Handheld Flower Photography

This article discusses some handheld flower photography options and features a range of images captured using various cameras and techniques. The majority of the photographs illustrated in this posting were created using an E-M1X.

The reason for that is very simple. The E-M1X provides some wonderful handheld flower photography options with technology like in-camera focus stacking, HHHR (Handheld Hi Res), incredible IBIS performance, and a fully articulating rear screen.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 48mm, efov 129.6mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-3200, extension tube used

I’ve used full frame gear and Nikon 1 equipment in the past to photograph flowers with quite reasonable results. Having said that,  I much prefer the wider selection of handheld flower photography options provided by the E-M1X. The new OM-1 also provides the same options.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro with 16mm extension tube, efov 120 mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO-6400, handheld in-camera focus stacked, subject distance 255 mm

As you view the E-M1X flower images and corresponding EXIF data, you’ll find that I used a number of different M.Zuiko lenses. These include the 60 mm f/2.8 macro, the PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom, the PRO 12-100 mm f/4 zoom, the 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 zoom, and the 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 zoom.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS @ 75 mm, efov 150 mm, f/4, 1/200, ISO-64, handheld in-camera focus stacking

My two favourite M.Zuiko lenses for flower photography are the 60 mm f/2.8 macro, and the PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom. When specifically going out to photograph flowers these are my two ‘go to’ lenses. I also bring a set of Kenko extension tubes for potential use with the lenses I have with me.

Additionally, I will sometimes bring my MC-14 and MC-20 teleconverters for use with the PRO 40-150 f/2.8 and 100-400 mm f/5-6.5 IS zooms. As you can see from the image above, I will use other lenses if I happen upon some unplanned flower photography opportunities.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, efov 120 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, cropped to 4108 pixels on the width, subject distance 285 mm

I must admit that I did not initially spend too much time using the E-M1X’s in-camera focus stacking technology. The output is a jpeg and I erroneously assumed that image quality may be somewhat suspect. As a photographer who has been long focused on shooting RAW format this was a bad assumption on my part.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, efov 120 mm, f/5, 1/100, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, cropped to 4567 pixels on the width, subject distance 550 mm

The image quality from in-camera focus stacking jpegs is very good indeed… and in-camera focus stacking is now one of my favourite technologies to use when photographing flowers.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 120 mm, efov 280 mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO-400, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 925 mm

It allows me to shoot handheld at appropriate shutter speeds while using f-stops between f/2.8 to f/5.6 and still achieve my desired depth-of-field… while frequently creating images at base ISO-200.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, efov 120 mm, f/2.8, 1/125, ISO-400, full frame capture, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 280 mm

When photographing flowers I almost always compose my images using the rear screen. The articulating screen on my E-M1X is a creative godsend. It allows me to compose photographs using a wide variety of angles, and in very cramped surroundings. Many images that I’ve captured would not have been possible using a tripod.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/40, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 515 mm

I am discerning when selecting blossoms to photograph. Some of my favourite image opportunities are found with flowers that are in bright, harsh light, and are well separated from a dark background.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/30, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 535 mm

This allows me to significantly underexpose the background while achieving a deep, rich exposure on the blossom. The results are often quite dramatic. Very minor adjustments in post with DxO Smart Lighting, and working with black and white sliders in PhotoShop can quickly get the blossoms to where I want them. Occasionally making some small adjustments in Levels in PhotoShop can further augment the photographs. Rather than push images in post I would rather ‘get it right in camera’ whenever possible.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/40, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 630 mm

I often use ‘rule of thirds’ composition, especially if the blossom has long petals that radiate from a centre point. Using a front quarter angle helps with these types of compositions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-200, In-Camera Focus Stacking, subject distance 345 mm

When using in-camera focusing stacking I always use a small, single auto-focus point. In-camera focus stacking works differently than focus bracketing in terms of the best place to position a single AF point.  In-camera focus stacking starts stacking 1/3 ahead of the AF point and continues 2/3 past the AF point into the subject. Focus bracketing should be done at the first surface you want in focus. It then works back from there.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/1000, ISO-200, subject distance 700 millimetres

There is a common misconception with some photographers that shallow depth-of-field cannot be achieved with a small sensor camera. It’s actually very easy to do.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/5, -0.3 step, 1/250, ISO-640, subject distance 730 mm, Handheld Hi Res mode

To achieve shallow depth-of-field with a small sensor camera we need to remember to get in tight to a subject blossom. Use a longer focal length, a fairly wide open aperture, and select a subject blossom that is well separated from the background.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/320, ISO-800, microscopic mode

Some cameras like the Olympus TG-5 have technology like microscopic mode that can create some very pleasing images of blossoms.

