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Photography; Portraits of Plants and Flowers

Updated on November 6, 2015
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Alun is a keen amateur photographer. His articles emphasise composition and aesthetics - how to get the most from a photo opportunity

A beautiful white Orchid
A beautiful white Orchid

INTRODUCTION

This article looks at the photography of plants and flowers, with the aim of illustrating the kind of images which can be attempted by anybody with a good camera and lenses, and a little thought and care. Throughout the article I have concentrated on the theme of plant and flower portraiture. In other words, the images I have included here are pictures of individual plants or flowers, or clumps of a single species, rather than photographs of a multitude of different plants in habitat. Although a few of the photos have been taken in fields and meadows, most have been taken in the home or garden; the aim is to demonstrate what can be done - not on a journey to exotic places - but in your backyard, your garden, or even your own little balcony or windowsill where just a few pot plants may grow.

In many cases, the plants are taken with the background obscured or out of focus, while in other cases, the background is effectively removed by the use of a backdrop, usually of black cloth, so that nothing detracts from the specimen which is to be the focus of the picture. And sometimes, moving in close has effectively meant that the subject fills the frame and there is no background at all. All of this is aimed at isolating the subject, showing its beauty or its detail as completely as possible.

Daisies in the sky. Looking up from beneath a flower can give a very different perspective
Daisies in the sky. Looking up from beneath a flower can give a very different perspective

MY PHOTOS ON THIS PAGE

Plant and flower photography was the genre which first interested me as an amateur photographer, primarily because the subject matter is bright, colourful and quite readily accessible. All photos presented here are my own work. Most have been taken in slide (transparency) format, and then scanned digitally. This has inevitably involved some digital manipulation in some cases so as to accurately reproduce the colours of the original. But such manipulation has been kept to the basics, and in almost all instances has only been aimed at matching the digital image to my original slide.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is the Streptocarpus or Cape Primrose, a popular flowering pot plant which today is available in a range of colours A close relative of Streptocarpus is the African Violet - Saintpaulia - one of the most popular of all small pot plants, and very easy to growThe Blood Lily - Scadoxus (Haemanthus) multiflorus - is a tropical African bulb ideal for the conservatory in temperate zones One of the many hybrids of Calceolaria, or Slipper Flower - another popular, though usually rather short lived pot plant Cyclamen flowers are among the most distinctive of all the plants which can be kept in the house, albeit preferring a cool position
This is the Streptocarpus or Cape Primrose, a popular flowering pot plant which today is available in a range of colours
This is the Streptocarpus or Cape Primrose, a popular flowering pot plant which today is available in a range of colours
A close relative of Streptocarpus is the African Violet - Saintpaulia - one of the most popular of all small pot plants, and very easy to grow
A close relative of Streptocarpus is the African Violet - Saintpaulia - one of the most popular of all small pot plants, and very easy to grow
The Blood Lily - Scadoxus (Haemanthus) multiflorus - is a tropical African bulb ideal for the conservatory in temperate zones
The Blood Lily - Scadoxus (Haemanthus) multiflorus - is a tropical African bulb ideal for the conservatory in temperate zones
One of the many hybrids of Calceolaria, or Slipper Flower - another popular, though usually rather short lived pot plant
One of the many hybrids of Calceolaria, or Slipper Flower - another popular, though usually rather short lived pot plant
Cyclamen flowers are among the most distinctive of all the plants which can be kept in the house, albeit preferring a cool position
Cyclamen flowers are among the most distinctive of all the plants which can be kept in the house, albeit preferring a cool position
Primula malacoides is a member of the Primrose family. It makes an attractive little pot plant with bunches of flowers on stalks
Primula malacoides is a member of the Primrose family. It makes an attractive little pot plant with bunches of flowers on stalks

POT PLANTS

Even if people don’t have a garden, that isn’t necessarily a barrier to plant photography in a home environment. Most will have some space for a pot plant or two in a porch or on a patio or a windowsill or a balcony. So here I include half a dozen images of popular flowering plants which can all make really good photographic subjects.

