Shooting Small Flowers with a Macro Lens

Example "Tufted White Prairie Aster - Symphyotrichum ericoides"

What I want out of
the image
in order of importance to me ( which may well be something other
that what you would desire ) and some
facts
.

  1. A  semi-documentary approach.
  2. An  image where all parts of the flower of interest at that point in time are
         sharp; this often means some parts are out of focus ( leaves, if present,
         especially lower leaves are often out of focus ).
  3. Most  often the flowers are wild flowers.
  4. Quite  often a single flower is smaller that 
         the photo sensor height. In my case, using an Olympus E-620 this is
         13mm ( about ½ inch ). The lens I use is the Olympus
         35mm 1:1 Macro. Minimum focus distance ( from sensor ) is .146 meters (
         about 5 3/8” ).
  5. Getting  close to the correct colour is nice. My camera has problem rendering the
         proper colour with some purples/blue; I rarely correct this.
  6. Getting  a visually appealing image is nice but I’m not very good at this.
  7. Getting  the proper name of the flower ( if wild ) is nice and I’m improving.
  8. My  use of flash is hit and miss but most often I don’t use flash.
  9. I  most often shoot mid-day which can mean bright harsh light.
  10. I am  not terribly concerned that the background be out of focus.
  11. I do  go through the lens alignment process and an alignment was necessary.
  12. I  don’t clean my lens enough.
  13. I am  generally satisfied with enough of my shots to keep me happy.
  14. My  tripod is a Manfrotto XPROB, which I find too heavy, together with a
         Manfrotto 410 ( 3 way adjustable head ). This does work well.

Some things I don’t
do.

  1. Focus stacking.
  2. Pixel level adjustments.
  3. Pick  the wild flowers ( even if invasive weeds ).
  4. Touch the wild flowers directly – some sensitive flowers in some situations will
         die.
  5. Pull  other wild plants to “improve” the picture except some very common grasses
         and even then will usually just bend them temporarily out of the way – if
         I can’t get the image I would like I just don’t.
  6. Put a background behind the flower; I am considering doing this in some cases.
  7. Step into a flower bed without a direct invitation ( or my own bed ) and even
         then with due care and attention to each plant.

Other equipment.

  1. Knee  pads to avoid painful surprises. - J
         Yes you need to wear them for them to be of any use.
  2. Extra  battery. One is all too often not enough.
  3. 99  cent tape measure.
  4. Extra  card. Two 8GB CF cards which I switch when one is full; the camera also has
         an XD slot in which I have a 2GB card as an emergency (slower) backup.
  5. Kata  3N1-20 ( midsize ) sling bag. Don’t always carry this bag and supplies
         listed here if a very short nearby outing. Water, food ( do carry home any
         empty bags/wrappers/containers ) if planning a trip to the mountain. Emergency
         supplies like windup flashlight, matches in waterproof container, fire
         starting material, emergency lightweight small space blanket(2), extra lightweight
         jacket, whistle, magnetic compass, all-in-one tool like a Swiss Army knife.
         Lens cleaning kit. Insect repellent. Sunscreen spf 30 minimum. I rarely
         carry an extra lens. Clear plastic bag to change lens in field. I don’t
         have a backup camera.
  6. Clothes  appropriate to location (e.g. hiking shoes in the Rockies)
         and possible weather.
  7. GPS   with tracking enabled to log every 15 seconds and extra batteries. A) to
         get back if lost, and B) to find a particular plant at later date. Often
         not used when shooting in a familiar area.
  8. Thinking  of adding a wind break/background for flowers.

Why the E-620 with
the 35mm lens.

  1. Inexpensive.
  2. Very  full function.
  3. Gives  reasonable SLR entry level quality.

The shooting process.

