Before long, the mountain laurel will begin to bloom on Lookout Mountain, and lilies will brighten the banks of the Cahaba River. As spring unfolds, brilliant beds of wildflowers will line Alabama’s trails and rivers, making this an especially rewarding time to be outdoors.
When you encounter these rich displays of color, you’ll no doubt be inspired to take photos and capture a bit of Mother Nature’s beauty. So, be prepared. When you head out this spring to explore Alabama’s wild lands, carry the knowledge and camera gear needed to take quality wildflower photos. No single article or online guide will make you an expert photographer. It takes plenty of time, practice and experience to master the craft. But the following tips will at least put you on the right path toward capturing images that you’ll want to preserve and share.
The Camera & Lenses
Most of us have grown accustomed to using a smartphone as a primary camera, but an actual digital camera will improve your ability to shoot wildflowers, especially if you want close-ups. If you’ve shopped for a digital camera, you’ve likely noticed there are many types available, including compact models, super-zoom styles and digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) models.
Some compact digital cameras include a macro setting for extreme close-ups, but it’s even better to invest in a DSLR camera that allows you to use interchangeable lenses. For example, you can outfit your DSLR with a 100mm or 50mm macro lens to get extremely close-up shots. Maybe the most popular option is to outfit a DSLR with a long lens, such as one that covers a range of 70mm to 300mm. This will allow you to get a sharp image of a flower that’s isolated against a background that’s out of focus. You just have to ensure that the lens has minimum focus distance that’s pretty short—about 5 feet or less.
The Right Light
The quality of a photo depends a great deal on the light conditions. It’s best to photograph wildflowers when the sunlight isn’t so harsh. Many people love to shoot during the "golden hour," the period right after sunrise, or right before sunset. During these periods, light is soft and more balanced and will bring out the details in flowers. Another good time to shoot is during an overcast day, because the clouds diffuse and balance the light.
Camera Position & Settings
To achieve the greatest results with your DSLR camera, it’s important to learn how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings work together and how to manipulate these settings on your camera. Granted, this requires time and practice, but it will make a big difference.
Shooting a Field of Flowers
While close-up shots are great, you might also like to get a nice landscape shot with a long view of a field of flowers. To do this, you need a broad depth of field, so you should use a small aperture setting. (Remember, the bigger the "f" number, the smaller the aperture.) Be aware that your image might turn out soft if you max out the aperture. For example, if you use f/22, and that’s the smallest available aperture, the image might be soft. To avoid this, you can use your controls to lock in an f-stop prior to the max. So, if f/22 were the max, you would lock the aperture to f/16.
When using a small aperture, you’ll also need to use a low ISO to get an image with the most clarity and detail possible. When you employ a low ISO, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to hold the camera with your hand without blurring the image, so you should stabilize the camera with a tripod. (When you buy a tripod, get one that allows you to position the camera very close to the ground, so you can also shoot close-ups of short flowers. Also, make sure the tripod is sturdy and won’t move easily in wind.) Before you shoot your flowers, focus about halfway into the field to make sure the whole field is in focus.
Shooting Close-Ups of Flowers
To get a great close-up wildflower shot, try to find a place where the flower is somewhat isolated and a pretty good distance from significant background objects. This will allow you to get a sharp image of a flower against a blurred background. As you search for a flower to shoot, avoid backgrounds that are very colorful, because they can distract from your main subject.
When you position your camera near your subject, you might want to use a tripod, so that the camera will remain stable when you shoot. When you’re shooting close-ups, the lightest movement can change the focus point.
To get a really sharp picture, focus on one geometrical plane of the flower, and make sure the camera is parallel to this plane. This will ensure that each part of the flower you’re focusing on will be the same distance from the camera sensor.
It’s likely that you’ll encounter some wind while shooting wildflowers, so you need a fast shutter speed to freeze the flower and prevent blurring. Start with the lowest ISO setting possible that allows a shutter speed of at least 1/200 of a second.
Camping stool: If you shoot in the morning, you might have to kneel or lie down in dewy grass to position your camera. If you pack in a lightweight camping stool that folds up, you’ll be more comfortable.
Reflector: If you connect a light reflector to landscaping stakes, you can block sun and wind and also create a background to isolate a flower.
Right-angle viewfinder: Sometimes it’s difficult to position your body low enough to the ground to view wildflowers through your camera. If you attach a right-angle viewfinder to your DSLR, you can position yourself above your camera rather than behind it while looking through the viewfinder.
Remote shutter release: With a remote shutter release, you don’t have to touch the camera to take a shot, so it’s easier to keep the camera still, which is key in getting a sharp photo.
• Do some online research to determine when flowers in your area will be peaking.
• Keep an eye on the weather and avoid shooting flowers on especially windy days.
• Whether you plan to hike, bike or kayak to your destination, give yourself plenty of travel time so you can arrive and set up shots before optimum light conditions occur.
Written by Marcus Woolf for RootsRated in partnership with BCBS of AL.