An Anatomy of a Flower Photo Shoot – Part 5

This Post is Part 5 of, “An Anatomy of a Flower Photo Shoot: Soft Focus Photography for Flower Landscapes or Flower Portraits”

In Part 5 of “An Anatomy of a Flower Photo Shoot”, I’m going to discuss “on purpose” soft focus for flower landscapes and flower closeups.  I’m also going to discuss how specific lenses play a part in obtaining the soft focus, “dreamy look”.

In order to create an image that has “soft focus”, you need a lens with the capability to achieve a very wide aperture.  That means that the lens has to be capable of attaining an f/stop between f/1.2 and f/2.0.  When the lens is set to its widest aperture, you will have a small area of focus and the rest of the image will have varying degrees of blur (or soft focus) and although some flower photographers consider that a nuisance when they’re trying to capture a flower portrait, it can be very rewarding when capturing a flower landscape or a flower closeup.

I think you will find that the only type of lens that fits that bill for very wide aperture is going to be a fixed focal length lens, sometimes referred to as a “prime” lens.  These lenses may also be referred to as having “fast glass” which refers to its inherent ability to let in a lot of light thereby allowing the photographer to shoot at faster shutter speeds, even in low light.

The fixed focal length lenses that have very wide maximum apertures and would be great for flower landscapes are 35mm or 50mm.  If you are going for closeups of the flower, the 50mm, 85mm, 105mm and 135mm are all great choices.  With all of these “fast glass” lenses, widest apertures will depend on the specific lens manufacturer (Canon, Nikon, etc), and the maximum available apertures run the gamut from f/1.2 to f/1.4 to f/1.8 to f/2.0.  In fact, Canon and Nikon have two different 50mm lenses and two different 85mm lenses – each having a different widest aperture setting (Canon 50mm f/1.2 and Canon 50mm f/1.8, Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and Nikon 50mm f/1.8).

The purpose of using a wide aperture is to obtain a capture with a small area of focus (and not necessarily sharp focus) with the remainder of the image having varying degrees of soft focus (places that are just soft and other areas that are totally out of focus).

You wouldn’t think there could be that much difference between f/1.4 and f/1.8 but there most certainly is.  It’s tantamount to the difference between f/8 and f/11 or f/11 and f/16. I have a Nikon 105mm f/2.0 and the difference between f/2.0 and f/2.8 is the difference between absolute blur and a little blur.

If you decide to use one of these “fast glass” lenses for flower photography, you will be able to get soft focus flower landscape captures with no problem at all, but if you intend to use the same lens for capturing flower closeups, you will need the help of extension tubes to reduce the minimum focus distance of the lens.

The Need for Extension Tubes

Always remember, every lens has a minimum focus distance.  If the lens is labeled as a “macro”, you will be able to get very close to the subject (within inches) without the aid of extension tubes.  However, the lenses that I’ve mentioned above are not macro lenses and some will focus within 2 feet of the subject but others may not be able to obtain focus until you are 3 feet or more away fro the subject – definitely not close enough for a flower closeup.  So, to give the lens the ability to focus as close as a macro lens, extension tubes are required.  Kenko is my only choice for extension tubes and they can be purchased at B&H Photo/Video ( at the lowest legitimate price with no sales tax (unless you live in the state of NY), and in most cases includes quick, free shipping via UPS.

When using extension tubes, it is very important that you do NOT use more than one extension tube at a time or you will not be able to focus. Kenko tubes come packaged in a set of 3 (12mm, 20mm, and 36mm) and I would recommend starting with just the 12mm tube and change to the 20mm tube or 36mm tube as needed to get close enough to your subject.

If your lens is capable of auto-focus with your camera, you will still be able to auto-focus when the extension tube is attached.  Note: the lens may “hunt” for focus from time to time, so you may need to use the focus ring to assist it.  That said, no matter what type of lens I’m using, I never trust that the camera/lens gets focus dead on each and every time.  I’ve learned to auto-focus, then use my focus ring to determine if I indeed have the best focus possible.  I also take several captures to ensure that I truly have the focus that I’m looking for.

Flower Landscapes vs. Flower Closeups

There are two different types of “soft” flower photographs that can be obtained with “fast glass” lenses – flower landscapes and flower closeups.  In a flower landscape, you will want to capture a field of flowers or a specific area of a garden (or field) with a lot of flowers in a small area. Your capture will be wide and landscape oriented using a 35mm or 50mm lens at the lens’ widest available aperture.  I’ve heard flower photographers refer to a flower landscape capture with shallow depth-of-field as having a “dreamy” look.

Then there are “soft” focus flower closeup captures.  To obtain this type of capture use a fixed focal length lens that is at least 50mm but no longer than 135mm with one extension tube set to its widest aperture.  Focus on a prominent portion of the flower letting it tell a story by bringing a specific part of the flower to the viewer’s attention.  You will have a small area of focus and a lot of blur so again, you will want to take several different captures and perhaps adjust your f/stop a little to obtain a capture that you love.

Make no mistake, whether shooting a field of flowers or just one flower, there is a learning curve to obtaining “soft” focus captures.   Remember, like all flower photography, we should notshoot one and be done.  Shoot various angles/compositions with various wide aperture settings until you find a combination of focus/blur that works for you!

The Lensbaby Factor

Up to this point, I’ve discussed fixed focal length/prime lenses that have “fast glass” used without extension tubes for flower landscape photography and with extension tubes for flower closeups.  However, there is another option from Lensbaby – the Velvet 56 or Velvet 85.

Both of these lenses have very wide apertures (Velvet 56 f/1.6 and Velvet 85 f/1.8) and while the Velvet 56 is more useable with for flower landscapes and closeup photography without the need to use an extension tube, the Velvet 85’s strength lies in closeup flower photography.  So why not just run right out and purchase one of these lenses instead of a prime lens and extension tubes?  Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. You may already own one of these “fast glass” prime lenses (or perhaps you can borrow a prime lens from a family member or friend).  That would make it very easy to go out and shoot some “soft focus” flower landscapes without buying a thing.  If you find that you like the lens, you can always purchase the extension tubes for closeup flower photography at a later time.
  2. You can often purchase a used prime lenses in excellent condition through reputable online stores for $200 or less.  I have a friend that purchase a $1000 prime lens at a pawn shop for $150 but he knew what he was looking for and could tell the lens was in excellent condition.
  3. You may not want to do closeup photography with a prime lens – just flower landscapes, so if you already own a “fast glass” prime lens or could purchase one for $200 (or less), you don’t need to spend $450-$500 on a Lensbaby lens.
  4. While the Lensbaby Velvet 56 works well for flower landscape photography, the Lensbaby Velvet 85 will not.
  5. If you are going to purchase a Lensbaby Velvet (56 or 85), you have to be completely comfortable with manually focusing the lens all the time.

In closing, I’d also like to remind you to find a subject worthy of being photographed.  Remember that even in flower landscapes, framing and composition are paramount!  Think through to the final image and ask yourself, “what will this look like as a 20×30 print on my wall”?

Enjoy this new adventure of photographing with “fast” prime lenses and be sure to post an image or two to the Group along with a story about how you captured and processed the image.

Feel free to PM through FB if you have questions.

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