All these images are of flowering plants growing in small pots. But I don't much care for seeing an ugly clay pot, or even a decorative yet clearly artificial china pot, in my photos. So here I have been at pains to avoid all sign of the container in which the plant is growing. In some cases this has been achieved simply by going in close with a macro lens and shooting detail of the flower, or of the flower and leaves, from an angle which avoids the container. In one instance (P.malacoides) judicious movement of a leaf helped to cover a part of the pot, whilst in another case (Streptocarpus) I will confess to having used a very small amount of digital manipulation to black out a small portion of container which could not be hidden in any other way.

Most of these photos are taken in natural light by a window. Natural light tends to show the plant to its best effect, and there is no need for any guesswork about where the shadows will fall on the plant - what you see in the camera lens (should) be what you get in the finished picture.

Bright yellow Oncidium Orchid stem photographed aginst my favourite backdrop.
Bright yellow Oncidium Orchid stem photographed aginst my favourite backdrop.

BLACK CLOTH BACKDROP

Even at this early stage, the reader will quite probably have come to the conclusion that I like to use black backdrops for my pictures. It's true; there's no denying it. Artificial it may be, but not as artificial as backgrounds which include a red brick wall, or a concrete path or some other intrusion of a man-made construction. Besides, the purpose of this article is to present flower portraits, and black - or at least monochrome - backdrops will bring out the form and colour of the flowers better than anything else can.

One of the main problems with any backdrop - even black - is that it may reflect light leaving distracting pale areas on the image. I use black velvet, felt cloth, or some similar cloth of low reflectivity, hung behind the plant. An alternative is to angle the shot so that light doesn't reflect off the backdrop. Sometimes light falling on the backdrop can turn even black to dark grey. If this is the case, very slight under exposure of the image can blacken the background whilst also increasing the intensity of flower colour. With digital manipulation it may of course be possible to remove any reflections on the background.

Close up of a Dahlia flower, lit from behind with an ordinary household lamp. Ordinarily photos work best with the light shining on the subject from the front or side, but light shining through petals from behind can really enhance their appeal
Close up of a Dahlia flower, lit from behind with an ordinary household lamp. Ordinarily photos work best with the light shining on the subject from the front or side, but light shining through petals from behind can really enhance their appeal
Click thumbnail to view full-size
The centre of a Lavatera flowerThe centre of a Gazania flowerThe White Arum LilyThe centre of a Primrose hybridClose up of a Tulip flower
The centre of a Lavatera flower
The centre of a Lavatera flower
The centre of a Gazania flower
The centre of a Gazania flower
The White Arum Lily
The White Arum Lily
The centre of a Primrose hybrid
The centre of a Primrose hybrid
Close up of a Tulip flower
Close up of a Tulip flower
For this picture it was necessary to bend one petal out of view to get in really close
For this picture it was necessary to bend one petal out of view to get in really close

CLOSE-UP PHOTOGRAPHY

A flower is attractive when viewed in its entirety and as a part of the whole plant, but it is also worth taking a look at the detail of the flower. The central part is often intricate in design, and colourful in hue. If you wish to attempt such photography for the first time, you will of course need the facility to take close-up pictures, such as a macro lens. For some of these photos I used extension tubes which slot between the camera and lens and allow much closer focusing.

I would suggest tackling flowers which present a relatively flattened, open aspect first. The reason for this is that the closer you get to the subject, the narrower the depth of field through which the subject remains pin-sharp. With a flattened flower, there's a better chance of the whole of the image being in focus. An obvious first choice may be a member of the Compositae - the daisy family.

The other problem with close-ups is light. Less light is available the closer you are to the subject. What's more, to maximise depth of focus, it helps to use a small lens aperture, but this again means less light enters the lens. Most flash units cannot be used at such close range though there is specialist equipment for this purpose. However natural light can also be used with a long exposure to allow more light on to the subject. A tripod will be essential for most images of this kind in order to minimise any camera shake.

