Macro Flower Photography

During lockdown, I’ve been learning how to use my camera (a Nikon D3300) to improve my garden photography, particularly how to use aperture priority to get better macro (close-up) shots.

The idea of a good macro-shot is to capture some close-up subject of interest, while keeping the background heavily blurred. This is achieved by setting a wide aperture (which means a low f-stop number) to produce a shallow depth of field. It is then possible to focus on a specific detail which will be sharp and clear, whereas anything nearer or further away will be blurred.

It also means getting in close to the subject. For many shots, the front of the lens is only a few inches away from the subject. The resulting photo often capture details and perspectives that you would never guess where there, and which you often do not appreciate until you view your work on a large screen. The results can be breathtaking.

However, it’s not just a case of having a sharp subject on a blurry background: the whole composition needs to be considered to get a great shot. This requires the background to be of sufficient interest that it complements the main subject without drawing attention away.

In my experience, garden macro-photography always brings out some feature of a plant that you would otherwise overlook. In the photo above it is the intricate central structure of this white Dahlia.

Field Bindweed (aka bearbine, bethbine, cornbine, field convolvulus, wild convolvulus)

Field Bindweed

What I like
I am pleased with this shot of field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) growing on a verge outside my house. The focal point on the front edge of the trumpet petal shows the beautiful folded line of the lip as well as the subtle colours of this ubiquitous wildflower. The backlighting makes the flower seem as if it is glowing from within. The fact that most of the flower is out of focus does not matter – we can still discern its structure, and even recognise an unopened bud in the lower foreground.

As you can see the background has blurred into artistic brush-strokes that are suggestive of the surrounding meadow. A subtle pink blur in the top left hints that this flower is not alone.

What could be improved
I wish I’d framed this shot better. It’s a bit too central. I’d like more background to the left hand side, giving the trumpet more space to breathe.

Michaelmas daisy ‘Mönch’ (Aster x frikartii Mönch)

Aster x frikartii Mönch

What I like
I love the vivid colours in this shot and the unusual angle. It is tempting to photograph daisies, such as this Aster, head on, but approaching this flower obliquely, from behind, is very successful. Even the golden central crown of stamens — another tempting focal point — is avoided in favour of the back-lit petals (ray florets). Few of the petals are actually in focus, but what makes this photo successful is the vivid soft-focus rays which have the quality of water-colour strokes. Shooting against the sky, the petals need backlighting to stop them turning into silhouettes.

What could be improved
I quite like the background colours which add to the colourfulness of this shot, but the patches of green are a bit random and meaningless.

English Lavender ‘Hidcote’

Lavandula Hidcote

What I like
This is another ‘art’ photo – the kind that would look beautiful on a large canvas on a clean modern wall. Backlighting, again, brings this photo to life. The main focal point — the sprig of lavender left-of-centre — is not in itself particularly interesting. It is the context of the background that makes this photo so pleasing to me. It was a windy day, and the background sprigs are motion-blurred as well as blurred by the shallow depth of field. The motion of the background makes the stillness of the focal sprig all the more apparent. Some of the focal blur is caused by sprigs in the foreground. These place a blue ‘smoke’ in front of the background sprigs. I particularly like the backlit stem on the far-left just visible through a purple-haze of foreground flowers. Just right-of-centre a foreground sprig creates three purple v shapes rising to the top of the frame. Despite being so far out of focus it still communicates the botanical structure of the plant which has bunches of flowers spaced out along the stem in a distinctive way. Finally, the background colours are gorgeous — smokey grey-green, mauves and purple-pinks — perfectly representing the plant as a whole.

What could be improved
In places the motion blur appears as a series of stop-frames. Not sure what caused that. It’s a bit distracting.

Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’

Lilium Casa Blanca

What I like
Again, a shot from a different angle: Backs of flowers can make an interesting subject. I like the way the reds and greens merge in the base of the petals. Unlike the macro shots above, this one doesn’t make use of a blurred background (or at least, not much). What you can’t tell is that I took this photo through the curl of an adjacent petal. Because it was so close to the lens that petal creates a very soft white blur around the edge of the frame, making the lily softly fade to white.

What could be improved
The outer soft focus is rather uneven. The bottom and bottom-right edges could do with some foreground blur. I also don’t really like the leaf that cuts across the stem rather meaninglessly.

Agapanthus Headbourne Hybrid (Blue)

Agapanthus Headbourne Hybrid

What I like
Photographing in bright sunlight can be difficult because of the number of shadows that interfere with the image. In this case, the subject — a single flower from a head of Agapanthus africanus — has several shadows cast across the backlit petals, but in this composition I think it works to create a sense of light and dark stripes. The stamens, the mid-ribs of the petals and the shadows all add to the striped effect. I like that the tips of the stamens as well as the tips of the top-right petals are in focus (it can be difficult to get petals and stamens both sharp in one image) There composition is good: slightly off centre with a strong diagonal. The background is nice — repeating the colours in the flower, with hints of buds and foliage.

What could be improved
Nothing specifically, but it is far from my favourite photo in this collection.

Agapanthus ‘Silver Baby’

Agapanthus ‘Silver Baby’

What I like
This is a nice arrangement of three flowers with buds behind. I grow these beautiful agapanthus in a pot and their delicate charm has won me over. I just find them beautiful, and a great subject for photography. A difficulty with macro shots is that it can be difficult to get more than one flower in focus at the same time, so I am really pleased with how this turned out. I like that the stem and foliage are invisible, and the background (foreground) is almost black allowing the flowers to take centre stage.

What could be improved
The flower on the right has a couple of imperfections, but otherwise I really like this shot.

Hover fly on Sedum spurium ‘Spot on Rose’

Hover fly on Sedum spurium ‘Spot on Rose’

What I like
I love the orientation of the hover fly — if only he was in sharper focus! Capturing insects is very difficult. They move very fast, in and out of focus, with barely a moment to frame the shot before they are off. And they don’t like a lens being thrust in their direction. Given those caveats, I am pleased with this shot. The brilliant magenta-pink waxy flowers are those of Sedum spurium ‘Spot on Rose’. Up close, these hardy succulents look very exotic.

What could be improved
The overall image is not sharp enough. The hover fly was moving around so rapidly it was not possible to frame and steady the shot before it moved on. Patience and luck needed.

Rosa Jacqueline du Pré

Rose ‘Jacqueline du Pré’

What I like
This close up of a pair of roses focuses on the tangle of stamens in their centres. I think it works well because in the otherwise monochrome image their subtle golden colouration stands out. The almost-black background is ideal keeping the eye on the subject. The only additional detail comes from the dark green sepals which add subtle botanical details. The soft undulations of the petals are gorgeous and their subtle pink highlights give the image extra depth.

What could be improved
I don’t like the white gash across the background. To improve the image that needs removing with some image software. The top-right corner is a bit confusing too.

Sempervivum arachnoideum (Cobweb Hens and Chickens)

Sempervivum arachnoideum

What I like
This photo has produced a miniaturisation effect such that we enter an otherwise inaccessible world. The background and foreground are out of focus, drawing our attention to the fascinating house-leek in the centre with its strange cob-web netting. The sedum on the left adds additional interest and otherworldliness.

What could be improved
There’s some tiny water droplets in this image, but not really enough to create that recent-rain look that seems to work so well. I never think to artificially mist my subjects before shooting, but it’s a standard trick used by many plant photographers.


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