composition, and vignette:

As an example of a more abstract shot, I got so close to just a part of this Iris flower that it looks like a little insect runway, and it pulls the eye right into the heart of the flower:

Finally, the two very abstract shots in this Twitter thread show details of a veined Tulip blossom:

Capturing Multiple Scales
  • It’s not always possible, and it often takes a lot of searching, but if you can find a hero flower with other behind it at an appropriate distance, you may be able to capture the detail and the bigger structures in one shot by getting very close with a wide angle lens.
  • If you can’t get multiple scales into one photo, why not turn many photos into one image with a collage?

For example, this recent four-image collage shows the candle-sick-like flower head of a Horse Chestnut tree in the main image, and then close-ups of the three colours of small bloom that make up those big flowers as a stack of smaller images next to the big one:

Capturing Context
  • The same close & wide and collage suggestions for capturing multiple scales often work to capture context too.
  • A soft-focus background can give context while avoiding distractions.
  • A carefully chosen patterned background blur can sometimes give a sense of context just as well as a sharp background, especially when the context is “these flower are impressive because there’s an absolute ocean of them”!

As an example of the power of getting close and shooting wide, this shot of tiny little Speedwell flowers was shot with the iPhone’s wide angle lens as close in as possible, and it gives a sense of the scale of the tiny little flowers, and, where they fit into the beautiful landscape of Carton House:

Bluebells grow in big carpets in forests, and their settings is a big part of their charm. If you try capture it with a sharp background the detail of the flower is lost, but a soft-focus background lets you keep the sense of place, without distracting from the flower itself. The second shot in this Twitter thread shows this nicely, as well as reinforcing the power of choosing a good hero flower, because every now and then, you get bluebells that are not blue:

Similarly, you don’t need to see sharp detail in the path behind the tiny little Fairy-Foxglove growing on a wall next to the towpath of the Royal Canal:

Finally, even a very out of focus background can still retain a sense of context, as shown by the first image in this tweet — you can’t see any detail at all in the other flower heads behind the hero flower head, but you know there are loads more just like the one you see stretching off into the distance:

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