Questions about Shooting Red and Yellow Flowers

It’s offseason in the garden, so I have time to plan. Getting detailed images of red and yellow flowers is at the top of my photography-skills-to-improve list. Shooting red and yellow flowers often returns colorful blobs with little detail. I’ve had some success, but it’s unpredictable. Looking back at my shots, I cannot tell why a shot went wrong or turned out great– there are too many variables. 

At first, I thought it was the amount of sunlight because the first year I had a camera, I did all the shots in the middle of the day. Well, that seemed to be a firm rule until my canna image turned out fine, and it was shot mid-afternoon.

Then I noticed that cameras with spot metering fared better than those with just center-weighted metering. I got perfect shots of yellow daisies with an Olympus e300 digital. The Sony a100 captured my bright red crocosmia with no problems, and both those cameras offer spot metering. My Minolta 7000, which has only center-weighted metering, gave worse results for both colors. But then, thinking back, the daisies were shot very late in the afternoon after the sun was behind a group of trees, and my body also shaded them. I shot the crocosmia on a grey, rainy day. So, sunlight intensity is the real culprit!?! I have also noticed that black-eyed Susans, when wet, look better with spot metering than when dry. How does wetness change the equation? I’m looking for consistency and predictability. 

These last two years, I have dedicated most of my photography time to testing cameras and emulsions. Since I buy most cameras from eBay, testing is necessary to find duds, and I’ve had a few. I did emulsion tests to see which films produced colors I liked best. The remaining time I spent learning camera features/functions. Happily, I’m done with testing, and it’s time to focus on producing quality images. Fine art, in the full sense of the term, is my goal. 

After reading various opinions on the internet from the great unwashed, I came across what seems to be an authoritative post from the Temecula Valley Rose Society—if anybody knows how to shoot flowers, they should. According to their expert, it is a metering problem (everyone but 2019-me apparently knows/knew not to shoot in the middle of the day). He suggested using a middle gray card and underexposing one to two stops to capture detail. That was also the prevailing opinion of the unwashed, at least those who didn’t say “just fix it in post.” Spot metering in the Olympus e300 and Sony a100 seemed good enough to manage without using a gray card. If so, I will need a gray card with center-weighted cameras, which includes my medium format cameras (I just bought a Pentax 645), neither of which has spot metering. 

Now I have an experiment to plan. I’ll buy one bouquet each of red and yellow flowers. I will shoot flowers of both colors in the shade with the Sony a100 using spot metering. Assuming those turn out well, next I’ll try shooting with Kodak UltraMax (the most neutral film I have) and a Maxxum 7. The Maxxum 7 is the most sophisticated Minolta film camera and has very accurate metering capability. First, I will shoot with spot metering and no exposure compensation. To finish up, I will switch to center-weighted metering and use a gray card to determine the amount of exposure compensation to use. Hopefully, this will answer the question once and for all.  

Since flower portraits are the reason I started doing photography, this experiment is a big deal. If all goes well, I can move on and start preparing for the 2021 flower season. If not, well—I have the number to the Temecula Valley Rose Society, and they will surely hear from me. 


  1. A follow-up to my previous comment. I scrolled back through the photos included with your post and did a quick image by image analysis. First image, red too saturated. Next row, left image has a more neutral grey background and this affects perception overall. Right image has colorful yellowish-green background and this impacts perception of main flower color. May also be slightly over-saturated and it could also be printed darker overall. Next row left image has greater overall density and background is a dark blue color that complements the yellow flower. Right image may only require more density overall to make the flower come in. Remember, the background is not the reason for the photo, so losing detail there is not a bad thing. Next row left image, the sky color is coming into play so reflected light is something to consider. Also the bright background bokeh is messing with the viewers ability to hone in on the main subject. Last image on right, the main light source appears to be straight overhead so there is no contouring or depth enhancement. This type of flower is difficult because of the contrast range from the dark center to the bright petals. Study other photographers work to gain insight into what is being done to best enhance this type shot.

    You don’t have to agree with anything I’ve stated. Just my opinion looking at posted photos in a reduced color space. Maybe something I’ve said will cause you to look at the process differently if nothing else.

    1. Bill, that for the detailed critiques! I will look over the images and get an idea of what you are seeing/saying.

  2. Jerome, before I get started let me say I am not a flower expert by any means. I definitely concur on the spot metering since the single flower is the point of interest. I’ve even used a zoom lens to focus tight and see what reading the meter is giving. Another tip was given to me by a photographer I worked for back in the 1980’s. I’ve used this technique and it’s always worked but it wasn’t for flower exposures so your mileage may vary. Position your free hand with the back of your hand facing the lens and in the location of the subject and take your light reading. A form of grey card always close at hand. Oh, that was bad.

    Next, I would try some transparency film. If Kodachrome was still around I would recommend that. I’ve not shot the new Ektachrome but I never liked the original cast of that film. I’m not a Fuji fan so I’m no help there either. In the print making arena the luminance and saturation greatly affect the fine detail. Focus also impacts dynamic range as well as color rendition. Over-saturated colors lose detail so it’s a dance between density and saturation. Density affects saturation so try more for deep color instead of saturated color. Also, don’t tweak color and saturation until density is dialed in.

    That’s my two cents worth but take it all with a grain of salt.

    1. Thanks for the tips. I’ll let the pun go. This year I have time to plan, and I have better accessories in terms light meters, tripods, reflectors, and such. I can fine tune lighting and exposure. I’ve shot 95% of everything hand-held, so using a tripod I can wait for the best light.

  3. I look forward to you sharing what you learn. Yellow flowers especially are challenging to photograph — they blow out so easily.

    1. I’ve noticed that I get much better images using AF cameras with spot metering. Since I want to use my manual cameras, I will have to use a more deliberate exposure approach. A tripod will be helpful as well. I have a feeling that shooting in late afternoon with a tripod and reflector will do the trick. The digital shots worked because I could bump up the ISO in low light.

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