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Flowers are photogenic. Making amazing close-up flower photos is straightforward with the right techniques and equipment. But it can get confusing, especially if you don’t know the difference between an extension tube and a macro lens! So I’ve put together some tips to help you select the right gear and create your own beautiful close-up photos of flowers.
1. See how close you can get with the lenses that you already own
The reality is that you need a macro lens, close-up lens or extension tube to get really creative with close-up photos of flowers (more on both of those in a bit). But at the same time you may be surprised just how close you can get with the (non-macro) lenses you already own.
Choose a lens to test. An 18-55mm kit lens is a good start. A prime 35mm lens (APS-C), 25mm lens (Micro Four-thirds) or 50mm lens (full-frame) is even better.
Set your lens to manual focus, move the focusing ring to the minimum focusing distance, then, looking through the viewfinder, move the camera close to a flower until it’s in focus. That’s the closest you can get with this particular lens without any help.
The result depends on the specification of your lens. It helps if you’re taking photos of big flowers rather than small ones.
Below you can see the result of this test when I tried it with my 35mm lens (on an APS-C camera) set to its minimum focusing distance of 30 centimeters.
As you can see you can be creative at this magnification. But if you want to get closer and take photos like this one (taken with the same 35mm lens and an extension tube), you need extra equipment.
2. Use an extension tube for close-up flower photos
An extension tube fits between your lens and the camera and allows you to get closer to your subject. They are more effective with shorter focal lengths. You’ll get the best results by using them with a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or 35mm on APS-C, or 25mm on Micro Four-thirds).
Extension tubes are relatively inexpensive, small and easy to carry. You can put one in your camera bag just in case.
Note: Avoid cheap extension lenses sold on websites like eBay that don’t have an electronic connection. While they are inexpensive, you won’t be able to stop down unless you’re using an older lens with a manual aperture ring.
Another advantage of an extension tube is that you can use it with different lenses. For example, I made this flower photo using a 16mm extension tube with my 35mm lens.
I made this one using the same extension tube on my Lensbaby Edge 50 lens.
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3. Use close-up lenses for close-up flower photos
Close-up lenses magnify the image and work in a similar way to a magnifying glass. They look like filters and screw onto the front of a regular lens the same way. Because of this they’re also sometimes called close-up or macro filters.
Close-up lenses work best on telephoto lenses. The longer the focal length, the stronger the effect. Photographers tend to use them with lenses of focal lengths between 85mm and 200mm (full-frame). Match the right close-up lens with the right lens and you can even get 1:1 magnification (I’ll cover this in more detail in a future article).
The best close-up lenses have two or three elements. Avoid single element close-up lenses as they don’t give good image quality. Again, I’ll go into the details and make some buying recommendations in another article.
Here’s a photo made with an 85mm lens fitted with a Canon 500D double element close-up lens.
4. Buy a macro lens for close-up flower photos
If you’re really keen on flower photography then a macro lens is easier to use than an extension tube. It gives you more magnification and is optimized to give sharp images at close focusing distances.
Some macro lenses are expensive, but others less so. For example, I could buy the Fujifilm 80mm macro lens for around $1200. It’s a high quality autofocus macro lens with image stabilization.
But instead I bought the Samyang 100mm f2.8 macro lens for (at UK prices) a third of the price (note that Samyang uses the brand name Rokinon in North America). It’s a manual focus lens but I can live with that. Here are a couple of close-up flower photos I made with it.
Another example of an inexpensive macro lens is the Olympus 30mm f3.5 M.Zuiko Macro Lens for Micro Four-Thirds cameras. You can also buy inexpensive macro lenses made by companies like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Venus Optics and 7Artisans. Read the reviews before buying to see what other photographers have to say about them.
Most macro lenses have life-size (1:1) magnification. But some macro lenses only have half life-size magnification (these are called 1:2 macro lenses). If you want to get really close to your subject then you need a macro lens with life-size magnification. But don’t discount 1:2 macro lenses – they’re great for flower photography, where most of the time you don’t need 1:1 magnification. They can be less expensive to buy and tend to be smaller and lighter than more expensive macro lenses.
If you use a 1:1 macro lens at its minimum focusing distance you’ll be so close to your flowers that you’ll need a tripod and focusing rail for the best results. This is fun if you want to try it, but it adds to the expense and the amount of gear you need to carry.
But remember you don’t have to get that close. It’s usually only necessary with the tiniest flowers. The versatility of macro lenses gives you the choice.
5. Composition and photos of flowers
Once you’ve got the gear side of close-up flower photography figured out you need to concentrate on composition. This is one of the easiest parts of flower photography. When you get this close to your subject it doesn’t matter what aperture you’re using, the background goes out of focus. As long as you focus accurately on the flower it’s difficult not to make good photos!
Use the shade
When you use shoot in direct sunlight it’s inevitable that you’ll end up with burned out highlights, deep shadows and washed out colors.
But shoot in the soft light of shade and it’s a completely different story. Colors are deep and saturated. Get the exposure right and you won’t get overexposed highlights or deep shadows.
But more importantly the quality of light in the shade is beautiful. It helps you capture delicate textures and saturated colors.
You can see the difference in these two photos of the same flower.
Extra tip: If the flower you want to photograph isn’t in shade, position yourself between the flower and the sun and use your shadow. Make sure the background is shaded to avoid overexposed highlights.
Pay attention to the background
Most flowers have green leaves which give you a beautiful green background. The aperture you select determines the sharpness of the background. Use a wide aperture to throw it completely out of focus, or a smaller one to make it sharper.
For example, I made this photo using an aperture of f1.8.
There might be out of focus flowers in the background. Pay attention to them and think about where they are located in the frame. Make sure they don’t become distractions.
You can see how this works in the photo below.
More on aperture and close-up flower photos
Don’t be afraid to experiment with aperture settings to see what difference they make to the result. If you’re using a prime lens you can use the largest aperture setting to create photos with ultra-narrow depth of field, like this (taken at f1.8 with an 85mm lens).
But don’t forget to take photos with the aperture stopped down. You’ll get more of the flower in focus – not every flower photo needs the full arty bokeh treatment!
Here’s another photo of the same flower taken with the aperture set to f4.
Work the subject
The key to getting good close-up photos of flowers is to move around. This is easy if you’re hand-holding the camera. A tiny shift in position changes the composition dramatically. You can also try moving in closer (if you can) or further back to see what difference it makes.
These two photos of the same flower show the difference that changing your point of view makes to the composition.
Final flower photo tip
Don’t forget that flowers are static subjects and you have the time to take as many photos as you want to get it right. Patience is key – experiment with composition, try different viewpoints and pay attention to the background. You’ll be rewarded with some amazing photos.