My Sunflower Obsession
It’s that time of year again – the time that I decide I can’t possibly take any more photographs of sunflowers. Every summer I think, “been there-done that” and then I sling my camera over my shoulder and tromp out into yet another sunflower field. I don’t generally take a lot of photos of flowers, but sunflowers seem to be the exception.
I just can’t seem to get enough of them!
This post is about all the different ways to photograph sunflowers and some of the things I think about when composing photographs of sunflowers.
Finding the Fields
The most difficult thing maybe finding a field of sunflowers. They seem to be everywhere – except when I’m actually looking to photograph them.
Thankfully, I don’t need a huge field of sunflowers to make good photos, though large fields like the one at Grintner’s farm near Lawrence, Kansas are super nice. You just can’t beat sunflowers planted on rolling hills. When I was in Tuscany and Bulgaria, there were just miles and miles of the things.
Try a Google search for your area and sunflower fields; you might be surprised at what comes up.
I favor a few local fields at conservation areas and parks. I’m not the only one who likes to look at sunflowers so sometimes public parks plant fields. Some fields will have access around the edges only, other fields will be planted in rows where you can walk between the plants. Be careful! You don’t want to step on a plant and kill it, ruining the experience for others.
Some farms in the area may allow visitors (sometimes for a fee), but you may not be able to access working farms. If you find a working farm in the area, you can still drive by and photograph from a public road, but avoid walking into the field. Remember, sunflowers are crops and the farmer really wants to harvest the flowers at some point.
But you may not even need a field of sunflowers, a neighbor’s back yard with three sunflowers might be all you need, though to get beautiful photographs.
When to Photograph
As a photographer, of course I’m going to say visit at dusk and dawn. Color in the sky makes every thing look more interesting.
Mostly the sunflowers will face east (towards the rising sun) which means the sun is behind the sunflowers at sunset, but there always seems to be one or two facing in a rogue direction.
But sunflowers are one thing that look great in bright sun with clear blue skies as a background.
Somehow the shape of the flowers and being able to pick flowers facing different directions means I’m always able to find at least one flower that has a bit of contrasting light. I don’t want too many shadows on the flower, but the textures in the flower will often cast a few mini-shadows giving the flower dimension.
Summer is the peak growing season for sunflowers, but when they bloom depends largely on when they were planted. There are a number of sunflower fields in our local conservation area and they planted the fields to stagger the blooming throughout the summer – way to go! If you go too soon, flowers won’t yet be open and if you go to late, well, wilting sunflowers can be a bit sad.
Just when I think I’ve taken all the photos that I can of sunflowers, I find another composition. If I’ve found a field of sunflowers, I’m thrilled and will happily snap away with my wide-angle lens trying to take in the scope of the field. This really only works if the field has some hills and valleys to give the photo dimension. Even then, I need to choose a focal point for my composition – I need to choose one sunflower to be the hero.
I spend a great of time looking at flowers before I start taking photos. I’m looking for a flower that is somehow different from the rest – it’s a little bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. But once you start looking closely at the flowers, you’ll see what I mean. I want a flower that is just a little bit bigger than the rest or a little bit taller. Or I’ll try to find a group of three sunflowers that seem to go together. I’m also looking for a flower that isn’t took beaten up or has a lot of insects on it (unless the insects are bumble bees and that’s a whole other story!)
I can walk around a field for hours making sunflower portraits.
Once I’ve chosen the best sunflower to be the center of attention, I get close and compose my photo around it, laying out the rest of the sunflower field in the background. I may even make my aperture larger (smaller number) so I blur out the flowers in the background. Not too much! I generally want the background flowers to still have a bit of detail and not become yellow and green smudges (though sometimes that’s nice as well).
At this point, I may be using my telephoto lens especially if I can’t actually walk into the sunflower field. If I can’t walk into the field, I’m stuck with the flowers in the front row as my main subjects.
If my background is sufficiently blurred than I might not have to worry about where the horizon is in relation to the sunflowers in my photo, but otherwise, I stop and take a look before I snap the shot.
If I’m not paying attention, the horizon will often bisect the flower. That means that the upper half of the flower will have a blue sky background and the lower half will have the sunflower field as a background. This isn’t necessarily bad, but I prefer to help my hero sunflower stand out by choosing one of the two backgrounds. I either get up a little higher than the flower (not so easy sometimes if the flowers are tall!) and photograph with the sunflower field as the background. Holding my camera up over my head, I can use live view on the back of my camera to compose the shot. My other option is to get low and photograph from below using the blue sky as the background. The benefit of photographing up is that the sunflower looks even more heroic.
Bring the Family!
A sunflower field can be a great background for a portrait photo shoot. The model can be walking through the fields and interacting with the flowers. Even when it’s allowed, I try not to pick too many flowers for my model to hold – I want the field to stay nice for future visitors.
With a lot of sunflowers, it’s sometimes difficult to find a place where the model’s head is clear of flowers. It’s best if it doesn’t look like a sunflower is growing out of the model’s head! Getting down low or blurring out the background will help.
I’m happy if I find just one sunflower. Sunflowers are so complex – ok all you flower photographers out there – I know that all flowers have complexity, but I’m drawn to the particular complexities of the garden variety sunflower. I’ll take my macro lens into a field of sunflowers and be as happy as a lark. I can make photographs of the center of the flower or the delicate petals. I don’t even worry about cropping off 2/3 of the flower – somehow the photo works!
There are a surprising number of different types of sunflowers and each has its own unique structure.
In the field, macro is tougher if there’s wind blowing the flowers around. I have to increase my shutter speed to capture the flower without motion blur.
Sometimes I’m even lucky enough to have yellow bumble bees on a yellow sunflower. Then I really need the high shutter speed!
Photographing sunflowers is satisfying because there are so many different ways to shoot them. Photos of flowing fields of sunflowers bring to mind Tuscan landscapes and sunflower portraits show the character of individual flowers. Macro allows me to get into the texture and architecture of the flower.
I’m not necessarily making unique images, I can probably find many versions online, but somehow that doesn’t make the photos any less satisfying. My Lightroom catalogue says I’ve taken 1,040 images of sunflowers, but that’s not going to stop me from picking up my camera and making a thousand more!