Big Lens Spring Impressions of Small Flowers

It’s the day of the spring equinox and here are some spring impressions! Even with another very dry winter, in some more or less reliable places, a bunch of reliable blooms show up in San Diego’s inland areas. In the last couple of days we’ve been out on some local walks to see some of them — and make photos, of course. :)

I shared some of the following photos with my photo club at yesterday’s meeting, and also explained how I make these close-up photos of rather small flowers, with a rather big lens. First, the photos — the camera technique follows below, if you’re interested.

Camera & Lens Technique

It may seem counterintuitive to use a big “birder/wildlife” type of lens (I’m using my 200-500mm zoom) to make close-up photos of pretty small flowers at first — and indeed, hauling the big lens and using it at ground level isn’t exactly the most relaxing and meditative practice of photography. ;) It certainly leads to some awkward and uncomfortable positions, in particular if you need to use the viewfinder — my camera’s display doesn’t swivel and/or rotate, for example…

But there’s also a clear advantage, namely the combination of subject isolation with a narrow depth of field at close range, while at the same time still having enough depth of field on the overall subject itself — something that is not as easily achieved with a macro lens at close range.

The photos above where made in the range of 380mm to 500mm, at f/5.6 (to see the individual exposure data of the photos above, you can click or tap on any of them to open the “carousel” viewer, and click or tap on the little “i” for info icon). They were also all made at or near the minimum focusing distance of the lens, 2.2 meters (~7 feet).

The closer you are, the narrower the depth of field, and on a full frame camera, using the minimum focus distance of 2.2 meters at 500mm results in an area of acceptable sharpness of just 0.51 cm (1/5th of an inch). Which doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t, but if you get the focus right, most of the time it’s enough to get the critical parts of the flower or plant sharp. And everything that’s in front and to the back is rendered into an increasingly out of focus blur.

How good the out of focus area (aka “bokeh”) looks vastly depends on the lens. It’s the reason why I prefer the 200-500mm over my 70-300mm: while the latter is much lighter and has a closer minimum focus distance (1.2 meters, ~4 feet) that would lead to an equally shallow depth of field, its rendition of out of focus areas is just not as soft and smooth.

Compositionally speaking, in order to get the most pleasing out of focus areas (in particular in front of the plant, to obscure messy dirt, dead plant material and such), the camera needs to be really low. Not “I’ll get down on my knees” low, or “I’ll squat” low, no — very often, it’s “flat on your belly” low, in order to have an obstacle to photograph through, at the bottom of the frame. Putting the camera directly on the ground might be too low, though. My 200-500mm lens has a foot thankfully, and I can either put my hand (uncomfortable) or a beanbag (better) under it if I need to.

I mentioned getting the focus right above, and this is one of the difficulties that may very well lead to foul language: a desirable “obstacle” in front of the camera, to help blur parts of the frame, may very well be what the camera’s autofocus will catch on to. Or, if you photograph small flowers growing in tall grass, it will catch onto something entirely different!

Here’s an older example:

To get the flower in focus and not some of the grass, it was necessary to focus manually. Considering the acceptable depth of field of just 51mm, this can be frustratingly tricky, of course. The focus ring on my 200-500mm lens is not made for such very fine adjustments! I try to manually pre-focus and then hope that the autofocus will catch on to what I have placed under the AF sensor, hoping to refine focus with the camera’s aid. Sometimes, it works! Other times, it leads to cussing. ;)

Last not least, there’s the shutter speed: even though the lens is stabilized (VR, OS, IS, etc. — whatever it’s named on your camera system) with the promise of getting “up to 4 stops worth” of stabilization, I keep the shutter speed at 1/250 second at 500mm, ie. only one stop slower than the 1-over-focal-length rule would dictate. At the closest distance to focus, the angular movement is higher (similar to macro work), and out in nature, wind often plays an adverse role too.

I hope this article and the insights I shared are helpful if you find the results beautiful enough to make you want to try this technique yourself.

PS: the Apiastrum, Scutellaria, Acmispon and Gilia were made in direct sunlight and shaded with a diffuser, which I wrote about before: The Single Best Tool for Better Nature Close-Up Photos.


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5 thoughts on “Big Lens Spring Impressions of Small Flowers”

  1. I’ve always found it interesting how the lens “sees” through all the various layers and how they end up rendered. I’ve found myself just racking focus from one end to the other to find out what little isolated gems are revealed. Like you’ve shown here quite well, the bokeh ends up self-complimentary.

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  2. Lovely images as always! You’ve given me something to think about for this spring. I often will use my 70-300 to shoot flowers but never really thought about using the 500 unless it was all I had with me. I may have to take it to use on purpose and see what results I get. Thanks for the inspiration as always.

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  3. Great article, Alex. This is a technique I stumbled across largely due to practicality. I would often go out birding with my large lens. It’s heavy and bulky enough I don’t like carrying much else with me, so if I happened to find some great flowers or plants I wanted to photograph I had to use what I had with me, the big lens. Over time I discovered I really liked how it rendered the scene for exactly the reasons you stated, though of course, there were also all the tradeoffs and challenges you mentioned. I’ve not actually photographed very small flowers this way in quite some time, though, so this is inspiration to perhaps try a little of that this year.

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