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The Art of Flower Photography

Lesson 5 of 16

Exposure And Aperture Choice

Kathleen Clemons

The Art of Flower Photography

Kathleen Clemons


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Lesson Info

5. Exposure And Aperture Choice
The camera's f-stop setting affects the depth of field of the image, or how much of the image is in focus. But in any type of close-up photography, getting in close to your subject exaggerates that depth of field. Learn how to control the depth of field using aperture, with a small aperture allowing for sharp textured flowers or a wide aperture for dreamy, ethereal images. Then, understand how distance plays a role in depth of field.

Lesson Info

Exposure And Aperture Choice

Now I want to talk to you about aperature. Learning how to use aperature is when I fell in love with photography, especially selective focus and shallow dept of field. Knowing that I, with my aperature, could cause a viewer to look in particular area of an image or not look in another part of an area was just mind blowing. The time I was taking a class in aperature and I got a note from one of the other students because as soon as I learned about the wider aperatures, I wasn't going to use f/ because that's not how I see. I got a note from one of the other students saying, "You know Kathleen, there are aperatures beyond f/8." To end I wrote back and said, "Great! You use them, "because I am just not interested in that." I like the shallow depth of field. But, let's talk about the four factors that affect depth of field when you're shooting close-ups. The first one is the aperature that you choose. In these images, I shot wide open because the only emphasis I wanted was on the curl. I w...

