Gear for Flower Photography: Lenses
Let's talk about my gear. The straight lenses that I use, which would be my non Lensbaby lens, I have a Canon f/3.5 180mm. I also have the Tamron model, which works really well. Focus is a little better and easier with the Canon model, but generally, when you're shooting macro flower photos, you're gonna be in manual focus anyway, so autofocus isn't going to be an issue. When I reach for that lens is when I want max detail. I know a lot of people shoot flowers with the 100mm lens and I'm not a fan of that lens for a couple of reasons. One because you have to get so close to your subject with it that you lose depth of field. And when your getting close, you're also altering the light. If you're trying to reflect light, it's gonna be difficult if you're really close to your subject. And you don't wanna create shadows on the flowers. Also, I like to shoot butterflies and dragonflies and the longer focal length of the 180mm makes that a lot easier, because I'm not scaring the little critte...
rs away. I'll also, when I want max texture, when I really want texture front to back, I want the 180mm and that shot was at f/22. The other time that I like a long lens is when I do a technique called shooting through, where I'm shooting through foreground foliage. I can be shooting through other things, too, like fabric, leaves, flowers. It's something that we'll be talking about more when we talk about selective focus, so I'm gonna be saving that. I also like the longer focal length when I need to compress the background to fill it with color from a different plant. This is a Queen Anne's lace in my garden and there were phlox behind it and with a lens that didn't compress the scene like that, I would have ended up with just a small amount of pink in the back and it was essential for me to fill the whole background with the pink. The other time I want a long lens is when I can't get close to the flower. I don't have waders. I'm not going to get into the pond, when I shoot water lilies and so then, I'll also need a longer focal length. The other lenses that I use for flowers are my Lensbabies. People will ask me what my favorite Lensbaby is and generally, it's the one that's on my camera at the time. I fall in love with them repeatedly. Let's talk a little bit about what a Lensbaby is and if there was gonna be a timeline of special moments for me in my growth as a photographer, discovering Lensbaby would have a gold star on it. Because it really, it made me a much better photographer, it made me slow down and really look at my subjects and pay more attention. So for those of you who don't know what a Lensbaby is, let's talk about that a little bit. Lensbaby started out with Lensbaby Original and then a Lensbaby 2.0 and then those were complete lenses. And then, they started a system where you would buy one lens and think of a lens as a holder for optics. And this is an optic that just pops in and out, so you would buy one lens and then there are nine different optic choices that you can use to put in that, so it's really a lens system. And a Lensbaby will, the selective focus models will have a sweet spot of focus surrounded by blur, and you can move that anywhere in the scene you want, so you can draw attention to one area and blurring another. You can say, look over here, don't look over there, all with the Lensbaby. You control the size of that area and focus with your aperture. With the older models, you had to drop in a little rubber disk, say like in an f/4 disk, f/5.6 disk, and change your apertures that way, but the newer generation, the Sweet 50 and the Sweet 35, you change the aperture right, right on the optic itself. And I love them. My favorite models of the selective focus series are the Sweet 50, the Soft Focus Optic, and the Double Glass. I also want to show you the older model. When Lensbaby first came out, they worked on a bellows system and I still use this with the Soft Focus Optic. It's how I learned to use a Lensbaby on the bellows system, and I can find that I can make really slight adjustments to focus and composition and it's so intuitive for me at this point that I don't have to stop and think. I just am looking through my camera and making tiny adjustments as needed. So, I still do love this. Here are a couple of my first Lensbaby images. They're not perfect, but the lens came in the mail, I put it on my camera and I went for a walk around my yard to see what I could shoot. And came in and looked at the pictures and I fell in love. I think my work has gotten a lot better since then, but those are the images that made me fall in love with Lensbaby. One of the things that I love about using a Lensbaby is that they rarely need post processing. You're getting the effect in camera. You're not spending a lot of time in Photoshop. That picture of a rose is I think wide open, probably about f/2.8. That's an older one that I shot with the Muse and the Lensbaby 2. I didn't have to do anything to it. It's just as it is. Lensbaby lets me capture what I see. One of their slogans is that you'll see in a new way but for me, I tend to see in selective focus. So, Lensbaby lets me show you how I see. I tend to pick out little bits of detail and look very closely at things. So, Lensbaby can help me to show you how I'm seeing, draw your eye to a particular area of a flower and that's why I love them. They also create excellent background blur, but also distortion right in the camera. People will say oh, you can get that effect in Photoshop. I don't think so. Photoshop you can get a flat blur but you're not going to get the tilt, shift distortion that a Lensbaby will bring. And, Lensbaby adds sort of a, the distortion will add a feeling of dance, which we'll talk more about later. And I can get from super, shallow depth of field on one small area, like I did on this flower. Or I can highlight to just a curve, just one particular area. My goal with the Lensbaby is to draw your eye to what caused me to take the picture, what did I see. And that's what I want you to see and I can do that with selective focus. Or I can get really sharp detail in one area of a flower. That's just going to depend on the aperture. And they make you slow down, they make you look because a Lensbaby shot with a little blur here and a sharp spot there isn't going to be successful unless that sharp spot has meaning, if you've drawn the eye to something important in the flower and choosing how much blur you want to go around that. And here, I only wanted the center of the flower in focus and I love the way that softly fades off to blur, and I'm gonna talk more about selective focus when I get into talking about