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The Art of Flower Photography

Lesson 6 of 16

Figuring Out Where To Focus

Kathleen Clemons

The Art of Flower Photography

Kathleen Clemons


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Lesson Info

6. Figuring Out Where To Focus
A single point or selective focus mode allows for an exact focus when working with macro subjects. But where do you focus? In this lesson, Kathleen discusses how to choose the focal point in flower photography for both images with soft focus and sharp images with a narrow aperture. Learn how to mix selective focus and aperture to capture amazing flower images without using techniques like focus stacking. Then, work with foreground elements to add blur to the front of the image.

Lesson Info

Figuring Out Where To Focus

Selective focus, my favorite way to shoot flowers. How much needs to be in focus? I kind of have two answers for that. Whatever catches your eye about that flower needs to be in focus, that's what you saw. That's your vision of the flower. That needs to be in focus. And how much, that's going to be your artistic vision as to how much needs to be in focus. Here I really only wanted the center and I wanted you to be able to see that there were lines in the petals. So this is pretty much, probably about f/3.5. Someone asked me once, said that I shot flowers and said, "Well, then, f/5.6 must be "your favorite aperture." And I said, "I really never though about having "a favorite aperture, because it depends what I'm shooting "and how close I am in the detail." But I guess if I had to have one it probably would be f/3.5, it wouldn't be f/5.6. So here, this is a dahlia, and I got in really close, shot this with my Lensbaby Soft Focus Optic, and plus 10 diopter, that I just screwed on the bac...