Olympus TG-5 @ 10 mm, efov 55.6 mm, f/4.5, 1/200, ISO-100, microscopic mode

The sensor is tiny but utilizes backside illumination so image quality can be acceptable for many purposes. The TG-5 (and similar models) can be shot in RAW which allows for more latitude in post.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 80 mm, efov 160 mm, f/5.5, 1/400, ISO-6400, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used

Some lenses, like the M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II zoom, are not compatible with in-camera focus stacking… but they can still be used to photograph flowers. One technique is to attach an extension tube(s). This has a magnification-like effect and allows a photographer to better fill their frame with a blossom. The photograph above and the next three that follow help illustrate this approach.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-4000, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 75 mm, efov 150 mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-4000, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II @ 90 mm, efov 180 mm, f/5.5, 1/400, ISO-6400, 10 mm and 16 mm Kenko extension tubes used

Cameras like the E-M1X and OM-1 feature HHHR capability (Handheld Hi Res). By recognizing and adjusting for a photographer’s handheld movements, these cameras can combine 16 images in camera and produce a 50 MP RAW file. Not only does an HHHR photograph get increased resolution, but dynamic range is also increased, and high ISO noise is significantly reduced.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 308 mm, efov 616 mm, f/8.5, -0.7 EV, 1/800, ISO-800, HHHR Handheld Hi Res mode, full frame capture, subject distance 3.9 metres

For best results the subject needs to be very still and a photographer needs to have good handheld technique.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 308 mm, efov 616 mm, f/8.5, 1/640, ISO-320, HHHR Handheld Hi Res mode, full frame capture, subject distance 2.5 metres

The IBIS (in body image stabilization) with Olympus/OM System cameras is outstanding with models like the E-M1X and OM-1 providing up to 7 stops of image stabilization.  While we often think of IBIS enabling us to shoot at very slow shutter speeds, IBIS can also provide great assistance when shooting one handed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/500, ISO-800, photographed one-handed, subject distance 270 mm

Often when in outdoor gardens or when visiting indoor floral displays, specific blossoms may be very hard to reach. Sometimes the best handheld flower photography option is to shoot one handed. The next four images are examples of shooting one handed with an E-M1X.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/11, 1/800, ISO-6400, photographed one-handed, subject distance 260 mm

The shutter speeds used in these sample images are not slow. But keep in mind that a photographer may be stretched out as far as is physically possible in order to be able to capture images like these one handed.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/500, ISO-6400, photographed one-handed, subject distance 280 mm
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/8, 1/320, ISO-6400, photographed one-handed, subject distance 285 mm
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/6.3, 1/800, ISO-6400, photographed one-handed, subject distance 270 mm

Depending on the skill of a photographer, HHHR and in-camera focus stacking images can also be captured using one handed technique.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 44mm, efov 118.8mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-800, extension tube used

Some camera systems, like Nikon 1, do not offer a dedicated macro lens. In these situations a good handheld flower photography option is using extension tubes with relatively long telephoto zoom lenses like the 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6. These combinations can produce very good macro-like results.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 46mm, efov 124.2mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO-3200, extension tube used
Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 43mm, efov 116.1mm, f/5.6, 1/400, ISO-3200, extension tube used

We can also create very interesting handheld flower photography images by going out after a light or moderate rainfall. Heavy downpours can sometimes damage delicate blossoms. Raindrops on flower petals and leaves can add a feeling of freshness to an image.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-2000, subject distance 325 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 275 mm
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-6400, subject distance 315 mm

In the past when I was using full frame camera gear tripod assisted, photographing  flowers tended to be a slow and tedious process. I felt confined and restricted creatively. Now, I absolutely love the freedom and spontaneity that handheld flower photography provides. Combining computational photography capabilities like in-camera focus stacking and Handheld Hi Res with outstanding IBIS performance and an articulating rear screen dramatically increases what is possible both physically and creatively.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were created from RAW files or out-of-camera jpegs using my standard approach. Photographs were resized for web use. This is the 1,201 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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8 thoughts on “Handheld Flower Photography”

  1. A great post. I’m wondering how an Olympus M1.3 might stack up against the M1X for flower work. I feel there was a little more magic in the Olympus shots over the couple of Nikon shots. Just my taste I expect. The emerging tulip bulb is fantastic!

    1. Hi Norm,

      If my memory serves the E-M1 Mark III has Handheld Hi Res and in-camera focus stacking, as well as very good IBIS performance so it should perform very well for flower photography. I have large hands so I much prefer the E-M1X from comfort and handling perspectives. Being double gripped the E-M1X is easier to use when shooting vertical compositions.

      I agree that the Olympus images are better than the Nikon 1 samples. There was no dedicated macro lens for Nikon 1 and the sensor performance of the M4/3 sensor is better in terms of both dynamic range and colour depth. Computational features like HandHeld Hi Res and in-camera focus stacking give the Olympus more creative flexibility and options. The fully articulated screen also makes a difference, especially with vertical compositions. I also like the 4×3 format for flower photography rather than 3×2.

      Tom

  2. Another wonderful tutorial Tom. Thank you for sharing. It inspires me to get out and do more floral images. Something I don’t do often enough.

    1. Hi Carol,

      I’m glad the article was helpful for you. It’s strange how I often take these examples of delicate beauty for granted much of the time and fail to capture more images.

      Tom

    1. Hi Vincent,

      I had 2 sets of extension tubes for Nikon 1 cameras. One set was made by MOVO and the other set were a higher end Vello Deluxe set. If my memory serves the MOVO set had 3 tubes and the Vello set had 2. Both sets had metal mounts. I’m not sure if you can still buy any new extension tubes for Nikon 1. You may have to search the used market. Be sure not to buy any extension tubes with plastic flanges as they are prone to cracking.

      Tom

  3. Very helpful explanations of flower photography. I recently added a 60mm Olympus macro lens to my collection. It seems to be a great lens and is so light to boot. This will help me in getting out to practice this photography.

    1. Hi Joel,

      I’m glad the article was helpful for you. The M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro is a terrific little lens which I love using. The focus limiter on the side of the barrel comes in really handy when composing images.

      Tom

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