Telephoto Lenses to Compress a Scene

It had been a longtime goal to shoot the fields of sunflowers in Tuscany. But trips there in June were too early, and trips in August were too late. Then, one summer, on a drive to Cortona a field of perfect sunflowers appeared, at a time when all the others were far past prime. Apparently the farmer had been late sowing that plot. The field was in a flat area, efficient for farming, but without the hilly beauty typical of Tuscany. So: how to take advantage of this opportunity, when the “hillside of flowers” archetype was not possible?

The first images shot were with a standard length lens, and results, as shown at the bottom below, were unimpressive. However, switching to a long telephoto lens, and using the car as a shooting platform for height, produced the top image below, a simple field image, with no sky, no horizon, no foreground, or any of the other typical landscape elements. And yet this image is one that is so evocative for people that it remains in the portfolio year after year.


200mm lens shot of the sunflower field, compressing the scene from above.Sunflowers40mm-1

40mm lens shot, up close, producing much more emphasis on the flowers in the foreground.

C. David Tobie

Off-Axis Symmetry

Some objects, particularly architecture and flowers, are so powerfully symmetrical that their geometry shines through even without centering on it. Try shooting such images from an angle, or off center, to create a more dynamic balance.  Here, the angled view shows both the geometry of the flower, and the arc of the petals, while the offset location adjusts for that angle, at the same time creating a balanced image.


C. David Tobie

Dark Floral Photography

Floral photography is typically about light and brilliant color. But thats not how it has to be. It makes for striking floral images to shoot in dimmer locations with lower key colors. Here all that was required was to stoop under an overhanging tree, and shoot in the deep shade to achieve a notably different type of floral image, pleasing, but with a very different key and palette.

DarkFloral-1C. David Tobie

Shallow Depth of Focus Macros

With tools such as focus stacking making deep focus images easier and easier to produce, its important to remember what shallow depth of focus can bring to a macro image. Not only does it tell the eye which portion of the shot we would like them to focus on, it also gives a heady sense of depth, by making things just millimeters apart show clearly as different focal planes.

Here the rules are broken even further, by focusing the viewer’s attention on the delicately pinked ends of the petals, while having the stamen at the center of the flowers extend beyond the focal plane.

ShallowDOFMacro-1C. David Tobie

Utilizing Unique Backgrounds

We shoot many of the same subjects time after time. So it can be important to keep an eye out for instances where the background creates a unique settings or contrast to the subject. Sometimes a black backdrop is available, from the right angle. In others a distant backdrop unfocussed with a shallow depth of field will do the trick.

In this instance, the ferns in the photo were growing through the hole at the center of an old lichen-covered millstone, providing a rather unworldly, and very detailed, backdrop to the otherwise typical fern fronds. This is such an unusual result that I have been asked if I had placed a vase of ferns on a countertop to create this shot.


C. David Tobie

Techniques for Floral Photography; or Any Photography

Floral photography seems to be a frequent topic recently. This article is a series of photos, each focused on a single concept that can enrich floral images, or many other types of images.

Include Architecture: Architecture can add to floral images by providing a context, telling a story, and strengthening the visual image.

Shoot LoChro: Flower images are often about brilliant color. But don’t forget to consider low saturation images as a way to produce subtle and unique floral images.

Create Geometries: Flowers have powerful geometries of their own. But that doesn’t stop the photographer from choosing to create image geometries with the camera.

Shoot Texture Shots: Texture shots are “field/event” images without the event, or more often with an unending field of events. Such images can be very emotive, if carefully planned. Here a long lens from above the field, at an angle to the rows, was used to create this unending sea of sunflowers.

Mix In Other Plants: Flowers aren’t the only plants or plant elements worth shooting. Adding in dead branches, other plant types, or in this case wheat heads, enriches the image. Anyone familiar with Tuscany will find a story about a poppy in a wheat field in this closeup, even though it was actually shot in a garden.

Shoot Impresssionist Canvases: Fields without individual events can become abstract expressionist paintings, or impressionist images, depending on the treatment. Here Lightroom’s Clarity control was uses in the reverse direction of usual, to create a smooth, dreamy effect.

Add Unexpected Elements: An image where the floral elements are insufficient to create a captivating image become more successful when another element is added. Here there is an element of surprise, an element of humor, and an increase in the color range added to the image, since the yellow wildflowers don’t provide the level of hot color that the red phone booth does.

Shoot with your Phone:  iPhone photography is becoming very popular, and as the phone cameras improve, and the phone software becomes more powerful, it is becoming possible to shoot, process, and publish great images, especially macros, directly from your phone, as with this image.

Shoot Intriguing Backgrounds:  An image is far more interesting with a contrasting background. Sometimes balancing the interest with an in-focus background element can produce a stronger image than going for the out-of-focus background that avoids competing. Here an old millstone had ferns growing through the hole in the center. The unusual color of the stone, and the lichens growing on it, are far more unique then the fern, and provide a second level of color, detail, and texture.

Shoot Aesthetic Decay: Not all of Italy has the well maintained stonework of Tuscany. Here the plain concrete stucco forms dynamic patterns as it absorbs the rain, the flaking whitewash on the window frame offers a finer texture, and the weathered wood enhances the sense of disrepair. Even the flowers are struggling, adding to the story.

