Flowers are like sunsets, in that if you can compose and expose the frame properly, it’s pretty much a slam-dunk that you’re going to be walking away with good, if not very good, photographs.
Not long ago, my wife brought home a basket of white azaleas. Although I’ve seen azaleas umpteen times in the past, something caught my eye this time around. Maybe it was the late afternoon light, maybe the subtle variations of yellowish white, the soft curls of the flowers’ edges, or any combination of the above. All I knew was that I wanted to photograph them.
I also knew I didn’t want to take the same-old, same-old flower pictures that I’ve taken so many times before. My hard drives runneth over with wonderful flower pictures… thank you.
In particular, there was a sense of simplicity about these flowers, and that’s what I wanted to capture. While the subtle hues of yellow toward the center of each flower were aesthetically pleasing, it was the shapes and tonality of the flowers themselves that caught my eye.
Because I prefer composing photographs intended to be black-and-white in their final form, I set the camera to Monochrome, which eliminated the color factor when viewing images on the camera’s LCD or in the viewfinder.
True, I could have shot the images in RGB and converted them to monochrome downstream, but when it comes to shooting monochrome I much prefer shooting WISIWIG; What I saw is what I got—there were no surprises.
The camera I chose to capture these photographs was a Sony Alpha a7R II. First, I tried a few test images using a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AI-S lens. While this is a sharp, reliable work horse, it produced images that, while very good in their own ways, were different from the vision in my mind’s eye.
Ditto my Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4 AI-S. Both lenses produced images that were tack sharp, with pleasing bokeh, yet they were close but not quite a cigar. I also wanted to be able to bring more of the background into the frame, even when shooting up close.
The lens I turned to next was a Voigtlander VM 40mm/f2.8 Heliar, a sharp, wonderfully compact lens designed to be used with a Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Adapter. (The lens requires the use of the VM-E Adapter for focusing reasons—you can’t focus the lens without the adapter.)
Sony Alpha A7r II with Voigtlander VM 40mm/f2.8 Heliar lens and VM-E Close-Focus adapter, and a Vello Deluxe Auto Focus Extension Tube set for Sony E-mount lenses
In the time I’ve owned this lens, I’ve come to appreciate its imaging qualities. In addition to being quite sharp, it feathers its way through the out-of-focus portions of the image in an extremely pleasing way.
The only shortcoming of Voigtlander’s 40mm Heliar is that it’s closest focusing distance is 19.7". While it’s fine for street photography, this was hardly enough for my immediate needs.
To get around this problem, I broke out my Vello Deluxe Auto Focus Extension Tube Set for Sony E mount cameras. This set contains 10mm and 16mm tubes, which I used together for a combined 26mm of lens extension. That, in turn, allowed me to focus down to about 2.5" from the front of the lens.
I wanted shallow depth of field, so I shot with the lens wide open in a bid to emulate the narrow depth of focus of our eyes, especially when viewing things up close. It’s worth noting here that—despite variables such as an individual’s age and general health—most authorities agree the widest pupil opening of a human eye is equivalent to about f/1.4… give or take.
In addition to the combined resolving power of the camera’s 42MP imaging sensor and the lens, the Sony A7r II’s 5-axis Steady-shot INSIDE image stabilization system went a long way in enabling me to carefully frame each image when shooting handheld at closer than normal distances. To counter camera shake due to the added magnification factor of the extension tubes, I manually adjusted the focal-length setting to 85mm rather than 40mm in the SteadySHOT menu. Doing so made a big difference in steadying the frame.
Interestingly, the 40mm focal length of this lens better approximates the 46° AoV of what most will agree is “normal” in terms of depth perception and field of view. These combined factors enable capturing photographs that greatly emulate the way our eyes perceive the scene.
The resulting images, which required the slightest degree of tonal editing in post, exceeded my expectations. As a bonus, they’ve also found favor among friends, family, and—most of all—other photographers.
If you have any questions or comments about photographing flowers—or other subjects—up close using extension tubes, please share them in the Comments section, below.
Extension tubes (mine happen to be Kenko) are good. They don't introduce optical changes, they're not very expensive, and they do the job. But...(always a "but" somewhere :-) they do have a couple of drawbacks. If you are using a fairly long focal length macro lens (100mm to 200mm) to get to 3X makes for extension as "long as Pinocchio's nose" and somewhat unwieldy. Also, adding and removing them from the camera opens the sensor to those dreaded monsters known as dust and pollen (and the latter is very common around flowers :-)
More recently I've been using supplementary lenses instead. These avoid the two bad points noted above, but they can introduce some optical changes. I've had good luck so far with the Raynox supplementary lenses, which are multi-element and come with a very nice clip-on system that fits my two macro lenses (Nikon 200mm and Tamron 90mm). They are not terribly expensive, either, and worth exploring as an alternative to tubes. FYI.