Happy Easter! When it’s Easter there are usually a lot wildflowers to be found and I can’t resist taking a few close-ups of the flowers when I am out hiking. Yesterday I came across a rather large patch of bluebonnets on my hike and that gave me the opportunity to shoot close-ups and experiment with the background. I think a really nice background can greatly improve a close-up of a flower.
Getting a good close-up with a nice background is actually quite a process. I must have spent 20 minutes or so crouching around in the bluebonnet patch working on various shots. What I had in mind was a single flower isolated from a colorful background so that it would stand out and the color in the background would mimic the color of the flower.
So, first I crept around the flower patch trying to find an isolated and tall flower. It needed to be a flower that I could focus on with some distance between it and the flowers behind it. I also wanted an attractive enough flower to focus on. And I needed the scene to be free of other grasses, and shrubs that would be distracting.
Once I found a subject, I had to set up to take the picture. Getting good background blur, or Bokeh in photography terms, requires a shallow depth of field on the subject relative to it’s distance from the background. Getting shallow depth of field requires using subject-to-background separation, focus distance, aperture, and focal length together to achieve the desired result. The most important of these factors are subject-to-background separation and focus distance, which is why I was searching for an isolated flower with bare patch between it and the background flowers.
The depth of field refers to the distance in front of and behind the focus point in which objects are considered to be in focus. With a shallow depth of field, focus falls off quickly with distance from the focus point and background and foreground items get blurrier than they would with a deep depth of field. To get a shallow depth of field it is important that the camera is close to your subject. This is because depth of field decreases dramatically as focus distance decreases. Shooting with a longer focal length will also result in a shallower depth of field. So when I found a suitable flower, I positioned the camera at near the lens’ minimum focus distance from the flower. This is 2.3 ft / 0.7 m at 200mm focal length according to the spec sheet (NIKKOR Z 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR), but in practice I just set the lens to 200mm and kept moving the camera back until it would focus on the flower. The background flowers being about 4 times farther away from the lens than the subject should result in good background blur.
A wider aperture will also reduce the depth of field, helping to blur the background. The widest aperture my lens will do at 200mm is f/6.3, which is not especially wide but I think it’s good enough. A lens with a wider aperture like f/2.8 will give you a shallower depth of field and thus more bokeh, but it is not nearly as important as subject-to-background separation and focus distance. You can get really good results with lower cost, slower lens by using subject-to-background separation and focus distance. At 200mm focal length, f/6.3, and about 0.7m focus distance, my depth of field was a few millimeters and anything 2 meters or so behind the subject is completely out of focus.
I also had to do a lot of crouching down or sitting in some cases in the weeds so that I could get down at flower level to align the background. It also meant shooting using the screen on the back of the camera rather that with the viewfinder as I generally prefer. So I took a lot of shots, reviewed the images, and tried again until I got what I wanted.
In the image below I have two flowers blurred in the background to mimic the subject flower. The blurred flowers in the background softly repeat the subject’s colors and shape, supporting the subject without distracting from it by drawing the viewer’s attention as they would if they were in focus.
With a little shooting strategy, you can get close-ups of flowers to pop with a nice out-of-focus background. And you don’t really need and expensive “bokeh monster” lens to get nice results as maximum aperture is often less important than camera positioning. But you may have to get down in the weeds with the bugs and other critters to get the shot at flower level. Fortunately, as I was crouching around in the bluebonnets I didn’t run into any critters like the one I found later along the hiking trail.
How does that saying go? “red and yellow, kill a fellow”? Something like that. Anyway, thanks for reading and go enjoy some spring wildflowers if you can.