  1. Find  a flower that I wish to shoot. This most often means in a public natural
         environment park of which my city has many. I have sometimes gone with a
         naturalist on an arranged visit to private land. A couple of times a year
         I will drive to Rocky
          Mountain parks about
         1 ½ to 2 ½ hours away.
  2. Plan  and do avoid trampling other plants to get at a plant of interest.
  3. Examine  the flower from several angles.
  4. Setup  tripod placing legs with care to avoid damaging other plants. Most often
         this means finding grass or rock on which to place the legs. If this
         cannot be achieved, I will often try P mode flash from a little further
         away or skip the shot.
  5. This  also involves finding places to set you feet and others body parts with the
         same limitations.
  6. Most  often I use one of the legs of the tripod as a the camera support.
  7. Make  sure the angle and distance are appropriate. Readjust as necessary.
    1. The  horizontal angle, with respect to the ground, is chosen based on my
            visual perception of a “good” shot. That being 0 degrees is eye on to the
            plant and 90 degrees shooting straight down at the plant.
    2. The  distance is primarily chosen to ensure the relevant parts of the plant
            will be in reasonably good focus; this is, a proper depth of field. Using
            a ruler for a few times is helpful. Depth of field facts for the
            E-620/35mm combination                                                            
      i.     
      Diffraction limited aperture is vaguely F/7.                                                           
      ii.     
      I tend to shot most shots at F/8.0. Bigger flowers may
      be shot at F/5.6. I will sometimes shoot at F/9 to F/11 for increased depth of
      field; to my eye the level of degradation due to diffraction is relatively
      insignificant                                                         
      iii.     
      At F/8.
      - at the minimum focus distance of .146 m ( about 5.4” –
      the front of the lens is less than 2” from the subject ) the depth of field is
      about 3.2 mm (about 1/8” )
      - at .244 m ( about 9.5” ) the dof is about 1cm ( ~3/8” )
      - at .337m ( about 13.3” ) the dof is about 2cm ( ~3/4” );
      and
      - at .469m (  about
      18.5” ) the dof is about 4cm ( ~1 5/8” ).
  8. Visually set centre spot focus on a point approximately ½ way through the depth of
         field. Example, you are shooting a flower head on and the bottom of the
         flower is a distance of .239 m from your sensor and the top the closest
         petal is .249 m for a depth of field of 1 cm. You would then set spot
         focus at a point on the flower about .244 m away; for auto focus you must
         use spot focus or focus is a pure luck. If you do this for awhile by
         careful measurement, then later on approximating the required distance
         from the tripod leg to the flower will become second nature.
  9. The  camera should be at base ISO ( ISO 200 for the E-620 ).
  10. Noise  reduction is disabled.
  11. Default  sharpness set to minimal ( -2 on the E-620 ).
  12. Yes,  I should verify all my settings. I tend to do this once at the start of a
         trip and then only when the images don’t appear to be as I expected ( at review
         step below ). My camera is left in RAW only output.
  13. The  camera should be in mode A ( aperture ).
  14. Estimate  and set exposure compensation. Because I tend to have a single central
         bright object I find ETTR rather irrelevant ( that is, I don’t generally
         care about shadow noise. Yes it does matter sometimes and yes sometimes I
         will “Expose To The Right”.).
  15. Half  press the shutter release to focus (this assumes phase detection focus or
         at least fast focus – I generally do not use live view (contrast
         detection)). A wind relevant note. Most flowers even in “calm” conditions
         will sway in the wind. The "when you half press" becomes as important as the spot on which          you  focus.
         If you cannot focus you must attempt a wind abatement process ( tent, move
         body in way of wind, use a small dead grass stem(s) to limit flower
         movement, etc ). In cases with just a bit too much wind no matter what my
         next choice is 1) move further back (large crop will be required), move
         the mode S and set speed to 1/500th second or faster.
  16. Press  shutter release the rest of the way when the flower is at least relatively
         in the right position and the sway is minimal – patience is required.
  17. Review  histogram and image. Repeat  last
         three steps above until happy with the result.
  18. Start  again at step 1 with same plant at a different angle or find a new plant
         or go home ( tired and happy of course ).
  19. At    home transfer images to your computer and process in your favourite
         package. I use the delivered Olympus Viewer 2.
  20. Recharge  all batteries as necessary ( visibly discharged ).
  21. Process  images judged to be of reasonable quality.
  22. Crop as appropriate both artistically ( remove unwanted elements ) and for
         final output ratios (example 4by5 to print 8” by 10”). This may involve a
         tilt adjustment.
  23. Adjust  exposure as necessary. If using ETTR this is often a negative number.
  24. Adjust  colour if feeling feisty ( Kelvin setting for some blue/purple flowers ).
         A light touch of the “Emerald Green” colour filter on some occasions to
         adjust the leaves.
  25. I  sometimes adjust the tone curve to lighten some too dark components (
         lower dark contrast ).
  26. Sharpen  via USM ( unsharp mask). 300/1.8/0 works in Viewer 2 for a full size image
         with default sharpness set to -2. Quarter (area) size about 250/1.6/0.
         Smaller ( more cropped ) as low as 100/.6/0. Note – this is for a final
         size of about 1008 * 756 pixels suitable for web or for a 4” by 6” print.
         If printing at 8” by 10” a better starting point is probably 150/.8/0;
         this is also appropriate starting point if viewing a full size image
         onscreen at 100%.
  27. Resize  per application. Most often, for me, to 1008 by 756( 1/16 size ) suitable
         to post on the web. If printing this will vary or not happen at all.
  28. Save as jpeg high quality.
  29. Post, print, email, etc

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

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