In flower photography the background behind your flower is every bit as important to the success of your photograph as the flower itself. Unless you go in so close that you fill the frame with just part of the flower, you will have a background of some sort around and behind it. You could photograph the most beautiful flower in the world, but if it has a clutter of twigs and dead leaves behind it, the image just won't be successful.
Conversely, a simple flower such as a daisy against a lovely wash of out of focus colour can make a stunning image. Remember that our eyes are much more selective than our cameras - when we look at the flower, we notice the beauty of its petals and disregard those tangled twigs and leaves; but the camera records petals, twigs and leaves with equal clarity.
So the first part of the search for a good background is simply to be more aware of everything that is in your frame. Very often a slight change of angle or viewpoint can eliminate a distraction which would otherwise spoil the photo. Or you may be able to gently move something out of the way - very often I just tuck a flower stem behind another one so that it is held out of the image. In my own garden I will happily use a pair of secateurs, but that's not something that can be done in other people's gardens!
Once you've done the most you can by physically moving either yourself or bits of foliage, the main tool for controlling the background in our photographs is the choice of aperture to adjust the depth of field. Very often a background which looks cluttered and distracting when in sharp focus can be transformed into a lovely harmonious wash of colour when a wider aperture is used, and can become a beautiful part of the image in its own right. This can work especially well when the background consists of flowers of the same type as the subject flower, because then all the out of focus flowers will harmonise with and support the subject in terms of colour and shape, without distracting from it.
It's also good to think about the effect of different colour backgrounds in terms of colour harmony and contrast. Any colour on the colour wheel will harmonise with the colours adjacent to it, and contrast with the colour opposite to it.
In the poppy photo here, the red of the poppy leaps forward from the green background, because red and green are contrasting colours. Compare this with the effect of the love in a mist photo: blue and green are harmonising colours, and the effect of the photo is much gentler - the blue doesn't leap away from its background in the way that the red does.
It's also very important to think about the colours in the background to your flower. Reds, oranges and yellows are warm colours and behave very dominantly in an image, so they will pull the eye, even if they are out of focus. So beware of patches of those colours, however small, behind your main subject, especially if your subject is a cool, receding colour, ie blue, green or mauve. Imagine that there was a bit of out of focus blue behind the poppy bud in the photo here - it wouldn't be much of a problem or distraction. But imagine a patch of out of focus red behind the love in a mist flower - it would really pull the eye away from the subject, and spoil the photograph.
The amount of background that is included in your image will depend not only on your distance from your subject, but also on your choice of lens. If you stand close to a plant and photograph it with a wide angle or standard lens, you will include a wider area of the background behind the flower than if you stand further away and use a telephoto lens. You may wish to use a wide lens to show the flower in its setting, as in this photo of primulas growing by a glacial stream:
But if you want to create an out of focus, wash of colour background, you will ideally use a macro or telephoto lens rather than a wide angle.
Finding the perfect background for your flower can be just as difficult as finding the perfect flower itself - but it's immensely rewarding when you do!
© Sue Bishop