Form Color Relationships: The most interesting aspect of this image is the color relationships between the flowering plants at the right, and the bicycle on the left. Without those relationships, this image would either have not been shot, or have been shot but never used.

Freeze Motion: In full sunlight shooting, fast shutter speeds can be used to freeze birds, bees, and butterflies, adding a dynamic quality to floral shots.

Compose Around the Flowers:  It would have been possible to shoot a number of compositions at this location. Including the flowers as a middle, instead of a foreground layer, adds to the image and the story it tells.

Offset Your Main Element: Don’t automatically center your main element. Symmetrical images are powerful, and are best for many uses, but in a case such as this, the organic nature of an off-center key element improves the composition and interest of the photo. Focal variation enhances the effect, giving depth to what could be a flat field with a single event.

Emphasize the Insects: Sometimes the insects are more interesting than the flowers. Be sure to shoot them for their own sake, as well as building them into floral-oriented images.

Utilize Focal Options: Focus can be a powerful tool. It can emphasize the areas that you want to focus on, and it can create dramatic effects in the rest of the image. Here a LensBaby has been used for both its dreamy variable focus qualities, and its macro abilities.

Replicate Forms and Colors: A shot with this butterfly’s wings up would be more typical, but here the form of the wings and the flower are related, as are their colors, strengthening the relationship.

Shoot the Animals: Nothing adds interest and life to an image quite like a live animal. Here the off-center location of the waterlily is counterbalanced by the location of the frog in the frame, and the contrasting color of the flower is contrasted by the matching color of the frog. All these relationships add interest to the image.

Shoot Dried Flowers Too: Last years flower heads may not look inviting, when there are bright, fresh flowers to shoot, but they offer contrast, and a different dynamic from fresh blossoms.

Include Lichens and Moss: They may not be flowers, but they can enrich an image, as can the color and texture of stone. Without this bright orange lichen, these modest stalks would hardly have warranted a photo.

Shoot Windowboxes: Be sure to include the building involved, for justification and context.

Celebrate Bokeh: The out-of-focus sections of this image are at least as enjoyable as the flower that it focuses on, due to the lovely bokeh pattern the lens forms. A deep focus shot here would be mostly about mulch.

Shoot Buds: Sometimes the story a bud has to tell is more compelling than the full-blown flower it will become. Here a macro lens offers lots of detail and texture to go with the single bit of color in the bud.

Let the Bees Stay: Even when you don’t choose to make them the focus of the image they add interest to an otherwise simple image.

Include Context: Its all too easy to fill the frame with blossoms, especially from a flowering tree or bush. But backing up and finding an attractive context for such a shot increases its interest.

Climb Way In: Some times the most satisfying shot includes only part of the flower, or has only part of the flower in focus. Paying attention to getting a good background is important when there is so little in an image.

Shoot Butterflies: Nothing goes with flowers quite like butterflies. But be sure to justify the inclusion, and form a strong relationship, with similarities or contrasts, between the butterfly and the floral elements. Here the butterfly contrasts as the only warm color, and the only high contrast element. The butterfly and the single in-focus stem combine to form a centered element against the strong focal distortion of the background.

Shoot Shadows: Paying attention to shadows doesn’t only mean avoiding them. It can also mean using them as intentional compositional elements. Here two different stories play out on the same surface. The color detail of the leaf, and the shadow pattern of the flower stalk.

Utilize Dark Backdrops: Dark backgrounds can provide excellent contrast to bright, and brightly lit, flowers, creating a different look in a floral image.

Shoot the Dew: Dewdrops are as beautiful as diamonds if shot with a macro lens. Early  mornings offer a wide array of dewdrop shots to those willing to get just a bit damp.

Form Patterns:  Flowers contain powerful patterns. Its easy to contrast this to random, organic spacings between flowers. But it can also be very powerful to align the lens in a way that defines a pattern of patterns, as happens here with the symmetry of the background flowers behind the central focal flower.

Shoot Dark, Rich Florals: Floral images don’t have to be bright to be beautiful. Deeper, darker images can be satisfying as well. Getting under the shrubbery produced this mysterious shot with no extra effort beyond stooping under the overhanging branches.

Shoot Off-Center: Despite the innate symmetry of flowers, moving off-center, and framing off-center, can produce dynamic, satisfying compositions.

Utilize Shallow Depth of Focus: Shallow depth of focus isn’t just a limitation, its a tool, and can add a sense of depth to a floral image, by defining planes within the flower.

Use Contast, Not Just Saturation: Floral images are so often about saturation, that it can be unique to produce images which are more about contrast. Here the deep green of the background still defines this as a color image, but the flower itself is all about the light-on-dark contrast.

Dare to Be Out of Focus: Most viewers are unwilling to accept an entire image that is out of focus, but the photographer gets to choose which elements are in or out. Here the poppy clinging to the rock is the dominant color element, and the dominant foreground element, but not the point of focus for the image, which goes on to emphasize the steep street, the valley below, and the cloud beyond. Sandwiching together an infinite focus image would lose the poetry of the blurred blossom.

Use One-Point Perspective: Street and Architectural photography frequently benefit from the power of one-point perspective. No reason floral shots can’t do the same, by shooting between rows, down walks, and in other locations where the vanishing point is at the center of the image. This image takes advantage of a number of the methods described in this article; see how many you can find.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: Return to Blog’s Main Page