anted these all to be just about color and curves. It was interesting, I put a lot of my flowers up on my desktop once and was just looking at them, not for anything in particular, and had sort of an epiphany that I'm drawn to curves. Really hadn't thought about it. Now that I know about it, it's even stronger. That's what usually draws my eye in any subject. My friends took me shooting in Boston, and we're walking around the tall straight lines. It was really hard for me to see. I end up finding a beautiful bird to photograph. They were like "Only you would come "to Boston and shoot birds." Back to this. Here, I only just wanted you to see the color and the strong curves. So, let's look at the same subject. These are all roses at different aperatures. f/22 for the top left corner, I really wanted to bring out the petal texture of that rose. I bounced light into the shadow areas, but then the next one I really wanted a soft look. I didn't want the texture to show. I wanted a more dreamy, ethereal look. Same type of subject, but look at the difference at f/2. Some are in the middle, f/8. I wanted that center, detail area in focus, but I didn't want petal texture distracting because that's a pretty complicated center, so I wanted to simplify the rest of the flower. Here again, f/22, it was all about line for me. F/20 and f/2.8. What aperature you chose creates a totally different look. Here's the same subject with 2 different aperatures. This is with the Lensbaby Velvet. This is f/2. You can see that there's an all over softness, sort of a glow to it. If I didn't want that affect, and I wanted detail in those tiny little hairs, I would stop down. That's 5.6, same subject, and a very different look. I actually prefer that, but that's just me and I love blur. If you like sharp detail you can get it with the same equipment, just a different aperature. Same shot, f/2, f/4. You can see that the background comes into focus a little bit more. There's also much more detail in the flower. I like the one on the left. Here is a Sweet Pea that I shot at the gardens to show you the difference aperature can make. The first one is at f/14 which creates a really busy background. The background was pretty close, and there's some distracting elements coming in, which I did pull out for the next two shots. Then I tried it at f/8. f/8 I think was a really good compromise. I think the background is beautiful now, and I like the sort of wispy foliage I can make out and there's good sharpness on the sepals of both the bud and the flower. And then I tried it at a 5 and I like it. I think the background is a little too soft for that and there's not the detail in the bud that I wanted because it's a little further back. So, I think in this case, f/8 was a good choice, but you really need to take every lens you have and shoot with every aperature until you know that lens intuitively. But, these are all Magnolias, just at different aperature for how soft a dreamy look I wanted. Center one has a little more detail, and as does the third. I stopped down just a little more, but this is probably f/2, f/4, f5.6, cause I'm really close to my subject so depth of field is going to be limited anyway. When I have a very complicated flower like this Dahlia that there's a whole lot of dancing going on in the center of that Dahlia that had to be in focus. So, that set f/11. The Morning Glory on the other side, I only wanted that curve in focus, because that's what made the flower different, and I'm always looking for things that make flowers different. Most Dahlia's don't have these crazy curls either, and since I'm addicted to curves, anytime there's a curl or a funky petal, and independent petal, a flower with a little more personality, something that makes it different, then I would want to draw your eye to that and to be sure that's what you're looking at, I want to blur the rest of it. This rose had tiny, tiny little dew drops on it in the morning, and only on the center, so I wanted to be sure to stop down enough. This is f/8 to get those in focus and still let the sides go off to soft blur. Another Dahlia. A very busy Dahlia. I only wanted a part of it in focus. And the iris, the only essential part for me was the beard, the yellow part that I wanted. Letting the rest go soft was fine. I didn't want it busy. I wanted it very simple. And here it's curves. I can't help it. It was the curves and the swirl, and that's all I wanted in focus, so I was careful to get parallel to those curves to get them all sharp and that's all I wanted. Sometimes I don't want very much in focus at all. Sometimes I just want a soft, dreamy, ethereal look and you can see the image on the right does have a texture added to it and I do that sometimes with backgrounds and we will be talking about that before you go and I'll also include links to software I use, and the PDF information that goes along with the class. This was a really differently shaped Calla that grew in my garden and I shot it early in the morning. That's just the beautiful sunrise light and I shot that at every aperature with three different lenses because I just wasn't getting the story that I wanted to tell. I finally settled on this. I think this is f/2.8 with the Lensbaby Double Glass Optic. So, I have a lot of different variations of it, but if I stopped down too much I started to get detail in the leaves and I really wanted a very soft ethereal look, but I had to work it. I really had to work it to get that. The image on the right is Lensbaby Soft Focus, and I wanted to be sure that one of the plants had definition. So, though you can't really move a sweet spot of focus with the Lensbaby Soft Focus Optic you can create definition. And since that was so much further ahead then the other plants, I could blur those, and get the detail that I wanted in that, but yet still have a very soft look to it. There's a party going on in this flower. And so, I wanted the background very, very simple, but I also wanted sharp detail. So, the background here was quite a distance away, and I stopped down to probably f/11 here with my 180 millimeter lens. These Poppy's grow every year at the botanical gardens that I go to, it's about an hour from my house, and I shot them last year and my shots were just terrible. It was either windy or I had too much foreground blur, or it didn't get enough in focus, or they were a little gone by, and I think they're fabulous, but I was a little disappointed in myself because I just couldn't shoot them. Last week I went back and they were blooming again, in bright sun. That's okay, I can deal with that. I had my flower pod and my diffuser and set that up, but then the challenge was what aperature do I choose. How much do I want in focus here? Do I want all of that center in focus? I knew I did not want foreground blur. I find foreground blur very distracting most of the time if it has shape. If it's just a veil of color, that's different, but if it has shape, I find it distracting. So, there's a balance here. So, I shot it at f/4 and I shot it at f/11, and I'm still a little torn as to