The centre of a cactus flower
The centre of a cactus flower
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mammilaria zeilmanniana is one of the most popular of cacti, and very free-floweringAstrophytum asterias, a small round cactus, ideal for growers with limited spaceParodia sanguinifolia, nestled among some rocks which hide the unnatural surroundingsAnacampseros - a succulent from S. Africa. Careful placement of stones improves thisThis is Echeveria, another non-cactus succulent, which lives naturally in Mexico
Mammilaria zeilmanniana is one of the most popular of cacti, and very free-flowering
Mammilaria zeilmanniana is one of the most popular of cacti, and very free-flowering
Astrophytum asterias, a small round cactus, ideal for growers with limited space
Astrophytum asterias, a small round cactus, ideal for growers with limited space
Parodia sanguinifolia, nestled among some rocks which hide the unnatural surroundings
Parodia sanguinifolia, nestled among some rocks which hide the unnatural surroundings
Anacampseros - a succulent from S. Africa. Careful placement of stones improves this
Anacampseros - a succulent from S. Africa. Careful placement of stones improves this
This is Echeveria, another non-cactus succulent, which lives naturally in Mexico
This is Echeveria, another non-cactus succulent, which lives naturally in Mexico

CACTI AND SUCCULENTS

A personal passion of mine is the culture of cacti and similar succulent plants. They are not necessarily the easiest of subjects to photograph however; the archetypal shape of a cactus after all is a globose ball of spines. Small objects require close-up photography and as we've seen, close-up photography generally results in a small depth of field. But if the cactus is globose, then that can create an appreciable depth of field for the size of the plant. What’s more, the spines are usually sharp, and need to look sharp in the image you take. Rather than keeping my cacti in individual pots, I grow them in goups of 10 or 20 in large trays with sand and stones. This not only improves the naturalness of the display - it may also improve the naturalness of any photos one takes. Even so, in some of these pictures a little judicial repositioning of stones was required either to create a more pleasing composition, or to hide the edges of the tray.

One of the many large flowered Epiphyllum cacti. In their native South America, these cacti are unusual in that they grow, not in the desert, but attached to the branches of forest trees
One of the many large flowered Epiphyllum cacti. In their native South America, these cacti are unusual in that they grow, not in the desert, but attached to the branches of forest trees
Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Water Hyacinth, with leaves and water thrown out of focus to emphasise the flowersThe flower stem of a Gladiolus is best imaged in a vertical format such as thisAnother colourful Cyclamen shot at night using flash with a naturally dark backgroundThe Red Hot Poker or Knipfofia hails from Africa, but is very hardy in temperate zonesA backlit blood red Tulip contrasts very powerfully with a black background
The Water Hyacinth, with leaves and water thrown out of focus to emphasise the flowers
The Water Hyacinth, with leaves and water thrown out of focus to emphasise the flowers
The flower stem of a Gladiolus is best imaged in a vertical format such as this
The flower stem of a Gladiolus is best imaged in a vertical format such as this
Another colourful Cyclamen shot at night using flash with a naturally dark background
Another colourful Cyclamen shot at night using flash with a naturally dark background
The Red Hot Poker or Knipfofia hails from Africa, but is very hardy in temperate zones
The Red Hot Poker or Knipfofia hails from Africa, but is very hardy in temperate zones
A backlit blood red Tulip contrasts very powerfully with a black background
A backlit blood red Tulip contrasts very powerfully with a black background

VERTICAL FORMAT PHOTOS

Almost the most basic characteristic of most cameras is that the images produced are not square. They are rectangular and one axis is longer than the other. That means that simply by turning the camera through 90 degrees an entirely different form of composition is achieved. And yet all too many users of cameras never even think of framing their subjects in anything other than the horizontal format. Always think before taking a photo as to the best format in which to present the image, either to show the subject to its best effect, or to hide unwanted background detail.

Many subjects including tall buildings and of course human portraits, lend themselves to a vertical presentation. And so do trees and flower stalks, as these images demonstrate. I would think that at least a third of all my plant and flower photos are presented in this format.

