How to Photograph Outdoor Garden Flowers to Paint?

Introduction: Photographing Flowers Outdoors

You bought your much wanted digital camera, rushed to your favorite flower garden and started to click, and click, and many click-click-clicks. You did all those clicks without any thoughts and without any planning. Why not? It is a digital camera and an additional photo does not cost any extra money.

 In all your excitement, you assumed that those gorgeous flowers you are looking at right now must be looking great in your photographs too. You already saw yourself painting a new masterpiece using each of the captured photographs.

I know that feeling, the excitement, and the rush of adrenaline carrying me around the flower bushes for hours. At the end of an exhausting day I would rush to my computer to see how great photographs I caught – and face cold disappointing reality. Out of hundreds or thousands of photographs, I would find that one or none qualifies to be considered as a good reference for my next painting. For a few years I wondered why this happens again and again. Here is what I found, and I am glad to share this with you, to save your precious time you can otherwise spend painting and doing what you enjoy doing.

4 Things to Watch for

What you need to keep in mind while planning your photographic expedition to capture outdoor flowers, could be summarized in the following 4 major categories.

1) The time of the day matters
2) The weather conditions and time of the year matter
3) The position of the light source (the Sun) and the direction the light is entering and traveling through composition matter
4) Knowing your camera and its limitations matter

1) The time of the day matters

During the day, from the early morning up to the late evening, intensity, direction and color temperature of the sunlight are changing. It is beneficial to know how they are changing; so that you are in control of the kind of effects you will be getting in your painting photo reference.

In the early morning, the sunlight intensity is quickly changing from a complete darkness and initially slightly warm color hues – towards stronger light intensity and colder color hues. Also, in the morning, the length of the cast shadows is the longest, compared to any other time of the day. If the intention is to create the most striking, vibrant, dynamic, high-contrast compositions with approximately 20% of light areas and approximately 80% of dark areas, the early morning is the best time to take your photographs. Your painting flower subject will look fresh and sparkling, waking up from sleepy darkness around it, communicating eagerness, promise and expectations.

As we move towards the middle of the day – late morning – the sunlight intensity becomes stronger, the temperature of the color hues becomes colder, and cast shadows (the shadow one object is casting on another one) almost disappear. The whole composition becomes equally distributed on the value scale without predominant light or dark areas. The presence of dark values is very limited. The photographs taken during the middle time of the day might lack cast shadows, drama, and the a clear perception of light traveling around the composition. Although bright and cheerful, these photographs could be difficult to use as a painting reference. Also, if painted exactly as they look, the viewer will be puzzled too, constantly scanning through the composition, trying to find out what the artist wanted to focus on and communicate as every part of such a composition could be competing for attention.

In the afternoon and evening, the sunlight intensity slowly fades out. The color temperature becomes warmer… and eventually very warm, having yellow-orange and light-red hues reflected in everything outdoors. The cast shadows are getting longer and longer as the day moves from the noon towards the evening. However, even in the late afternoon, the length of the cast shadows and dramatic value contrasts will not match those of early morning light. The outdoor flower photo references taken in the afternoon will have high contrast, very warm color hue, and rich cast shadows. They will communicate tranquility and have a calming and relaxing effect.

2) The weather conditions and time of the year matter

The weather conditions and time of the year will impact not only the quality of the outdoor flower photographs, but also the whole photographing experience. In extreme weather conditions, the chances are you would not be hunting for flowers to photograph. If you do need sad, drooped down, lifeless and damaged flowers, then you might. However, the best and brightest come from sunny, spring, summer and fall early mornings and late afternoons.

If the weather is rainy and foggy, the sunlight intensity is very subdued. The color temperature is cold, leaning towards blue and purple gray hues. The cast shadows are hard to find. If they do exist their edges are very soft, barely perceivable. The value scale of the whole composition is concentrated around narrow middle area on the value scale. If you remove color from the composition, everything will be described by a few soft middle shades of gray. If the intention is to create toned down, sentimental, and almost moody composition, this weather conditions will definitely help.

