When I was thinking of a topic for this post, I came across an article saying that one of the most commonly photographed subjects are flowers. I did a little research (ok, just Google’s keyword tool) and it seems that’s probably true. Especially for hobbyists and aspiring photographers, flowers are a likely place to start. So, I couldn’t help but think why.
Flowers often make easy subjects because of their beauty and color. When we see them, many of us just want to take a picture right away. But on the other hand, we can easily rely too much on the flower itself “making” the photo and overlook other important elements, like lighting and good composition. This is why you’ve probably seen thousands of boring flower photos and only a small selection that really stick in your mind or stand out.
When you try to photograph a flower in black and white, it forces you to see it in a new way, beyond just its pretty color. Hopefully, the techniques below help you focus on the other reasons you are taking the photo, and really create a picture with interest. Even if you’re not shooting flowers in black and white, these tips will help you with your color photos too!
Three essential tips for getting great flower photos in black and white:
1. Minimize what’s in your photo
Try to remove everything from the frame that isn’t absolutely necessary to the shot. Meaning, anything that isn’t adding to the image or the overall feeling you are trying to achieve, get rid of it. Even other flowers could be distracting.
If the photo still isn’t working, try to:
- Get closer to the flower
- Select only one flower, rather than several in your shot
- Crop into a particular area of interest, not the entire flower
- Go for details or patterns only
2. Find contrast between the flower and background
Look for tonal range (areas of dark and light) rather than differences in color. For instance, red and green are very different colors, but look almost exactly the same in black and white. Make your subject stand out by being different than your background in tone and texture. Zooming in more blurs out the background, giving it a softer focus and therefore a difference in texture.
3. Work with what you have
Don’t’ give up just because you don’t have the “right” lighting or “perfect” weather. There is almost always a way to create something, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind.
If you have wind, try going with it and creating something abstract using a slow shutter speed. Show the motion rather than trying to stop it. If you have bright sun, you can make a silhouette or shoot through the flower. (Avoid getting both sun and shade on the portion of the flower you are shooting.) If you have a dull or cloudy day, it’s great for opening up the aperture and getting a soft focus image.
First image below: slow shutter image on a windy day. Second image: Shooting with light coming through the leaves. Third one: soft focus and wide aperture on an overcast day.
It’s not all about your gear. Many compact cameras can focus closer than expensive DSLR lenses and get great macro shots. Also, you can try going farther away and zooming in on the flower in order to separate it from the background and create the soft focus look of an expensive close up lens. (Two of the photos in this post were shot with a point-and-shoot camera. Can you tell which ones???)
Most flower photos rely on color alone which can be boring if the composition isn’t strong. Shooting black and white flowers forces you to think beyond just the color and look at the other aspects in the image, such as the lighting, the contrast, the composition the subject matter itself. That is not to say you can’t take great color images of flowers… you can. It’s just harder to make them stand out because everyone has seen so many flower photos! Make sure you incorporate some other elements as well.
Does is always work? Black and white doesn’t work well for photos with low tonal range, meaning colors that are similar in brightness. For example, a red flower against a green background will look very dull when converted to black and white because it will turn out all nearly the same shade of gray.
It also doesn’t work well for photos that are similar in texture or lacking patterns and details.
Below is an example of a photo that doesn’t do as well in black and white,in my opinion. As you can see the color version is better. The yellow flowers stand out a little in grayscale, but it’s much nicer to look at this shot in color, isn’t it?