which of those tells the story that I want to tell. The detail here is beautiful. It really puts more of an emphasis on the center, and those beautiful spiky petals, but there's something about that, as a lover of blur. But, that's what makes art art. What I love is going to be different than what you like, but my point is if you're experimenting with aperatures when you go back and are looking at the images you probably have captured the one that is your vision, that's your heart song. That's the way you see. But if I had shot one, it probably wasn't going to be either of those two. So, always work your subjects, and experiment with aperatures. Both of those are with the Lensbaby Velvet 56, by the way. You see you can get sharp detail, not just a soft blur on that one. Am I positive that I captured this flower? I feel better about it then I do last year, but now and then there's a flower that is just so challenging and I just don't feel like I've nailed it. Then there are flowers that I shoot all the time, and the challenge there is for me to try and shoot them in different ways, to see in different ways. So, new lenses that come out are always a good way to do that for me. Okay, the second factor that we're going to talk about is distance to your subject. If you have a 100 mm lens and you're shooting that far away, you're going to have a lot more in focus than if you're shooting this far away. The closer you are to your subject you lose depth of field. So, sometimes people will complain to me that they're trying to shoot a rose with the detail that I had in the rose I showed you at f/22 with a 100 mm lens and they're saying, "I just can't get it all in focus." Well, that's the limitation of that lens is because you lose depth of field when you get close, you're probably not going to be able to get it all in focus. You're going to have to make a decision as to what is the most important part and get that in focus and live with the blur. The working distance of the 180 mm takes care of that issue for me. I've got that longer working distance so if I need to stop down for the detail, I can do it. Both of these images are f/3.5 with my 180 mm but look what happened when I got closer. Even with that lens, I lost depth of field, but I like the background a lot better. I don't think I needed all that depth of field, and I was able to eliminate that sneaky little fern on the left without having to use my clothes pin. I could do that. Here I had to stop down quite a bit because I wanted to fill the frame with only the center of this rose. I could have backed out and shown more petals, but I loved those curves and that little party that was going on in there. So, I got in close and stopped down. I shot this rose in Ireland and I didn't have to stop down as much at this distance as I did at this distance. Same flower, but I probably shot this at f/ and the other at f/11 because I had to move in closer and lost depth of field. The next factor is your distance from your subject to the background. If the background is right up next to your subject parts of it are going to be in focus. The further back, especially with a long lens like my 180 mm, there's more background compression. A background that's far away is going to easily blur, as it was in both of these pictures. That's just sunlight on grass on the one on the right. These are difficult to shoot anyway, because they're very busy so, finding an angle where the background was further away is really the only way that I could shoot them. I was able to get sharp focus on this flower and not the rest because they were further back. If they had been up close then they would also be in focus. Here too. When I first shot this one, and we was looking through my view finder, I wasn't sure if the two extras, my little photo-bombers, added to the shot or not, but the more I looked at it the more I liked it, and I think that I probably would have liked them blurred more, but they were a little close. But, I think that there's a story here with having a little more detail in them, so I decided to keep them. Here I had light on grass and a green plant a really good distance away from this Iris so that I could stop down. I wanted to do some sharp detail especially in that foreground petal and was able to do that and not worry about bringing the background into focus. Charles. Do you ever use focus stacking software? Never, because I love selective focus. That would take away my dance. That would take away how I do what I do. I don't. I downloaded the software and thought I should learn how to do it in case students wanted me to show it to them, but I haven't played with it and I never felt like, "Oh, I wished I'd shot that "with focus stacking." No, I don't. Not yet. Here, I actually chose the background first behind this Morning Glory because it was in a children's garden and there were a lot of Marigolds and I saw all their color and I thought well something contrasting color in front of that would be great. Then found this Morning Glory in an angle to get that and they were so far away that I only got their color which is what I wanted. In this one I tried to line this dancing Cosmos up with some light that was on quite a distance away and so I have no detail but just the light and the softly blurred background. I shot this flower one day when I was leaving the botanical gardens, I had my gear all packed up, and isn't that always the way. You just walking out and (gasp). I took my lens out and grabbed one quick shot. It's not light back there, it was yellow flowers. That was the only shot I took of it and darn if that wasn't my favorite shot of the whole day. There's nothing else that came into focus and you can see that this also has a texture and we'll be talking about that. The next factor is the focal length of your lens. We've talked about this a little bit already, Why I don't use a 100 mm, but I wanted to shoot the same subject for you with pretty much all the lenses that I have, or a lot of different lenses, so you can see the difference. This is my wide angle, 17-40, and I tried to get them all close to the same aperature at f/4. You can see that there's quite a bit of background coming. It's not totally in focus but it's enough to be distracting. This is with my 24-70 at f/3.5. That's not bad. I'm pretty happy with that actually. A little corner in the lower left corner needs to be brightened up. And these have no post processing. 17-40, 24-70, I'm already getting more blur. Here's that 50 mm. So, if that's the only thing I had, I'd have to get up a little higher, eliminate that dark part, or put an extension tube on and get a little closer. 70-200. Wow. We're getting some nice background blur now. Also at f/3.5. There's my 180 mm. There's no competition at all for a well blurred background with that lens at f/3.5. And then I chose my Lensbaby Composer Pro, so I could get a little directional blur with the Sweet 50 Optic also at f/4, but that's as close as I can get with that lens without adding anything for macro. So, it's quite a difference in the quality of the blur.

