Although, we usually associate flower photography with lighter colours and warmer months, a recent trend towards dark and moody florals in photography, wallpaper, and other decorative items has really taken off. This look has a special and distinctive appeal.
Flowers are so fun to photograph because they are naturally beautiful subjects. They are inherently colourful and full of texture, shape and interest.
However, as with any genre of photography, shooting florals presents its own challenges and requires a specific approach to ensure you get the best results.
Much of what is written here can be applied to flower photography in general. But there are some special tips you should know before embarking on dark and moody flower photography in particular.
1. Get the Right Equipment
You don’t necessarily need a lot of equipment to shoot floral photography, but having the right gear is necessary.
One of the most important items is a macro lens. A macro lens will give you beautiful bokeh and the sharpness required in flower photos. A go-to lens for shooting florals is a 100mm macro but a 24-70mm zoom lens is also great to have in your kit–especially for overhead shots.
If you’ve ever tried to photograph overhead with a macro, you would have to be on a ladder to get high enough to frame your shot. In this case, being able to shoot at 50mm to 60mm is more suitable. A zoom lens can give you some versatility.
You will also need a tripod. In shooting still lifes of flowers, it’s important to get the sharpest images possible. This means you’ll need a way to keep the camera very steady.
Whenever you press the shutter, the movement triggers a small vibration that can cause camera shake and your images will look less than tack sharp. Using a shutter release will prevent this. If you’re shooting tethered in Lightroom, you can trigger the shutter directly from the software.
When you use a tripod, your hands are free to assess your scene and make adjustments. Flower photography is no different from other types of still life photography. You must take the utmost care when composing simple or minimal subjects to get the best out of them.
Another reason for using a tripod is focus stacking. Focus stacking is the process of combining several images with different focus points in Photoshop to create an image that is sharp everywhere it needs to be.
It’s easier than it sounds, and it’s great when shooting florals. For this technique, you will need to have images that are aligned. Using a tripod will ensure that.
You will also need a diffuser and reflectors to sculpt the light. Dark reflectors will absorb light and help create the required shadows you need for moody flower photography.
In the images of the peonies I shot overhead, I backlit my shots and used black cardboard on either side of the subject to create a narrow path for the light. This ensured that the light just skimmed the middle of my scene, where I had placed my flowers and wanted to attract the eye.
To deepen this effect, you can add a vignette in Lightroom or Photoshop. A vignette draws the eye into the centre of the frame.
A diffuser will absorb direct light whereas a white bounce card can direct light into areas that need more light and give flowers a soft, natural glow.
2. Get the Right Background
When you use a background like wood, a painted background, fabric or any other non-natural background, be sure to use a dark colour to create mood and contrast. In my images of the peonies, I used a navy blue textured background, which read almost black because of the heavy shadows.
There are many types of backgrounds you can use. Some sites like Soularty, Woodeville Workshop, and Erickson Woodworks sell custom made photography backgrounds, but you can easily make your own for a fraction of the cost.
Items that you may already have around the house like tablecloths, scarves, burlap, velvet, craft paper, cardboard or even old cookie sheets all make excellent backgrounds. Choose neutral colours like black, brown, or grey. Darker shades of blue also work beautifully in dark floral photography as they complement a lot of colours.
Some of my favourite backgrounds are made of canvas. Canvas has a fine and natural texture that adds dimension to an image without distracting the viewer from the subject. To make these backgrounds, I buy a large painter’s dropcloth at the hardware store, along with some paint samples. I cut the canvas into large squares and paint them in the desired colours.
You can use one colour or you can choose two or three colours and layer them for even more dimension. These backgrounds are inexpensive to make and can be rolled up for easy storage.
Of course, you may be shooting your flower subjects outdoors. In that case you will already have a natural background! Be sure to focus on the important part of the flower and use a shallow depth-of-field to blur out the background.
A lot of foliage or other background elements in focus can look messy and detract the eye from the main subject. The subject needs to be isolated.
3. Compose Your Subject
There are many ways to approach composing your subject. For example, you don’t have to get your whole flower in the shot, especially if you’re shooting close up.
