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Ten Tips for Great Wildflower Photographs
Written by Michael A. Murphy.

If you're like me, come springtime your thoughts turn to spending quality time outside, trying to make a nice photograph or two of our usually glorious wildflowers, found along most roadsides and in many pastures. I say usually, because as we prepare this April’s issue, much of Texas remains gripped by a drought that began as 2004’s wetter-than-normal year came to a close. Perhaps, though, by the time you receive this issue, rains will have returned and we’ll be able to enjoy a fine spring wildflower show.

Luckily for us, our photographic contributors continue to send in a plethora of outstanding wildflower images. This year we received a significant number of these images digitally, meaning more of our photographers have switched either entirely or partially from film to digital cameras. In fact, some recent photo-industry estimates show 70 percent of professional photographers are now shooting digitally, and that figure is projected to rise to 90 percent in another three years.

Amateur photographers, too, are making the switch in large numbers, lured by the shrinking price of surprisingly capable cameras. The same features that enamor the pros entice everyone else, too: instant feedback on the camera’s display, great results in point-and-shoot mode, ability to change camera speed from one picture to the next, no expenses for film and processing, and more. Even if you haven’t switched, it’s probably only a matter of time, because camera makers are selling more and more digital cameras while phasing out their film lines.

The following tips, aimed at digital photographers, may have merit for film shooters, too. All are straightforward, and might require just a bit of adjustment in the way you normally photograph flowers.

#1 Use a sturdy tripod. I know, tripods add complexity to photographing, but they’ll allow you to get the sharpest possible images. Really lightweight tripods will work in a pinch, but they’re more subject to vibration and/or wind than their heavier cousins.

#2 Use a low ISO (the equivalent of film speed). Every digital camera’s “sweet” spot when it comes to image quality is usually right at its lowest speed, likely ISO 100. While you can crank it up to 400 or higher in some models to accommodate dimmer conditions, this comes with a price: increased “noise” in the resulting file. This noise, resembling the graininess in some black-and-white prints, usually detracts from the overall image quality.

#3 Use the available light. I still laugh when I recall a fellow UT student, long ago, asking our professor, renowned photographer Garry Winogrand, if he’d made one of his images with available light. Winogrand, in his typically brusque style, snapped, “Whadda you mean? ALL light’s available!” His point being, of course, it’s what photographers do with the light that’s available to them that matters in the image. Too many photographers still think a sunny, cloudless day is the perfect thing for flower photography; and while you can get good shots, controlling the contrast can be difficult. Don’t be afraid to shoot on an overcast day, or a partly cloudy day, when the clouds act as a giant softbox to soften and diffuse the sun’s direct light.

#4 The best available light comes twice a day, right after dawn and just before dusk. It will require rising early and/or being out late, but your odds of finding and making really memorable images increase with the drama that early-morning or late-afternoon light adds. The low height of the sun makes for long shadows and adds warmth to images not available at other times of day.

#5 Compose your scene carefully. Think about what it is you’re trying to capture, and move in until that aspect of the scene is dominant in your viewfinder. Make your eye roam around the edge of the viewfinder to see that there are no distracting elements, like a power line or trash or butt-smashed flowers. The idea is to use your camera as the cropping tool for your perfect image, and not have to crop later.

#6 Stop your lens down, which decreases its aperture, letting in less light. If you want that field of bluebonnets in front of you to be sharp from near to far, don’t shoot with the lens at or near maximum aperture. Stop it down to at least f/8, or better yet, f/11 or f/16. This means slowing your shutter speed accordingly, and you’ll be glad you heeded tip #1 and mounted your camera on a sturdy tripod. For maximum sharpness, focus your camera not on the flowers closest, nor the ones farthest from the lens, but at a midpoint. This will approximate the hyperfocal distance for your camera and lens. (Type the phrase into Google to find a variety of discussions on the term.)

#7 Shade your lens. Be sure your lens hood is keeping direct light from falling into/onto your front lens element. You may assist the hood with your hand or a card, checking in your viewfinder or on the display to see if your shield’s in the frame or not. Removing this stray light prevents lens flare and/or loss of contrast.

#8 Use a release to fire the shutter. Even if you’ve done everything correctly up to now, you must have a smooth shutter release for optimal sharpness, especially at lower shutter speeds. Many pros use what used to be called a cable release; for digital cameras it has become an electronic release. If you don’t have or want to buy one, use the self-timer built into the camera to achieve the same thing. Wait until any wind-induced flower movement is minimal, then release the shutter.

#9 Review the image on your camera’s display. Some cameras have indicators that will show if highlights were out of range. If so, decrease your exposure slightly to accommodate them. On average, the ideal digital capture will be right on the cusp of losing highlight detail.

#10 Reframe and shoot again. Now that you’ve made your perfect shot, find another angle to shoot it from again. In fact, find several angles. You may find that when you’re reviewing your images, the “perfect” image you first shot didn’t turn out quite as nicely as the second or third framing. There’s a reason that pros shoot scads of images to get that one “keeper,” and since all it costs you is room on your storage card, go for it.

Following these 10 tips should lead you to more rewarding images, not just of wildflowers, but of just about any subject you choose to photograph. Remember, your next best picture is just down the road, so be prepared to capture it.

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