aperture. My other favorite Lensbaby optic is the Soft Focus Optic. You will not have a true sweet spot of focus and blur with this optic. There's a general blur but by changing aperture, you'll gain definition, so it's not gonna be tack sharp but you can create definition in the flower or you could have none at all for a really, really soft, dreamy look if you use a large aperture. This is with the soft focus. I think I used f/4 for this because I wanted some definition in the main rose and none in the rest. This, too. It's not tack sharp but there's definition, there's still a focal point. I'm still drawing your eye to a particular part of my flower. The other optic that I love is the Sweet 50. The Sweet 50 Optic is what let's me capture the dance of a flower, and we'll talk a little bit more about that. Your results with the Sweet 50 are going to be the same as they would with the older Double Glass Optic, but it's easier to change apertures because it's on the ring, you're not using the little rubber rings that I talked about. I used the Sweet 50 here. The picture on the left is at f/ and on the right is at f/4. So look at the change, that that aperture made and I suggest to new Lensbaby users, really, really experiment with aperture. You know, choose a subject and shoot it at every aperture and then go back and look at them together on your computer. It's really the only way you're going to learn what the lens can do. I also would advise you to keep the lens centered in the beginning because bending makes focusing harder and leave the macro attachments off until you start to get some consistently good results with your Lensbaby. Here's more of the distortion that I'm talking about, the petals are a little elongated, the foliage of the cosmos is distorted, it's just not a straight, flat blur that you would get with a regular lens. Lensbaby in April came out with something new, called the Velvet and when I beta-tested, it made me cry and I put it on my camera and took two or three pictures and hadn't looked at the back of my camera and then when I did, I started to cry for a couple of reasons. Does it again, still, amazing. I was amazed at the beauty of the image. The Velvet creates a sort of, a glow, an ethereal glow, which is absolutely beautiful and when I looked at that image, I knew that I hadn't created my best work yet, which for a photographer is pretty powerful. I came downstairs to show the images to my husband and I was crying, and he was really worried something bad had happened. No, look! It was pretty ridiculous. Back to the Velvet, you'll get a glow at the larger apertures and it starts, it goes from f/1.6 to f/16. The more you stop down, you lose the glow and you pick up detail, so with the other lenses, you're not going to get that effect and it's not a selective focus lens, it's a straight lens. It's also wonderful for portraits, so if you want a lot of glow, then you'll shoot it at 1.6, f/2, f/2.8, but then if you get down to f/5.6, you still get a beautiful softness, but you start to get more detail. I've even been shooting at f/11 and f/ with some complicated flowers and there's still just a touch of a glow. It's just a beautiful look, that I love. And I can get five inches away, which is really important to me, not having to add any macro accessories. So, the flower on the left is at f/1. and these are straight out of the camera. I haven't done anything to them. And here we have f/5.6, so you can see, there's a little more detail, still good background blur, blur in the petals, and something in the middle. This one's at f/2.8, it gets some detail and I was able to capture that long petal line, which is what I was going for. Here too, f/1.6 and f/4. Look at the detail, there, compared to that. Same subject, same light, same everything, just an aperture switch. And f/1.6 and f/4. Back to 1.6. So now you understand my love for Lensbaby, but you probably have other lenses in your collection and you need to use them, you need to use what you have and find out what it can do. I was teaching a group of students once and one of the students said to me, oh, I only have a 50mm lens, I can't do what you do. I like a challenge, so I went right outside, put my 50mm on, ran on into my backyard and shot those two images that you see right there. That one of the left at 1.4 and the one on the right at 1.8. You know, if you have a lens that's going to limit how close you can get to your subject, then you're gonna have to think more about the background. You're gonna have to know that you're going to have to include the background, so you'll have to be even more conscious of distractions and finding a pleasing background, but it doesn't mean you can't shoot flowers with that lens. I was in Ireland last year and I saw, this is the most beautiful calla that I have ever seen and I shoot a lot of calla lilies. This one was just magical. I couldn't believe the curves. I was in St. Stephen's Green and it was behind a fence at quite a distance away, and I had to capture it, so I used my 70-200, so it's not a macro lens, but I can still shoot flowers with it and that's my point. You need to see what you can do with the lenses you have. Learn your gear. You need to know the minimum focus distance of every lens that you have because if you get closer than that minimum focus distance, you're not going to be able to focus. You need to see how much compression of the scene the lens provides. You're going to have to see what the background focal looks like and the blur. How much blur will there be with your lens at 2.8, 3.5? Learn your gear. And when you do that, your gear will become more intuitive. Like with my 180mm lens, I've been shooting with that since 2006, I believe that I got that lens. And I can look at a flower now in a scene and know intuitively, how close I have to get, what my aperture is going to be, because I know my equipment. And it's the same with the Lensbaby, so I would suggest before you even think about buying anything else, learn what you have, learn what its strengths are and learn what it's limitations are before you start buying something different. The minimum focus distance as I said is so important, how close can you get and are you okay with being just this close or do you want to be able to eliminate the background? See what you can do. Do you want a lot of curves or did you want to get in closer with less curves? Depends on your lens. Can you fill the frame? Do you want the background included? Is it okay? If you didn't want the background included there, you're gonna have to find something that gets you closer. But the background can be part of the story and we're gonna talk about that, too.