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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Working the Subject

By March 22, 2015No Comments

Story and photographs by F.M. Kearney

If there was ever a Superbowl for floral photography, it would most likely be held in April. Flowers are blooming almost everywhere you look. Framing these little wonders of nature is usually a straightforward decision of using a vertical or horizontal composition. Occasionally, however, you may come across a subject that refuses to play nice and be placed in a neat little box.

Before you actually begin shooting, it’s a good idea to walk around first and survey the scene for the most promising subjects. This tight cluster of white Easter lilies in a botanical garden eventually caught my attention.


© F.M. Kearney

I first used a horizontal composition to highlight the three lilies at the top. The small purple and orange flowers served as interesting foreground and background elements. Your camera’s depth of field preview feature will come in handy for shots like this. I used it to select an aperture that placed the focus on the main subject. The end result was OK, but I knew I could do better. My main problem was the large black area in the upper right. I felt it threw off the entire compositional balance of the photo. I could have lowered the angle, but I didn’t want to clip off the top petal of the lily on the left.

Kearney DL-312

© F.M. Kearney

I then tried a vertical composition and zoomed in slightly on the center lily – maintaining similar positions for the foreground and background flowers. I thought it was fortuitous for my little bee buddy to visit at the precise moment I took the picture, but I was still stuck with that large, annoying black area. Although it provides great copy space should I ever use these photos commercially, I felt that they were still a bit off-balance as stand-alone photographs.

Kearney DL-313

© F.M. Kearney

I finally decided to rethink my plans for the placement of the small purple flowers in the foreground. I kept the vertical format, but slightly changed my position and zoomed out to include more of the flowers in the background. This considerably improved the overall balance of the photo. There’s still a black area in the upper right, but it’s been considerably reduced to a much more reasonable size and can still be used for copy space if necessary.

This process is often referred to as “working the subject.” Back in the days of film, when every shot cost money, working the subject was more of a mental exercise and rarely resulted in actual photographs. The digital age frees us from such constraints, and allows for more experimentation that would have been too costly with film. I consider myself a product of the film era and, for me, old habits die hard. Despite the ease of deleting anything I don’t like, I’m still selective about what I shoot. Since the images in this case all had something different to offer, I felt that they created an interesting “building-block” series as a whole.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, please visit