k of it. Because I wasn't interested in getting the whole flower, I thought those were flames, they look like flames to me. And the whole flower wouldn't show that. So I only wanted the foreground flames, and not a whole lot of them in focus, because I wanted a great deal of softness. But that's your artistic vision. If maybe you saw this and you thought, "I want all those lines in focus," well then you can just stop down to a smaller aperture, and maybe you just wanted a little more, and maybe that's too much blur for you. That's your vision, that's okay. Here-- (laughing) There's a curve. I saw no reason to get anything else in focus here. Because that's all I saw. And so I got down at a really low level, and I shot straight on, and this is wide open. And that's my vision for the shot, and that's where I want your eye to go. Here too, I didn't see any reason to have all three flowers in focus, the one at the bottom was further away, and I would have had to stop down to get that one also in focus which would have brought in background distractions, and I wasn't willing to do that. So for me, I thought that was a good compromise but the centers, those needed to be in focus. And there's the sweet pea again, as I told you that that turned out f/5 and f/ were much better than the f/14. Maine is a wonderful state for fog and drizzle. And drizzle, there's nothing like getting up in the morning on a foggy day and going out to your garden because instead of large dew drops they're very tiny. And everything is covered with them. And so I shot this dandelion just on my lawn, and I did a lot of aperture experiments with this because there's a balance. I wanted enough detail to make you go, "wow!", you know, look at those tiny dew drops, but not so many and so much detail that I also ended up with a background in focus, because I did not want the background in focus. And I think this is a good compromise. And this is another one where I have another one with just a little bit more, but it's the softer one you can see that I chose to put in the presentation. I think it's enough. It's enough for me to tell the story. The other thing you have to worry about with selective focus, is where do I focus? And this is so important. Here I focused on the center because that's the area of interest. When you shoot an image and place it in the center. What's in the center has to be in focus, and that is the focal point of this flower is the overlapping center petals. So you have that balance. How much needs to be in focus, how much blur is acceptable? I wanted the stamen in focus, I wanted you to be able to see the texture, but I couldn't get there furthest one back in focus without getting too much detail. So I was willing to sacrifice that one, but I wouldn't have done that with a foreground one. As I said, I find shapes of blur in the foreground to be distracting. I want my focus and I want the blur behind it. I don't want the blur in front of it, if at all possible. And this is a good compromise. And because the petal edge was on the same plain of focus as the stamen, then I also got a nice petal edge at the same time. And here, that's the only part that I wanted the light on, which, luckily, I didn't have to modify the light at all here, and that's just that tiny center. This would have been busy with more in focus. But that's the focal point of the image, that's where I had to focus. The other thing that you need to think about with selective focus, is do you want an artistic image or more documentary image? If you want a more documentary image, you're going to be using the smaller apertures you're gonna want more in focus, you're going to want to record the flower. What I prefer, and I think is an artistic way of photographing flowers, is to try and capture the essence of the flower. And the essence for me, with this, are the curves. That's all I needed. I've got color and curves here. So for me, I have captured the essence. If I was to show this image to someone who had never seen this flower, I think this is enough. But again, it's your choice, your decision, your vision. Here I wanted to really capture the beautiful veining in these irises. And so my focus had to be on the one closest to the camera because I didn't want that foreground blur. And I needed enough depth of field to go far enough back to capture the others. But the focus was on that main flower. Same thing here, selective focus on the foreground petal, I wanted that curve in focus. And here it was up toward the center. And I wanted more detail here, for that one I wanted more of a soft dreamy look. Because with two flowers together, and they are merging, it might have gotten very busy. And the softness kept that from happening. You may want very little detail. I like to dance on the edge to see just how little detail I can get away with. (laughing) And still have it interesting. It's a different way of seeing. And as I said, I see in selective focus, I tend to see small things. I was walking around the botanical gardens with a friend last year, and it was in November. And there's not a lot blooming, but we hadn't had a hard frost, so there were a lot, and there were these beautiful brown ferns. And I love to shoot ferns, especially as they age they curl more so they get even more interesting. And there was a tiny little white feather, on these brown ferns, and we're walking along, and I saw that, stopped and actually gasped. (gasping) And she's like, "what?", and I went, "look at that!" and she said, "how did you see that?" and I said, "how did you not?" Because that's how I see. So being able to capture, you know, just enough to tell the story is what I like to do best. Yes. So what I'm seeing here, there's a foreground petals that are blurred in this case, because you're drawn to the more, the bits of the flower that are further in, so that's where your focusing your focus. Yeah, my focus is on that That line. That center area. But I'm really close with my lens and I'm shooting wide open, and that's the shooting through that we'll be talking about. It's that technique, which simplifies flowers beautifully. And here, I shot this on a very windy day, but the foreground flower was a bit sheltered. I think there was a big rock on the side, so that it wasn't moving as much so that I could get some detail. But I wanted to emphasize the movement in the background. So I shot this at f/18 at a 15th of a second, and I rarely shoot over f/8 outside. But I liked the results. Here too, what I wanted to emphasize were the petal curls, and the edges and the texture on the edges. So my focus was on a petal edge closest to the camera. Which most of the time, when I'm shooting flowers I am trying to choose the element that's closest to my camera, because especially if there are foreground elements that I don't want to take on shape. And curves. (laughing) I love a flower with personality. For me, that is the part that had to be in focus, is that foreground curve, and I wanted a little bit of the center, I didn't feel like I needed all of the center, so my placement was on the curl. So when you're choosing a focus placement, you have to also choose an aperture, that gets enough behind that in focus, and if you don't know your lenses, shoot at more than one to get just enough. Shooting through is one of my favorite techniques. It's not an easy technique for people to learn, but when they get it they get really excited. And what you're doing, it's easier to do shooting through if you're using a long lens. You can do it with 100 millimeter, but a longer lens, 70 to 200, even 100 to 400, my 180 works well with this too. And what you're doing is placing leaves or flowers right up next to your lens. And you're basically shooting through them, so you've gotta compose on a subject that's a distance away, and you're shooting wide open. So whatever's in the foreground is going to turn into a veil of color. It will not take on shape if you're close enough and you're using a large enough aperture. And so you're kind of peaking through the bushes, so to speak, through the leaves, to try and