On the bright sunny days, you will get the most appealing flower compositions to paint. All elements in the composition, including cast shadows will have sharp, clearly defined edges and value contrasts. Sunny days will bring life, cheerfulness, positive energy and bright mood in your flower compositions.

During the winter in cold countries like Canada, the only places we could possibly find flowers are indoor botanical gardens. Since the light source is one of the most important elements in the composition, the success we strive for will depend on how much and what kind of light we have. Generally, the indoor botanical gardens are well illuminated by the addition of many artificial light sources. Having many of them, positioned all around, will generate many cast shadows and give mixed messages about where the light is entering the composition and how it travels through it. Artists will most likely struggle trying to paint based on such photo reference. The viewer of such paintings will search to find the light source and the direction to follow and explore the painting. With the exception of a few intentional and special light effects, multiple light sources often create confusion.

3) The position of the light source (the Sun) and the direction the light is entering and traveling through the composition matter

Naturally, in outdoor flower compositions we expect to have sunlight entering the composition from the top. I would say my personal preference is to choose top-left position. The rationale behind this choice is driven by our habits. In majority of the languages we read from the left to the right. This habit, early engraved in our minds, is forcing us to look at two dimensional objects, such as paintings, in the same way – from the left to the right. It makes sense for the viewer to enter the painting at the same place as the light does – and follow it all the way through the composition.

In outdoor settings, on a bright sunny day, you might be confused where the light source is. The easiest way to find it is to ask yourself where are cast shadows and then lift your head up in the opposite direction and briefly locate the Sun. Ideally, the Sun should be above, at the left-top corner of the composition and the cast shadows should be leaning towards bottom-right corner.

4) Knowing your camera and its limitations matter

Digital photo camera should be treated as the artist’s best friend. If you think about your best friend, you probably like a majority of her features and characteristics, but not all. The same applies to photo cameras. Although, we are very fortunate to enjoy enormous advancements in the areas of digital photography, it takes time and many trials and errors to get a good understanding what digital camera can and cannot accomplish.

It takes time and practice to acquire new skills. Getting to know your camera is also going to take time. Depending on the camera model, and features, there will be a learning curve in order to reach a point where you are getting desired results every time you shoot a photograph.

The most important manual settings I always pay attention to are the following: color vibrancy – set to Vivid, depth of field – set to the maximum I could get, and spot light metering – which automatically adjusts exposure as the camera focus moves around. It looks very simple once you know it and have practiced through tens of thousands photographs. At the beginning, it could be intimidating. Don’t let it be so. Once you learn that automatic settings bleach out all your soft white flower petals leading to dull and lifeless flowers, the motivation to do better would drive your desire to learn and accomplish exceptional result.

Another important observation is that, very often if the photograph catches the light areas properly, the shadow areas are very dark – and the details in the shadow areas are lost. If the shadow areas are properly caught, the light areas are bleached and colorless. There is a limited area for maneuver to correct this, while solely relying on the digital camera. If the photograph is planned to be only reference for your painting and not a photographic masterpiece it is safe to have both, or as many photographs as you need focusing on different light and shadow areas and getting all the information you could possibly need. Your painting will be a compilation of everything, photographs as well as your mental notes, outdoor sketches and your feelings – how you feel about the composition.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, as you are planning your next outdoor photographic session, I would like to give you the following advice.

 Choose a bright sunny day. Take your own photographs – as many as you could possibly need. You know what appeals to you the most. Choose the composition you are happy with. Imagine that you are painting it. Then pay attention where the light source is, how the light flows through the composition, what is the main focus of the composition, what is the color temperature, where are light and shadow areas – especially cast shadows. Ask yourself how you feel about the composition you are seeing in the photo frame. What does it tell you? How it makes you feel? Does it have enough details to paint? Do you like it enough to dedicate the next few months painting it? The answers will tell you how good it is, should you move up or down, left or right, and how many additional close-up photographs you need to take to have all needed information.

I hope this motivates and excites you to plan your next photographic adventure and gives you a lot of pleasure while painting your own masterpiece based on your own photo references.

Happy photographing and painting!

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