Editor's note: This month only – Use the code july5 at checkout to buy the 5 Steps to Better Black & White Photography and 5 Steps to Better Exposure ebooks for just $5! Click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
Taking photos of flowers outdoors, where you’re at the mercy of the light and the weather, is often a frustrating process. But there’s an easy way to take photos of flowers at any time of the year, no matter where you live. The answers is to do it indoors, where you can control the light and the background. In this tutorial you’ll learn how to take high key flower photos using nothing but a light tent, natural light and a few pieces of cardboard.
Use a light tent for high key flower photos
This technique is much easier with a light tent, like the one pictured below. The semi-transparent sides diffuse the light so that you can have a softly lit subject. Position the light tent in front of a window so that there’s plenty of light bouncing around.
Light tents are inexpensive to buy and you can use them for a wide range of still life subjects, not just flowers.
If you don’t have a light tent position your flower in front of a large window instead. The trick is to either shoot on a cloudy day or use a window that’s facing away from the sun (i.e. north facing in the northern hemisphere, or south facing in the southern hemisphere). Stand between the flower and the window (or better still, crouch down with your camera so you don’t block the light) so the flower is evenly illuminated. It may help to place some white card or a small reflector in front of the flower to bounce light back onto it.
The other things I used were colored card for the background (several colors so you can change the background color), a plastic cup with a weight inside it, and some masking tape.
I used a short telephoto lens (85mm on a full-frame camera) fitted with a Canon 500D close-up filter to take the photos. The close-up filter got me close enough to the flowers to fill the frame and the fast maximum aperture of the lens let me hand-hold the camera at relatively low ISOs at 1/160 second.
If you don’t have a prime lens, or you want to take photos with more depth of field, then you can use apertures in the range of f5.6 to f11. You’ll either be working at high ISOs (think 3200 plus) or you can use a tripod so that you can use slow shutter speeds.
Alternatively, to get a brighter light source you can take the light tent outside (best when there’s no wind).
How close do you need to get? If you’re photographing a larger flower, like the lily in the photos in this tutorial, you may not need any specialist equipment at all. Set your lens to its minimum focusing distance and see what level of magnification that gives you.
If you’re photographing small flowers, or want to get in close, then you can use extension tubes, a close-up lens (my choice in this case) or a macro lens.
I like using close-up lenses for this type of work, because there is no light loss. The 500D close-up lens is a little expensive but it has two elements and the image quality is excellent. You can buy cheaper single element close-up lenses just about anywhere but don’t expect them to match the image quality that you get from double element close-up lenses, extension tubes or macro lenses.
Check out our close-up lens tutorial (link below) to learn more about this sort of thing.
Learn more: How To Get Up Close With Close-Up Lenses
Flowers are quite easy to obtain, either from your own garden or from a florist. White flowers are good for high key photos, but you can use any flower that appeals to you for this technique.
Be careful if you are picking flowers in the wild that you are not inadvertently taking rare or endangered species.
Setting up for high key flower photos
The set up is very simple. I set the light tent up on a desk with light coming from two windows, one behind it and another to the right. I taped the flower to the plastic cup and then cut a slit in the cardboard so that I could place it behind the flower. Some more masking tape underneath held the cardboard in place.
This arrangement lets you take photos from several angles and still get a green background. The join in the cardboard is easy to edit out in Lightroom if it appears in the photo. You can also change the cardboard easily to make a background with a different color.
What is a high key photo?
This is a high key photo (see below). The tones are bright, the colors are light or pastel rather than saturated, and there are very few shadows and little contrast. The lack of shadows means that there is very little modeling on the subject.
Here is the Lightroom histogram for the photo. The graph sits on the right hand side of the histogram, indicating that there are no dark areas or shadows in the image. This is normal for a high key image.
To create a high key photo, you need a very soft light that lights the subject and background equally. You can’t make a high key photo if your background is darker than the subject. The light tent creates exactly the sort of light you need.
Use high key if you want to create a light, ethereal photo. Flowers are a good subject for the high key treatment. Portraits are another.
I used Manual mode as I could see that the white flower would make the camera underexpose the image. I used the camera’s histogram to check the exposure, and tweaked the settings until I got a histogram which was as far to the right hand side of the graph as possible without going over it.
This technique is called exposing to the right, and works here because the brightness range of the subject was well within the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor (note that exposing to the right only works if you shoot in Raw).
Learn more: Exposure Lesson #6: Exposing To The Right
For most of the photos in the series I used a shutter speed of 1/160 second, an aperture of f1.8 (although I did play around with some smaller apertures too) and set the ISO to give the correct exposure at these settings. The sun kept going behind the clouds – every time it did that the light levels dropped and I had to increase the ISO to compensate.
I used Raw so that I could fine tune the color temperature, contrast and exposure in Lightroom. It also gave me leeway in case I overexposed the photo – Raw files retain highlight detail that would be lost if you used JPEG.
Manual focus is the easiest way to focus on close-up subjects. Set the focus on your lens to where you want it (normally at or near the minimum focusing distance), then move your body towards the flower until it comes into focus.
Don’t be afraid of high ISOs. Here’s a 100 per cent enlargement of a photo from the series taken at ISO 3200. It was taken on an EOS 5D Mark II, which is an old camera now, but still noted for its good high ISO performance.
You can see that there is virtually no noise. Use the expose to the right technique when you take high key photos and you will see a big improvement in the noise levels at high ISOs, especially on older cameras.
Lightroom is good enough to remove most chrominance noise (the unpleasant colored specks you see in noisy photos) leaving an aesthetically pleasing, film grain-like effect.
High key flower photos gallery
Here is a gallery of photos that I took during the session. I got a good series by varying the composition, using several different flowers, and changing the color of the cardboard in the background.
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