Berberis darwinii, a small evergreen shrub, native to Chile and Argentina
Berberis darwinii, a small evergreen shrub, native to Chile and Argentina
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Gladiolus flowers in close up with light shining through the petals. A rather different approach to the Gladiolus photo in the previous sectionThis is Cosmos, a small herbaceous perennial  and popular bedding plant, grown both for its attractive flowers and its feathery leavesA photographic subject which, as you might expect, could easily suffer from even the gentlest breeze on the flower stalksOne of the many varieties of Astilbe, a popular border plant which grows 2 ft high with red, pink or white feathery plumes of flowersA study of Dicentra spectabilis, the Bleeding Heart, in which the plant has been arranged to show both leaves and flowers
Gladiolus flowers in close up with light shining through the petals. A rather different approach to the Gladiolus photo in the previous section
Gladiolus flowers in close up with light shining through the petals. A rather different approach to the Gladiolus photo in the previous section
This is Cosmos, a small herbaceous perennial  and popular bedding plant, grown both for its attractive flowers and its feathery leaves
This is Cosmos, a small herbaceous perennial and popular bedding plant, grown both for its attractive flowers and its feathery leaves
A photographic subject which, as you might expect, could easily suffer from even the gentlest breeze on the flower stalks
A photographic subject which, as you might expect, could easily suffer from even the gentlest breeze on the flower stalks
One of the many varieties of Astilbe, a popular border plant which grows 2 ft high with red, pink or white feathery plumes of flowers
One of the many varieties of Astilbe, a popular border plant which grows 2 ft high with red, pink or white feathery plumes of flowers
A study of Dicentra spectabilis, the Bleeding Heart, in which the plant has been arranged to show both leaves and flowers
A study of Dicentra spectabilis, the Bleeding Heart, in which the plant has been arranged to show both leaves and flowers

PICTURES IN THE GARDEN

If you have a garden, or access to a park where trees and shrubs are growing and flowering, then a whole world of potential photographs opens up. Of course photography in the garden poses new problems, first and foremost of which may be wind. It takes very little breeze to move fragile stems, leaves and flowers and spoil what might otherwise be a very good photo. There are solutions of course. Simple windbreaks can quite easily be constructed around the plant and these can be effective in preventing all movement. And in your own garden, you have all the time in the world, so take your time. Some photos on this page were taken in a matter of a few seconds, but several took more than an hour, clearing the background or introducing a backdrop of the kind I often use, rearranging leaves or stems to pleasing effect, waiting for the best light, or just waiting for the wind to die down.

Close-up of an autumn leaf, backlit to really intensify the colours
Close-up of an autumn leaf, backlit to really intensify the colours
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A bramble (blackberry) leaf, lit from behind shows off the autumn colours beautifullyThis is a leaf of beetroot, again lit from behind. The veins of this leaf really are a bright redThree leaves showing the three main colour transitions of the autumn foliageBerries are often brightly coloured, and make  good subjects for photographyThis photo is included to show the graceful design of a Pasque (Pulsatilla) seed head
A bramble (blackberry) leaf, lit from behind shows off the autumn colours beautifully
A bramble (blackberry) leaf, lit from behind shows off the autumn colours beautifully
This is a leaf of beetroot, again lit from behind. The veins of this leaf really are a bright red
This is a leaf of beetroot, again lit from behind. The veins of this leaf really are a bright red
Three leaves showing the three main colour transitions of the autumn foliage
Three leaves showing the three main colour transitions of the autumn foliage
Berries are often brightly coloured, and make  good subjects for photography
Berries are often brightly coloured, and make good subjects for photography
This photo is included to show the graceful design of a Pasque (Pulsatilla) seed head
This photo is included to show the graceful design of a Pasque (Pulsatilla) seed head

LEAVES, BERRIES, FRUITS AND SEEDS

Flowers should definitely NOT be thought of as the only subject matter from the plant kingdom suitable for photography. These five photos on the right and the two above and below are intended to illustrate how beautiful in colour or design even such mundane things as leaves, berries, fruits and seeds can be. Three show the colours of autumn leaves, and one shows the beautiful blood-vessel like ‘veins’ in a beetroot leaf. Several of these images were taken with light shining from behind the leaves - because leaves are usually reasonably transparent, the light shining through really intensifies the colours and greatly enhances the beauty (in much the same way as light streaming through a stained glass window intensifies the colours of the window panels). One picture shows the berries on a shrub, and the other two photos show seeds and seed heads - among the most intricate of nature's designs.