Class Description


  • Choose the right macro lenses
  • Build the ideal photography gear kit
  • Find (or create) the best light for macro shots
  • Know where to place small objects in the frame
  • Set the correct aperture and exposure
  • Master close focusing with depth of field
  • Confidently capture macro work of any type of flower


Flowers are the perfect subjects for both beginning and professional photographers alike. Not only can they be found almost anywhere, but they offer a wide range of colors, textures, and shapes to explore and experiment with. But as perfect as flowers are for photography, the dominance of similar pictures makes it hard to capture a unique image.

This course takes you on an in-depth journey into the glories of flower photography, with expert photographer Kathleen Clemons as your guide. You’ll learn everything you need to know to take captivating shots that will wow your audience and celebrate the beauty of nature. Learn how to take flower photographs that stand out.

In this class, you'll learn how to spot the best flower to photograph with your naked eye, whether you want to capture artistic or documentary images. The flower will become the star of the shot as you learn to eliminate distractions in the background. At the end of the class, work confidently with fields of flowers and single flowers, at each stage in their life cycle.

Whether you have a Nikon, Canon, Sony, or mirrorless camera body, Kathleen will show you all the essential tools of flower photography, from macro lenses to plant clamps to extension tubes. She’ll cover technical details such as aperture settings and your depth of field, as well as stylistic issues such as composition, backgrounds, and close-up or macro shots. The course ends with a demonstration of a real shoot in a garden so you can see Kathleen in action as she takes different angles and close-up images of different flowers and flower petals.


  • All levels of photographers interested in macro photography.
  • Photographers who want to learn how to shoot close-up images of small subjects.
  • Photographers who want to better understand special equipment for shooting macro and how to deal with difficult lighting situations.


Kathleen Clemons is a nature photographer known for her painting-like images of flowers. The Maine-based photographer works with Corbis and Getty images. While she's known for her photography, Kathleen also has a degree in education, which she mixes with her passion for flower to teach other macro photographers.



What a fantastic class! Kathleen Clemons' presentation was well-organized and offered exceptional how-to advice along with actual gear and beautiful slides which demonstrated her points. I felt as though she were talking to me personally and truly wanting me to be successful. Her explanations of technique, accompanied with video of her in the gardens using the camera was very helpful. In addition, I found her critiques most enlightening, and I learned a great deal about how to improve my own images from them. In short--this was an exceptional class, and Kathleen Clemons is an amazing teacher. I have watched the class twice and plan to purchase it for continued review and reflection. Anyone who wants to photograph flowers artistically needs this class. Thank you, CreativeLive, for this wonderful presentation by Kathleen Clemons.

Julianne Carlson

Thank you Kathleen for taking the time to share your wonderful knowledge and technique's with us through this 5 star course. Your breathtaking ethereal images are a true inspiration and I can't wait to get out there and practice with my new Lensbaby velvet. Not only was this course a wonderful tutorial for photographing flower subject but much of your instruction can be used when photographing all of nature. This is the best Creative Live class I have taken yet!

a Creativelive Student

Kathleen Clemons is a wonderful teacher who communicates a powerful passion for flower photography. I learned so much from her about how to see and capture the beauty of a flower using macro lenses. As I launched into this new area of photography, I felt equipped and free to experiment and learn and grow. As I looked through the viewfinder of my camera, it's almost as though Kathleen was right there with me - I saw how to focus in on one area of the flower, then another, and change aperture settings to impact the depth of field, and experiencing the intricate beauty of God's creation. The ultimate moments for me were the images captured as a result of everything I learned. I highly recommend Kathleen Clemons as a teacher and this amazing class, The Art Of Flower Photography. Review by Catherine Martin