Thursday 5 August 2021

Macro Flowers - An Old Dog With New Tricks

 I've had a long standing love of macro flower photography. Indeed one of the first lenses I owned when I bought my first DSLR was a Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens. The lens got a lot of use in 15 yrs until I sold it in exchange for the stabilised Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens.

The old Tamron had no image stabilisation, and neither have any of the Sony mirrorless cameras that I've owned including the A6400 that I use today and that dictated my macro workflow when shooting flowers forcing me to use a tripod. Hand holding the camera was out of the question without greatly bumping up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp image. 

My technique was always to use a tripod with manual focus and the camera set to "Manual" mode. There was a slow process of identifying the composition that I wanted, framing the shot by moving the tripod centimeter by centimeter back and forth while at the same time adjusting the tripod ball head, manually focusing then waiting for the wind to die down or for an insect to land on the flower before shooting. 

With the f-stop chosen to get the correct depth of field and some background bokeh, when the light changed I'd adjust the shutter speed to compensate. Sometimes I'd shoot with the tripod ball head loosened off to give me some freedom when shooting. 

Because photographing flowers is best carried out in soft diffused light without harsh shadows, I bought a Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Difflector which would be held between the Sun and the flower to soften the light on bright days. With the camera on a tripod I had a free hand to hold the diffuser above the flower.

The difflector uniquely is a 1 f-stop diffuser on one side with a reflector on the other and the large plastic grip makes holding with one hand a doddle. The difflector folds up into a small round bag for carrying.

Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Difflector

This technique has given me some great results over the years but the flowers, such as the Agapanthus and Rhodochiton below, were more like record shots of flowers and there was something missing. There was no artistic merit or ethereal mood in the photographs.



Two years ago I discovered Kathleen Clemons, a wonderful flower photographer in the United States. Kathleen is a Lensbaby ambassador. She uses their lenses extensively to create an ethereal mood in camera, but she also adds textured layers to her flower photographs during post processing to create flowers with a painterly feel. 

I'm not fond of Lensbaby lenses but I purchased her E-book tutorial and some of her textures and started to recreate my own macro flower art using the back catalogue of flower record shots that I've taken for years.


Echinops with Texture

Nectaroscordum with Texture

Autumn Crocus with Texture

This has given my old photographs a new lease of life. I've been taking macro photographs and adding textures ever since, but I've not been able to produce ethereal looking flower images straight out of camera until I discovered Dirk Ercken last month. 

Dirk is able to achieve a beautiful dreamy ethereal look to his flower photography by shooting wide open and giving the backgrounds as much importance as the main flower of interest. I purchased his online video tutorials and I have now totally changed my macro flower shooting technique. 

I'm now shooting hand held with manual focusing in "Aperture Priority"which gives me the freedom to move around, to get in close amongst the flowers and I'm very excited by the results below. The purchase of the Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens this Spring with its built in image stabilisation now gives me the opportunity to follow his technique and to shoot handheld. My photographs are no longer straight record shots and my post processing by adding textures is vastly reduced. Interesting background textures are created in camera. 






All of the above photographs are straight out of camera with minimal post processing using Dirk Echern's flower photography technique but it's left me with a problem. 

Dirk recommends using a diffuser to soften the light but when hand holding a camera and manually focusing how could I possibly hold the Lastolite Trigrip Diffuser?

After a bit of research on the internet I found the Manfrotto Super Clamp (£26 from Amazon) The Super Clamp is designed to be attached to a tripod ball head with a camera and be clamped on to a wall or rail for hands free shooting but I've adapted it to do the opposite.

Manfrotto Super Clamp mounted to a tripod ball head

The Super Clamp is available to buy with an optional pin which allows a ball head to be screwed to the flat top of the clamp but the top also has a 1/1.4" threaded hole allowing a tripod quick release plate to be fitted. This allows me to fit the clamp upside down onto the ball head so that the clamp can hold the Lastolite Trigrip Diffuser. 

Manfrotto Super Clamp holding the Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Diffuser

This works well only because of this model of diffuser's unique large plastic handle and the ball head can now be used to hold the diffuser in whatever angled position that I want, including with the center stem of the tripod in the horizontal position for extra reach with the tripod legs splayed for stability.

Hands free light diffusion on the cheap

They say that the more you shoot, the better you get at photography but you must also be open to learning and change. I've been lucky recently to find two photographers who I can learn from and I'm proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.