Poppies, goldfileds, owl's clover, and spring gold, southern Sierra Nevada, CA, USA

Poppies, goldfileds, owl’s clover, and spring gold, southern Sierra Nevada, California. There were two compositional challenges here: the physical distance between the foreground and background flowers, plus the lack of any distinguishing features in the foreground that could serve as a focal point. I found this slightly-elevated vantage point where I could show the sweep of owl’s clover leading up to the hills, allowing me to fill most of the frame with flowers, so that solved the first problem. And then I spotted this small clump of yellow flowers (spring gold), which added a foreground focal point, and tied in visually with the yellow colors in the background. 27mm, 1/10th of a second at f/16, ISO 800.

It’s been a good year for wildflowers in California – above average in some places, and exceptional in a few spots.

One of those places that seemed to be having an exceptionally-good year was Antelope Valley, so after our Death Valley workshop Claudia and I made a quick trip down there. We had seen poppies in Antelope Valley back in the late ’80s, but hadn’t been back since, so this seemed like a good time for a return visit. And the flowers were amazing. In the sun the combination of bright, red-orange poppies and yellow goldfields was downright blinding. It actually hurt my eyes to look directly at the flowers.

But while the flowers were amazing, so was the wind. Antelope Valley is a notoriously windy place. It’s a big, wide-open plain with only scattered trees, and it’s on the eastern, downslope, and therefore windy side of the Tehachapi Mountains. There are wind turbines there for a reason.

Weather is always important in landscape photography. Usually we’re most concerned about clouds (or the lack of clouds), but for flowers wind might be the most important weather factor. Sure, I’d like to have clouds; the soft light created by overcast skies is perfect for colorful subjects like flowers. But I can make sunshine and cloudless skies work, while wind really limits what kind of photographs I can make.

We timed our visit to Antelope Valley to coincide with one morning that forecasts indicated might be calm – out of a week of windy days. And that morning was calm, sort of. Not perfectly still, but workable. A few high clouds passed by, occasionally softening the light a little, which helped. The wind picked up again in the afternoon, and didn’t let up, but at least we had one good morning there. It was also fun to meet up with our friends Mary Liz Austin and Terry Donnelly.

Even without wind, wildflower photography can be challenging. I wrote a post a while ago called “Color is not Enough,” and nowhere is that more true than when photographing flowers. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the color, and forget about design. But design and composition are always essential. You can’t just point your camera at a colorful field of flowers and expect to make a compelling photograph.

When working with students on composition, I seem to repeat the same things over and over: look for patterns and focal points, and fill the frame with interesting stuff. There’s obviously a lot more to composition than that, but those three principles can help immensely. In this small portfolio of wildflower photographs I’ve included extended captions where I talk about those factors in each composition.

The big wildflower displays in Southern California are fading, but the wildflower season will last well into the summer in the mountains. If you photograph flowers, just remember to look to patterns and focal points, and fill the frame with interesting stuff. And pay attention to the wind forecasts!

— Michael Frye

Hills covered in poppies and goldfields, Antelope Valley, CA, USA

Hills covered in poppies and goldfields, Antelope Valley, California. I loved the patterns created by the colors and folds in these hills, so I used a telephoto lens (130mm) to fill the frame with those patterns. 1/125th of a second at f/16, ISO 250.

Poppies, goldfields, and gilia, Antelope Valley, CA, USA

Poppies, goldfields, and gilia, Antelope Valley, California. A classic wide-angle, near-far composition, filling the frame with the dense flowers. The circular clump of poppies near the bottom is one focal point, while the distant hill adds another. 20mm, 1/250th of a second at f/16, ISO 200.

Goldfield carpet with poppies and owl’s clover, Antelope Valley, California. My eye was drawn to the pattern of poppies and owl’s clover poking out of the goldfields, so I used a telephoto lens (110mm) to compress the space and fill the frame with that pattern. 1/200th of a second at f/16, ISO 100 (focus-stacked during a lull in the wind)

Poppies and goldfields, Antelope Valley, CA, USA

Poppies and goldfields, Antelope Valley, California. Another wide-angle, near-far composition. The dense clump of poppies in the foreground provided one focal point, the background hill added another. This was captured late in the morning, but some thin, high clouds softened the light for a few minutes, allowing me to capture fully-open poppies with not-too-harsh light. 23mm, 1/125th of a second at f/16, ISO 100.

Poppies and gilia, Antelope Valley, CA, USA

Poppies and gilia, Antelope Valley, California. It was really windy when I made this image, so I needed a fast shutter speed, and couldn’t get too close to the flowers yet still get everything in focus. So I used a high camera position and pointed the camera down, concentrating on the patterns of flowers. The clump of orange in the foreground creates a vague focal point, but this image is really more about patterns of color. 35mm, 1/250th of a second at f/16, ISO 250.

Related Posts: Color is not Enough; The Floweriest Piece of the World

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite 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: 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.