Any subject from the world of flora can make a good subject. In this case the delicate and intricate seed heads of the common Dandelion, generally thought of as a weed
Any subject from the world of flora can make a good subject. In this case the delicate and intricate seed heads of the common Dandelion, generally thought of as a weed

CONCLUSIONS

Hopefully these images demonstrate what is possible in the photography of plants and flowers in and around the private home and garden. None of these photos are especially difficult to take, though some require time and patience and just a little bit of gentle manipulation of leaves, stems or flowers to produce the best possible composition. Close-up photography of course is a little more challenging, but with the right equipment, a vast range of subject matter can be tackled as a whole new world of the very small, opens up. If you haven't already tried photography of this kind, do give it a go - flowers and related subjects can make for some of the most attractive photographs you will ever take.

We'll finish off this page with just a few more of my images which I hope you'll like.

Thanks for reading.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Field Poppy - a clear centre spot filter is used to emphasise the flower against the grassSweet Peas - backlit with a black backdropPortulaca - a very attractive sun-loving annual plant for the flower bedThis is Phlox subulata, a small alpine, ideal for growing on the rock gardenA variety of the well known climber ClematisThis is a variety of the shrubby border plant Cytisus or Broom. This one is called 'Goldfinch'Pieris japonica is one of the more attractive shrubs for the borderSorbus decora (Showy Mountain Ash) imaged at the Cambridge Botanical GardensAn Epiphyllum cactus similar to one shown earlier. These are popular as house plantsOne of the most free-flowering cacti. This is called Rebutia senilis kesselringiana
Field Poppy - a clear centre spot filter is used to emphasise the flower against the grass
Field Poppy - a clear centre spot filter is used to emphasise the flower against the grass
Sweet Peas - backlit with a black backdrop
Sweet Peas - backlit with a black backdrop
Portulaca - a very attractive sun-loving annual plant for the flower bed
Portulaca - a very attractive sun-loving annual plant for the flower bed
This is Phlox subulata, a small alpine, ideal for growing on the rock garden
This is Phlox subulata, a small alpine, ideal for growing on the rock garden
A variety of the well known climber Clematis
A variety of the well known climber Clematis
This is a variety of the shrubby border plant Cytisus or Broom. This one is called 'Goldfinch'
This is a variety of the shrubby border plant Cytisus or Broom. This one is called 'Goldfinch'
Pieris japonica is one of the more attractive shrubs for the border
Pieris japonica is one of the more attractive shrubs for the border
Sorbus decora (Showy Mountain Ash) imaged at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens
Sorbus decora (Showy Mountain Ash) imaged at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens
An Epiphyllum cactus similar to one shown earlier. These are popular as house plants
An Epiphyllum cactus similar to one shown earlier. These are popular as house plants
One of the most free-flowering cacti. This is called Rebutia senilis kesselringiana
One of the most free-flowering cacti. This is called Rebutia senilis kesselringiana
Unusually among the photographs on this page, these daisies were shot in a field in Cambridgeshire, England. The green of the grass, the underside of the daisy heads and the beautiful patterns in the sky, all hopefully work well together
Unusually among the photographs on this page, these daisies were shot in a field in Cambridgeshire, England. The green of the grass, the underside of the daisy heads and the beautiful patterns in the sky, all hopefully work well together

COPYRIGHT

Please feel free to quote limited text from this article, or to use my photos, on condition that a viable link back to this page is included

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