Think about how we view flowers in real life and change that perspective. We often look down at flowers when we’re outside, so why not get low to the ground and photograph them from a much lower point of view?
Consider the parts of the flower that you most want to bring out. Is it the cabbage-like layers of the peony or is it the tight inner bud of the rose? Or maybe it’s the stamen, in which case you’d want to get super close and abstract.
Review some of the rules of composition, like Rule-of-Thirds, the Golden Spiral, negative space, focal point etc, because they can all apply here.
If you’re shooting in natural light, using your camera’s “Live View” function is an excellent tool to help you compose your shots.
Also, Lightroom has compositional overlays available in the crop tool that will help guide you in placing your focal point.
Flower Photography Lighting
You can do dark floral photography in natural light or with artificial light. A visit to a botanical garden will provide countless natural light opportunities to shoot a wide variety of florals. Look for flowers or botanicals in shaded and woody areas and deepen the shadows in post-processing.
If you have some experience shooting indoors, you can create impactful images using a simple one-light set-up.
The thing to remember about artificial light is that a flash system like a speedlite or a strobe provides an explosion of light that does not fall off as quickly as natural light. For this reason, I actually prefer to work with artificial light for a more dramatic and high-contrast look in my flower photography.
I also forego a softbox and use a dish reflector with a honeycomb grid attachment to scatter the light in a way that provides more contrast in-camera. If you prefer a softer look, be sure to diffuse your light source or use a large softbox.
In case you’re shooting outdoors, keep in mind that some of the rules of landscape photography will come into play. The best time to shoot will be shortly before sunrise, and around sunset, when the quality of light is the most beautiful.
Overcast skies can cause your images to lack contrast, but this problem can easily be solved with a reflector or even a piece of white cardboard to bounce some light back onto the flowers.
Depth of Field
Shooting small subjects close to the camera means working with shallow focus. This means you need good depth of field control, whether you want to maximize the depth-of-field enough to cover a couple of blossoms, or you want shallow depth-of-field to throw the background out of focus.
Start with the widest aperture on your lens and review your results. Although you typically want to isolate the subject and throw out the background, you also must be careful that enough of the bloom is in focus.
If you’re shooting directly from above, you’ll need to shoot at an aperture of at least f5.6. Anything lower than this might cause your images to be out of focus.
If you’re shooting in natural light, try a few different aperture and shutter speed combinations and see what works best for your subject.
Focus is crucial in flower photography. Before you press the shutter, decide what your focal point is going to be.
Where do you most want to draw the eye in your photograph? That is where you need to have the sharpest focus.
You can use auto or manual focus. Each approach has its pros and cons. If you’re shooting very close, you will most likely need to use manual focus. However, manual focus can sometimes be tricky, as it’s easy to miss focus if you’re off by a even millimetre.
Another important point is to have your lenses calibrated or learn to do it yourself. If you’re having problems with focus, problems with lens calibration can be a big reason why.
The reason dark floral photography can look so stunning is contrast.
By nature, digital files are flat. This means that we have to add contrast in post-processing. In the case of dark floral photography, we want to add a lot more contrast than we might with other types of photography.
You can do this in Lightroom in various ways. You can tweak the contrast slider in the Basic panel of the Develop module. Or you can choose Medium Contrast or Strong Contrast in the Point Curve (though I wouldn’t recommend doing both).
If you have experience with working in Curves, this will give you a lot of control over the various tones in your image.
Post-processing can do a lot to add pop to your images, but be sure to get the best images you can in-camera by creating enough contrast while shooting. Use those bounce cards.
Get creative with floral photography! Not everything has to be close up, nor do your flowers have to be in a vase.
For example, you can go abstract. Or you you can also try some fun techniques like “freelensing”. Check out our juxtaposition or minimalism posts for some inspiration!
This is when you take your lens and hold it up to your camera sensor without physically attaching one to the other. This creates a blurred, abstract look with a painterly effect. One drawback of this method is that your sensor can get dusty pretty quickly. Be sure to work in a way that limits getting dust on your sensor and clean your sensor regularly.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of dying or wilting flowers, or flowers that are otherwise imperfect. Especially in dark photography, these flowers can have a haunting yet beautiful look to them.