Tools for flower photography

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Photography

You have heard of farm to table ?  Here is garden to wall.

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I simply could not resist making a PhotoBotanic illustration of this Iris in my garden.  My studio was all set up from yesterday’s rose shoot and I wanted to practice photo stacking on a more complicated flower than a rose.  Off into the garden . . . an Iris in mind.

More on the photo stacking tool later, a method to get maximum depth of field in one photo by using multiple exposures.  But now, I am distracted by my subject.

I went looking for a big flower and I saw a magnificent stalk.  The day’s work got much longer.  I used another tool.  There is an illustration here that needs to be made.

I usually know the species and cultivar of every plant in my garden.  It is important for me to know my plants and important to editors when they illustrate a garden story.  Not this iris.  It is simply ‘Blue German Iris’ planted in front of the purple foliage of Black elderberry, Sambucus nigra ‘Diablo’.

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This iris was sent to me many years ago by some breeder or another for trials, and since Iris are my wife’s favorite flower, I stuck it in the border.  I sure wish I knew its name now because every iris lover will want it.  It is prolific.  Many, many blossoms per plant – and it repeat blooms 3 times a year.

So, I went looking for a big complex flower to bring into the studio and stood agog at this iris.  One stalk – 19 flowers.  I gotta take a picture to this.   Not just any ol’ garden picture, I needed to make a botanic illustration.

Which brings me back around to tools for photographing flowers.   An indoor studio, with light control and free of wind, is great for serious flower studies.  I won’t talk about the specifics of a studio set-up and the many ways you can set up a simple shooting space for yourself, but for the cleanest illustrations it is vital to have crisp photos to work with.

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In my own garage/studio I use soft boxes of strobe lights and neutral gray background paper.  The gray paper is its own tool.

See those roses on the right side of the photo ?  My studio was set up because of a rose project I have just begun.  I need to have crisp images to use for my depth of field photo stacking tool – and I need to get color right.

What color is this rose ?

rose gray card test

The correct color is the middle one, where the gray paper is “neutral”, neither too yellow, nor too blue.  The top photo uses light bulbs as the light source, the middle is the daylight balanced strobe light, the bottom photo is in the shade outside my garage door.  (All garden photographers have learned to deal with blue shade…)

The gray background paper is a built in tool for correcting color in studio photography.  Given the known color of gray, it is a simple matter for software tools to find the right white balance.  But of course most flower photography is done outside of a studio.  That is when a gray card comes in handy.  It is a simple tool that ought to be part of every flower photographer’s tool kit.  More on gray cards and download.

When working in a garden I keep a gray card tucked inside my camera vest.  In general, I trust my camera’s white balance settings but when I do close-ups of flowers, especially those with pinky-blue tones and especially for commercial advertisements and catalogs, I take a quick reference photo with a gray card.

gray card test in rose gardenI don’t want to depend on my memory of a flower’s real color days or even weeks later when I process my photos on the calibrated computer in my office.  Memory of color can change.  Was that pink rose more orange ?  more mauve ?

Sometimes true color is not important.  The impressions and manipulation of color can be part of a interpreting a story.  But when a breeder is the client, the story is true color and I can’t depend on my very subjective memory.  Having a a gray card reference point of neutral gray makes it really easy to calibrate the color later.

Which is one reason I use the gray paper in the studio.  Another reason is for using the silhouette and masking tools.

When I brought the iris into the studio it was with the intent to make a photobotanic illustration.  I was not so concerned about the color since I was going to be working immediately with the files and the iris was from my own garden.   The gray background paper also gave me a neutral background so that I can silhouette the flower and thus make the masking tool easier to use.

My tool of choice is a plug-in to PhotoShop – Topaz Remask3.  Many photographers are happy with the tools already in PhotoShop, but no matter which specific software you have, in order to make a real flower illustration in the manner of the classic botanic prints you must use some sort of masking tool.  It is a bit tedious, but really fun to do. Here is a link to one of my Mental Seeds blog posts where I go into more depth.

One of the hardest, most tedious parts of making the silhouettes is getting clean lines between the flower and the background.  If you use a white or black background it can be hard to find the edges.  In my iris picture with the gray paper I needed to darken some of the edges before I started using the tool.  There are subtle highlights from my lighting that I did not want to lose, so by darkening the edges before trying to silhouette, I have made the tool easier to use.

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Here is the final result.  By using a cream background in the final print I was able to accent the white edge highlights.  I don’t think I really wasted an entire day when I was supposed to be working on the roses and photo stacking.

Iris from my garden,   photo print

Here is a link to the Iris print.  I print them myself.

Oh, back to the last tool for this post: photo stacking.  In close-up macro photography, depth of field, sharp focus throughout the image is an inherent optical problem.  The closer you get to a subject the less depth of focus is available with a lens.

But now, in the digital world using the computer, we can stack photos of different focus and get one photo.  In the e-book I will go into more detail, but for now I will tease you with two images of the same composition.

