Some Thoughts on Creating Beautiful Backgrounds in Flower Photography

March 10, 2020  •  9 Comments

Happy almost spring! With the time change and a few days of warmer, sunshiny weather, it feels like spring is closer. I know here in Chicago we can get tricked into thinking spring is almost upon us, and then we get that unexpected snowstorm that throws us back into winter. I'm waiting patiently! Meanwhile, I have been busy photographing the beautiful orchid show at Chicago Botanic Garden, as well as the spring flower show at Garfield Park Conservatory.  I hope to get to the spring flower show at Lincoln Park Conservatory sometime this week. This is how I stay excited about flower photography and continue my own development as a photographer while waiting for the blooms to begin outdoors.

Phaleanopsis OrchidsPhaleanopsis Orchids           Phalaenopsis Orchids photographed at Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show, Lensbaby Velvet 85mm

Watercolor TulipWatercolor Tulip                  Having fun with tulips at Garfield Park Conservatory, Lensbaby Sol 45mm, background straight out of camera.

I want to share some thoughts about working with backgrounds, something that flower and macro photographers often struggle with. I wrote an article about creating beautiful backgrounds on the Visual Wilderness blog a few months ago and, to begin, I would encourage you to read that here. In the article, I write about the importance of backgrounds, checking your whole frame/composition, simplifying, learning to position yourself for the cleanest background, and using aperture and lenses to control backgrounds. At the end, I talk about using textures in your background to add visual interest and create a more beautiful background.

Although I know that using textures for backgrounds is very popular in the flower photography world, my use of textures is very minimal and a little different from most. My true love is to capture a beautiful background in camera by employing all the techniques I talked about in the Visual Wilderness article. I actually enjoy the challenge of creating beautiful backgrounds. Rather than assuming I can use a texture to correct a difficult background, I will work hard to create the best possible background in camera. It might mean finding a different flower or it might mean changing my position, my aperture, or my lens. I live for those images where the background is so beautiful straight out of camera, it compliments and adds to the flower itself. It's one of many reasons I love photographing flowers with Lensbaby lenses – they can create stunning backgrounds straight out of camera. The majority of my work is created that way.  

This tulip image captured with the Lensbaby Sol 45mm was such a time, where a lucky combination of a beautiful subject, a beautiful background and knowing the lens that would capture it successfully was pure magic. I had so much fun photographing that beautiful tulip! The fixed aperture of f/3.5 in the Sol 45mm captured enough detail in the tulip - the sensuous lines and raindrops - along with the beautiful blur and bokeh of the colorful Moroccan Toadflax set in the distance behind the tulip.

Tulipa 'Ballerina'Tulipa 'Ballerina' What if those perfect set of circumstances don't present themselves? What if no matter what you do, you still end up with a messy, distracting background? What if you just can't move on from that flower to find another with a better background because you LOVE THAT FLOWER and it has entangled you in a relationship and pulled you in? This certainly happens to me. When it does, I ask myself what I could do in post processing to make a stronger image, to correct that less-than-perfect background. Here are two suggestions.

Let's start first with a technique you can use without using textures. If you photograph flowers on a tripod, you have some added power over that background. Yes, those of you that know me are saying, "But, Anne, you rarely use a tripod!" Yes, I do prefer to shoot handheld when possible, but there are times when it is necessary to be on a tripod, and this is one of them. In the orchid below, photographed with my 180mm macro lens, I knew I needed a higher aperture to get the important parts of the foreground flower in focus. The complexity and depth of the orchid called for more depth of field. I experimented with a range of apertures (i.e. f/6.3 - f/11) and found that I liked the focus at f/8. Just enough of the foreground flower was in focus at f/8 to portray my vision of this grouping of orchids. You might prefer more or less focus in the image; there is no one right or wrong answer. This is why I always recommend shooting in a range –  give yourself choices and look at them carefully on your computer screen. Although the flower was where I wanted it, an aperture of f/8 brought forth too much detail and more distracting elements in my background. Orchids are some of the most difficult flowers to photograph because their backgrounds can be very challenging and full of distracting elements. I definitely wanted a softer background. After photographing the orchid in that range of higher apertures, I then photographed the flower wide open at f/3.5 to get a softer background, knowing that I would blend the two images together in Photoshop. You need to be on a tripod and make sure you don't move your camera between shots if you are going to blend two images together. This ensures that they can be perfectly aligned in Photoshop. Change your aperture carefully between shots and use a self timer, cable release or remote to keep your hands away from the camera as much as possible. 

In Lightroom I chose the two images (f/3.5 and f/8) I wanted to take into Photoshop by holding down the Command key and selecting the two images. From Lightroom I brought the two images into Photoshop in layers (Photo...Edit in....Open as Layers in Photoshop). There are other ways to bring images into Photoshop in layers but this is a simple way I like to use. I made sure that the image shot at f/3.5 was on top of the image shot at f/8 in the layers panel (you can drag the layers up or down to rearrange them). I created a mask on the second layer, the image shot in f/3.5. The mask icon is the white square with a black circle in it below the layers panel - simply click it to add a mask to your layer. I selected the brush tool and set it to black with an opacity of 100% to paint over the foreground flower. This revealed the more focused orchid in the layer underneath. You could also do this in reverse. If the more focused layer is on top, you would simply paint the background through, rather than the flower. I chose the way I did it because the flower required much less painting than the background, but either works. You do need to be precise in your painting, particularly at the edges of the flower. Make your brush smaller around the edges to give you more control. If all of this sounds like Greek to you, I would suggest finding some Photoshop video tutorials on using layers, masks and blending images. It may sound intimidating but it's actually quite easy. I'm far from a Photoshop expert and there may be other slightly different ways to accomplish these steps, but this is the way I learned and it makes sense to me.  

