Paintbrush and lupine near Tioga Pass, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Paintbrush and lupine near Tioga Pass, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Although spring officially began two days ago, here in California we’ve had springlike conditions since February, while in the northeast spring is just a rumor. But flowers will bloom everywhere, eventually, and it’s a great season for photography.

Though I usually prefer to photograph flowers as part of a landscape, sometimes I enjoy doing closeups as well. This image was made in the Yosemite high country a few years ago, with part of a paintbrush in focus, and out-of-focus lupines in the foreground. This technique of using out-of-focus flowers to create a wash of color, and an impressionistic look, is fun to try, but tricky. It requires a densely-packed group of flowers, and a lot of experimentation. Here are some tips:

1. Use a telephoto lens. You need a long lens to compress space and narrow the angle of view, and the lens has to focus closely as well. A telephoto zoom with a close minimum focusing distance might work in some situations, or you could use a telephoto macro lens. I usually put a high-quality closeup lens on my 70-200mm zoom.

2. Use a wide-open aperture, like f/2.8, f/4, or f/5.6, to throw foreground and background flowers out of focus.

3. Use manual focus; autofocus is really going to struggle with this.

4. Soft light or backlight usually works best. I used backlight in this photo, but looking toward the sun is challenging because you can get lens flare.

5. Get low – down at flower level, or even below. Find one particularly interesting flower to focus on, and put other blooms between the lens and that one flower, as close to the lens as possible. You’re trying to find an angle where you can look between foreground blossoms to the main flower, with that central flower partially hidden by out-of-focus blooms in front of it. It’s going to take a lot of experimentation to find this angle, so it’s better to hand-hold the camera, at least at first while you’re looking for the right composition.

6. Make sure something is sharp! Try to pick one particularly interesting part of the main flower, and make sure it’s in focus. If you’re hand-holding, it’s easier to move the camera forward and back slightly to change focus than to turn the focusing ring.

Good luck, and happy spring!

— Michael Frye

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.