get a sharp focus on your subject. And with the tulips it was just other tulips that I was able to shoot through. And I did diffuse the light 'cause I didn't want that glow in the shot. And the lupine is other lupine plants surrounding this one, that I was able to shoot through. This shot, as I told you in the last segment, the challenge for me at this point is to shoot flowers in a different way that I haven't, either a different flower or a different location. These are crocuses and I shoot them every year, but the year that I shot this, my daffodils bloomed at the same time as my crocuses, which is not how it usually happens. They're usually after. So, and I have them planted together, so I was able to use the leaves of the daffodils to shoot through to the crocuses. And I love this color combinations, it's one of my favorites. And I could get by with having those leaves filling the area in front, but I could still see enough through them just for one in focus. Same kind of a thing, this was with my 70 to 200 because the main tulip was quite a distance away, and I was able to blur, this is at f/3.5, and was able to blur all the rest of them. And it is glowing. You don't have to just shoot through leaves as a matter of fact, and you can, you can use leaves, if this is your garden, you can use leaves that are not necessarily planted right there. My rhubarb leaves are like this big, and they're wonderful to shoot through, and this one, it was the light on the tulip that caught my eye because it was sort of off by itself at Longwoods Garden, then these deeper tulips. And I loved the way I could simplify some of those long lines with that. The second flower, I shot through a frosted glass window in a store in Ireland. And I think it's a real orchid, I'm not positive, but it was fascinating. And the daisy shot, and I shot through just it was in a field of daisies with the low afternoon, late lighting, and it was just dancing and the others were far enough behind it to blur, and I had plenty of foliage in front of it to softly blur. You can also shoot through fabric. This is with tulle, a piece of pink tulle. Wrapped around my lens, pulled in to the front of the lens with a small opening of focus for my flower. And tulle comes in a lot of different colors. And it's wonderful. It doesn't take up a lot of space in your bag, you know, I have it in pink, and green, and beige, and white, and it allowed me, I mean I did shoot through the other hydrangeas, but it wasn't enough until I put the tulle on to really simplify this the way I wanted it. It's really nice when you find one tulip that's taller than the rest, so you can get down low and shoot through the lower tulips with the focus on the one, and the Queen Ann's lace, I shot with pink flocks behind it. But they didn't completely cover it so I used tulle on the bottom part of my lens to shoot through. Sharon. The tulip, I'm wondering what aperture you were at because it's so beautifully in focus. There's so much of it in focus. But if you look closely, everything in focus is pretty much the same focal plain, that's that 3.5. Oh okay. The back of the flower isn't in focus, it's just those leaves in there-- In the front. They're pretty much all on the same focal point, yeah. Okay. And here's one where I use the tulle, again, because it was a beautiful, beautiful, parrot tulip, but it was very busy, so you can use things like tulle and other materials, fabrics, leaves, plants, to simplify your composition. And it's really nice to add texture too afterwards. Which we'll be talking about. And this is not tulle, this is just other purple irises that I shot through for this one. Simplifies an image really well, and I focused on the center area right here, because that was the area of interest for me. This is another one from Longwood gardens. I'm always attracted to a rebellious petals. (laughing) I like them to have a mind of their own, and this one did. And this was in a pretty dense foliage area. So I could back up quite a bit and get it just where I wanted it in the composition, by peaking through the lens. It's really fun to just, in a situation like this, just sit on the ground, these are low, sit on the ground with your lens wide open and just start searching. Just start looking through. And you will be amazed. I've heard someone call that the cram it method, you just cram your lens in, I'm not crazy about that term, but I understand what he means. And you know, just set your aperture as wide open as you can go, and see what you can do. And see how little you can get away with in focus, and try and shoot through some materials. For this one, I wanted to show you the difference that aperture can make with shooting through. Picture on the left, I shot at f/3. because I really only wanted the one pansy, this is shot in a greenhouse. And then at f/8, if that's the story that you wanted to tell that's fine, if you wanted you know, a group of pansies, there is sort of a nice dive in a line of pansies, it's a fine shot. Me being a lover of blur, prefer that. But don't limit yourself, try different things and see. I have a question about complicated flowers. Personally I have a really difficult time with irises and orchids. What angle, I just could use some more advice as to how to get a better shot of complicated flowers like that. Okay, one of the last things I'm gonna talk about today are specific flowers and best practices to capture them. Little tips on, and orchids is one of them. I don't talk about irises, but with an iris, it's the center area for me. I don't usually feel like I need to capture the whole flower, I don't need the tips. It's just that center flower. And I like an angle, a bit of an angle. And start off really shallow, Sharon, you know, start off at f/3.5, or you can with the velvet that I know you have, you can do f/2. And then stop down a little bit, and I think you'll see where your vision for the flower is in that. Which is the balance between how much in focus, and how much blur. I think it sounds like that's what you're struggling with, is enough. And that's a new lens for you, so you probably don't know it yet like you might some of your other lenses. So the more you do that, go home, put them all on your screen. And your mistake you'll learn from a lot as well as your successes, and looking and there'll be some that'll be obviously, that's not at all what my vision was for that. And then you'll, "oh that's close", and so the next time you go out, you'll have that information in mind. And you can make choices that fit that. But yeah, try that. Don't worry about getting the whole flower in focus. Just move in, or even include it in the frame. Move in close. But the center areas or where that detail is, has to be in focus. Not that there are rules, but-- (laughing) Do you ever use the depth of field preview button on the camera? I do. And can you explain how you use it? 'Cause sometimes I've found if you press the button while looking through, and then change your focus while the buttons pressed, it can affect how much depth of field you see. Yeah, I don't do it while I'm Yeah. Okay. While I'm doing that, and I don't use that with the Lensbaby's of course, 'cause there isn't the communication with the lens. But with my 180, I have before, I don't have to use it now as much as I did because I've had that lens since 2006, and we're like this. (laughing) It's pretty simple for me to do, but yeah, depth of field preview button can be an excellent way to look ahead of time before you click the shutter to see how much is in focus. But when you stop down to the smaller apertures it gets pretty dark in there and it makes it tough. People who have trouble with focus also may want to look at live view. If your camera enables it to be able to check your focus and to look at a larger area before you set your focus. But you're gonna have to be on a tripod to use live view. And so far my eyesight's good. (laughing) and I have a steady hand, so no tripod, and no live view for me yet, but they could be coming.

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