So there you have it – the focus in the flower and the beautiful soft background with two images! 

Before I move on to technique #2, you might be asking, "How is she using a tripod in an orchid exhibit? Isn't that prohibited?" Yes, during normal hours, tripods are prohibited in most flower shows. At Chicago Botanic Garden, we have "Photographers' Hours," a time they sell a limited number of tickets for an early morning shoot on Tuesday from 8:15 a.m. until the exhibit opens to the public at 10 a.m. Tripods are allowed during this time. It's such a nice perk for us photographers!

Here's another variation of blending two images together in Photoshop. Suppose you have that flower that you have fallen in love with, as I did with the tulip below shot last week at Garfield Park Conservatory. Those ruffles had me at the get-go! As I looked through the viewfinder of my Lensbaby Velvet 85mm, experimented with aperture and moved around, I quickly realized that I just couldn't get the focus I wanted in those ruffles and have a pleasing background. Garfield restricts the use of tripods on most days, so I was limited to hand-holding my camera. The tulip was surrounded by foliage that was pulling my eye away from the tulip. I could have shot it in a wider open aperture, creating more blur in the background, but I'd be sacrificing some of the focus where I wanted it. I could have worked hard to deemphasize that foliage in post processing, perhaps burning in the leaves a bit, perhaps further blurring them, but I had a different idea of how to deal with the problem and to bring more impact to my image.

First, I photographed the image of the tulip at the aperture that was most pleasing to me and expressed the vision I had of the flower itself. In this case it was f/4. You can see the result in the raw image below. The tulip was the way I wanted it, but the surrounding leaves of the tulip were drawing my eye away (yes, I know, I'm picky about my backgrounds – it's not that bad, but it's not the image I wanted).  Second, I looked around the same garden for some nice complimentary colors that would add some visual interest to the image (purple is complimentary to the orange in the tulip - an article I wrote about color theory might be helpful). I photographed a scene with purple flowers nearby, throwing it completely out of focus (see the blurred image below). In Photoshop I did the same steps as the orchid above, bringing both images into Photoshop in layers, with the blurred layer on top of the tulip image. Creating a mask, I painted the flower and stem through with the black brush, leaving the beautiful background with the blurred purple flowers to compliment the tulip. In this case, you may need to lower the opacity of the blurred layer on top so you can see the flower underneath to do your painting, then pull it back up up when you are done. I love the result! The image came alive!

Although I have purchased textures to use in my processing from outside sources, I have found many of them to be too strongly textured to fit my vision. I tend to gravitate to very soft textures or background blends so that they look more natural. I don't necessarily want you to know I've used a texture; it needs to be subtle – simply a way to introduce more blur or add subtle visual interest or color when I can't get it in camera. That's not to say that using more defined textures is bad. On the contrary, I've seen a lot of beautiful work created with textures. It's just not always my personal vision of a flower or my style. I love the idea of creating a blurred background in the same garden, too, although it can certainly be a blurred image you have photographed at another time, another garden. I have been collecting these images for years, some used, some waiting for the right image to be paired with. With this technique the image is completely mine, not a blend with someone else's texture. I can also control what colors I want to bring into the image to add even more impact. 

This is a technique that, after teaching together last summer at Longwood Gardens, I discovered my dear friend Jackie Kramer uses, as well. Jackie creates bold, beautiful backgrounds, often combining multiple images of textures she has photographed, but the work is completely hers.

Raw Image with Background Captured in Camera           Unedited Image  - Flower is great but the background is just not doing it for me! 

          Image photographed in the same garden completely out of focus.

Tulip with RufflesTulip with Ruffles          Finished image combining both images to create blurred, colorful background with complimentary colors.

I keep a folder of those out-of-focus images shot in gardens and I might choose one later on that works well with an image, as I did in the cattleya orchid image below photographed at Longwood Gardens last summer with the Lensbaby Velvet 85mm. I sat with that image for months, not sure how I wanted to work with the unappealing background but loving the beautiful orchid. I came upon a blurred background I had shot over a year ago in a garden and the colors coordinated perfectly with the orchid. Viola!

          Unedited Photograph of a Cattleya Orchid

           Blurred background used with cattleya orchid

Cattleya OrchidCattleya Orchid           Finished image

Think about these two techniques when you have a challenging background to deal with in the field. I still urge you to look for subjects that have pleasing backgrounds you can create in camera. I think it is a skill worth practicing and learning well with any macro photography subject. Backgrounds can make or break your image. Challenge yourself to create the best possible backgrounds in camera. When, however, you want to add a little visual interest to an image or further blur distracting elements, these techniques will help you create that vision of a flower you love.    


Valentine’s Day Flowers(non-registered)
I really enjoyed your blog on creating beautiful backgrounds in flower photography! Your tips were so helpful and easy to understand. Can't wait to try them out on my own photos. Thanks for sharing your insights!
Susan, I would be delighted if you shared the post with students. Thank you for this wonderful comment! I'm glad it inspired you to think about other ways to handle backgrounds.
Susan Simon(non-registered)
Great information clearly stated, Anne. Would it be ok to share this blog post with students if I find myself doing another Flower Photography presentation? I often mention you and Jackie and the Longwood experience last summer to students. Always learning. I love how you challenge yourself with backgrounds....trying to do the same with my own work.
Thank you, Chris! I can't wait to see the beautiful images you come up with!
Chris Dewey(non-registered)
Oh Anne, thank you for this information. I have not tried either technique, and really appreciate your step-by-step instructions. I have quite a few blurred images I have been saving for backgrounds, but did not know how to use them yet. I can't wait to try these!
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