The first image is all the depth of field I could manage with my macro lens:

macro photo shallow depth Blue Iris flower

Now with focus stacking:

Photo stacking Blue Iris flower

For future tools and tricks I will fill in the “hole” on the right side of the image with Photoshop’s miraculous “content aware” filter.  With that tool that can fill in areas of a photograph with content created from another part of the same photo we have new meaning to “the camera always lies”.

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Gareth May 13, 2013, 12:32 am

Great tips and information! It just goes to show the skill required for top quality photography!!

Thanks Gareth – skill comes with practice and I am fortunate to have clients that let me keep playing – Saxon

Margaret (Peggy) Herrman May 13, 2013, 8:19 am

Saxon, just left you a note/post on my FB (please like Orchid Ladies if you have not). You will see I do all of my own orchid photography, and am a total novice. I follow your blog and pics and wonder at the beauty of what you create. Today, your post was soooo helpful. Can’t wait to head to my photoshop to improve what I do. Thanks and best, Peggy

Thanks Peggy – You are being a bit disingenuous saying you are a total novice. I just “Liked” your page. Anyone who spends such time with their photography with such results is not a novice. Carry on – Saxon

Kerry May 13, 2013, 8:22 am

Thanks Saxon for sharing your processes. Fascinating. Looking forward to your ebook too.

Thanks Kerry – you are seeing the e-book evolve right here. Wish I had a clone – Saxon

Donna May 13, 2013, 12:08 pm

I enjoyed your process. I have used photo stacking for insects and have to say it really is a trying process, especially for a subject that might move. Having the iris stationary in studio really helps quite a bit. It turned out beautifully. I did a snail the other day in my office and for as slow as they move, could still not get a good stack. I did not isolate them by masking though to place on a neutral background. I have to do more flowers. I love the look you get in your final art. The botanical prints are a great piece of art.

Thanks Donna. The stacking is indeed a trying process. I was running back and forth between the studio and computer as I experimented with different focusing points and number of photos to stack. The iris stack shared here has 13 and if you look closely at the outer edges, still some supposedly focused areas did not register. As to the final art, the iris stalk is not stacked, no need shooting from that distance; and the final art for the iris macro may end up on Mental Seeds – where I can push the limits even farthar. I know you will stay tuned, and I thank you – Saxon

Arthur in the Garden! May 13, 2013, 1:07 pm

Great tips!

Thanks!

Arthur in the Garden.

Steve Mullany May 13, 2013, 1:17 pm

Your example with 3 rose pictures side by side with the grey card is very telling. Knowing the card and flower are identical in each beautifully illustrates the effect of light quality on color of the photo subject.

I used a grey card in my days with a manual Nikkormat for exposure readings but need to
get more into using it for white balance.

Thanks for another jewel of a lesson.

Hey ! Another old Nikkormat user ! I still have mine though it was not a manual exposure. I used my gray cards and light meter for for my 4×5 camera, but often ended up checking exposure with the Nikon slr… Thanks for stopping by – Saxon

John Rusk May 13, 2013, 6:57 pm

Loved the article. It cleared up a number of points about using photography for botanic illustration and focus stacking.

Thanks John. Botanic illustration is an ongoing love of mine so I’m always looking for new tools. – Saxon

Superyards May 14, 2013, 7:19 am

If you are a novice, then there’s hope for me yet. I’m taking Photoshop from the local tech school and hopefully that will help. I love taking photographs but have a lot to learn. Psst…I think you might be past the novice stage,or you’re just talented.

We all have lots to learn. All software seems so complicated, but the novice reference was to another comment from Peggy of Orhid Ladies. She claimed to be a novice – but is not. – Saxon

Ralph Blunk May 15, 2013, 9:55 am

Hello Saxon,

This is a very informative article. I love taking pictures of anything in my garden but not professionally done. I just learned so much from this post especially the effects of backgrounds to the subject. Thanks so much!

Thanks Ralph. Good cameras do a pretty good job for color correction and white balance. It is only for critical color when I use the gray cards. – Saxon

Garden Clean Up May 19, 2013, 2:55 am

Wow, great article. I am a professional gardener and take a lot of photos. This has really given me some insight into what im doing. Thanks

Glad you can use the info. We’re here to help gardeners…. – Saxon

Katie May 20, 2013, 12:28 pm

Thanks for this great article! The flowers look amazing in these photos!

Troy May 21, 2013, 12:18 pm

Awesome! I’m a real novice at photography and photoshop, but I’ll have to give the grey card a try! Getting the color right is not something I’ve been too great at so far…

Troy – color shift can be a problem caused by all sorts of things, but be sure to understand how your camera adjusts its white balance setting. Once that is correct, most auto adjustments will be pretty good. – Saxon

Linda May 26, 2013, 1:36 pm

Excellent post. I like to take pictures of my plants but I think I will just keep coming back here and enjoying yours;-)