An Anatomy of a Flower Photo Shoot – Part 3
In Part 3 of “An Anatomy of a Flower Photo Shoot”, I’m going to discuss lens selections for Flower Photography.
Photography is a wonderful journey that I’ve taken for my entire adult life and the more I photograph flowers the more I learn about photographing flowers. Recently, I have found that I am more and more intrigued by using various focal length lenses to photograph the same flower. The lens you use will determine your photographic approach to capturing the flower as well as the compositional outcome. You won’t get the same composition with a 70-300 lens that you’ll get with a 90mm macro lens, even if the 70-300 lens is set to exactly 90mm. That’s because each lens has its own minimum focus distance and angle of view and it’s a great exercise to use two different lenses to photograph the same flower to experience how differently the camera sees light and captures the subject through different combinations and angles of glass in a lens.
You can use three different “types” of lenses to photograph flowers; 1) a macro lens, 2) a fixed focal length lens (also known as prime lens) that has a focal distance of at least 50mm but a lens of up to 600 mm can be used successfully, or 3) a telephoto lens with a top end of 180mm-600mm. In some cases you would need to use extension tubes with prime lenses and even some telephoto lenses to get close-up shots of your flower subject. My recommendation for great extension tubes would have to be Kenko. They are the best tubes I’ve found. There are no issues with maintaining auto-focus and there is no friction between the camera body and the tube when mounting the lens.
I am frequently asked what my favorite lens is and my answer is always the same, “ my favorite lens is generally the lens I’m using at that moment”. Whenever I look through my viewfinder, I get to see how the lens views my flower subject and I always fall in love with its ability to make magic.
On the right is a Camellia shot with my Nikon 70-300mm lens (300 mm @ f/5.6). I had to stand approximately 6 feet away from the flower because this lens has a minimum focus distance of 5.6 feet but the good news is, I was able to use the surrounding leaves in my composition and the “magic” did happen for me when taking this shot.
On the left is the same Camellia shot with my Nikon 60mm macro with an aperture of f/3.2. As you can see, I was able to get much closer to the flower because I wasn’t being constrained by a 5.6 foot closest focus distance and being able to focus closer allowed me to hold my camera directly above the flower and shoot down on it. This not only gave me a different perspective of the flower, but also of the leaves and it totally changed my composition.
I’d also like to point out the color difference between the two lenses. Neither of these images has been processed for color temperature or exposure so the color you see is the color captured by the lens. Both images were shot using the Nikon D850 (full-frame) camera.
The Benefits of Using Different Focal Length Lenses to Photograph Flowers:
- Macro lenses allow you to get very close up to the flower – even close enough to capture only a portion of the flower. A 60mm-90mm lens on a full-frame camera allows you to capture the flower in its entirety along with some of its surroundings (leaves, other flowers, etc) but also allows you to get close enough to capture the most minute parts of the flower. If you are going to photograph the entire flower, fill your frame with the flower and possibly use the surrounding leaves to create a pleasing frame for your flower. Don’t be concerned if the surrounding leaves and/or flowers in the distance are slightly out of focus because that allows your flower subject to be the star of the show.
- Using a 60mm or 90mm macro lens on a full-frame camera, you can shoot at apertures from f/2.8 to f/5.1 and get a nice balance of in- focus and soft-focus depending on your distance from the subject.
- A 60mm or 90mm lens on a crop-sensor camera is going to bring you closer to your flower subject but be careful because that will decrease your depth of field significantly. With this type of lens on a crop-sensor camera, you have three compositional/framing choices available:
- You can take several steps back to capture the entire flower and some of it’s surroundings at f/2.8 – f/5.1
- If you want to get very close to the flower but still get a decent amount of focus but you will have to stop down to obtain a more narrow aperture (f/8 to f/11) to get more of the flower in focus
- You can choose to capture a very small portion of the flower at a very close distance using an f/stop of your choice to get very little of the flower in focus. Obviously, the wider the aperture, the less focus you will get.
- A 105mm or 150mm macro lens can be used in the same manner as the 60mm/90mm macro and you will have the ability to get the entire flower with some of its leaves/surroundings or you can get extremely close for very tight shots of a very small flower or just a portion of a larger flower. Again, depending on whether you are using a full-frame or crop-sensor camera, you will have to vary your aperture and distance away from the flower to get an appropriate composition with an amount of focus that you are pleased with.
- Prime lenses are not macro lenses by nature unless you add an extension tube between your camera and the lens; however, prime lenses are generally very sharp and can be very useful if you like your flower images with a lot of sharp focus and very little blur. The caveat is that without using an extension tube, you can only get as close to your flower as the minimum focus distance of the lens so with a 50mm or even an 85mm lens, your flower may be too far away to get a pleasing close-up. If that is the case, you can add an extension tube to the prime lens so you can obtain macro-like close focus of your flower.
- Telephoto lenses have a focal length of 150mm or more, whether prime or zoom. When using a telephoto lens to capture flowers, you begin to see the power of the telephoto as it blurs your background when using wide apertures. You will get the most background blur from an f/2.8 maximum aperture lens, but even at a maximum aperture of f/5.6, beautiful background blur is possible as long as your subject has at least 2-3 feet of separation from its background. You also need to remember that the closest focusing distance is much greater with long lenses as compared with a macro lens, so while it is possible to crop your subject closely in camera with a telephoto lens, you will generally not be able to obtain the 1:1 magnification of a good macro lens.
Purchasing Used Lenses:
If you wish you had more lenses to play with but you don’t have a lens budget, you can purchase some amazing used glass available through reputable resellers like B&H Photo and Video in New York City (www.bhphotovideo.com). I would say that older prime lenses are a true find but so are older telephoto and macro lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/2.8. You just have to remember that some older/vintage prime lenses may not auto-focus, and even if the lens does auto-focus, it may be slow or prone to “hunting” for focus. NO problem… manual focus instead!
The image on the left was shot with a Nikkor 105mm f/2.0 lens and the auto-focus isn’t useful but I’ve taken some amazing flower images with this lens by adding a 16mm Kenko extension tube and using manual focus. I purchased this lens used from B&H and I’ve been very happy with it. It is built like a Sherman Tank and the glass is second-to-none (albeit without today’s nano-crystal coating, etc). I don’t receive any support from B&H so I’m not making a commercial here. The fact is I’ve never had an issue when purchasing from them, especially since they have a very generous 30-day, no questions asked return policy.
I’m sure that Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Sony shooters can also find prime or telephoto used glass at reasonable prices if you shop around. Just be sure that wherever you purchase your lens, you are getting a USA lens and that you can try it out and return it for a full refund if you find there is a problem with it.
I hope that you have enjoyed this Blog post and learned something new that will help to make you a better flower photographer. Enjoy the shoot!