Article: Notes on Photographing Irises

by Carryl Meyer, MT

iris black and gold

Black and Gold, (Kleinsorge, 1943). © MU.


Good photographs of your flowers allow you to share the beauty in your garden, show others what you have for trade or sale, and allow you to make detailed records to document your collection. Getting good photos of your irises is easier than ever in the age of digital cameras – all you need is a little know-how. It used to be very expensive taking and processing hundreds of photos to get just the right shot, but digital cameras have changed all that. Now it is simple and easy to take all the pictures you like and choose only the best to keep, so don’t be afraid to get out there and experiment with lighting, angles and camera settings. These tips should assist you in improving your skills.

-( Photographing Irises pg 2, cameras )-

iris black and gold

Tropical Butterfly, (Carstensen, 1963). © MU.

There are so many cameras on the market now I couldn’t possibly attempt to tell you which camera to choose, however there are some features and accessories that I have found to be useful when taking photos of flowers. A ‘macro’ setting that allows you to take close-ups is very handy and gives much better resolution than a camera without this feature. I always use the macro setting when doing mug shots of my irises. Having a monitor screen so you can see the shot before taking the picture is very useful in attaining well balanced and nicely composed shots. I use the finest settings the camera allows to get the highest resolution, however this necessitates file-size reduction later on. If you want to use your pictures directly with no changes a lower setting may be better for you. A cloth specifically made for cleaning camera lenses is a good thing to have along. I always seem to get a smudge on the lens that starts messing up my photos, so check the lens often. And finally, you will never regret the investment in a good tripod – it eliminates all those blurry photos and saves so much time.

-( Photographing Irises pg 3, lighting )-

Anyone that has grown irises knows the appearance of a bloom is quite different depending on the light, and that colors and tones change thru the day as the sun traverses the sky. The quality of the light must be taken into account if good results are to be had. When taking flower photos the ideal lighting is a bright but overcast sky. Too much sun creates glare, washes out the colors, and lights up the flower too much, while too dim a light source makes the bloom look shadowed and deeper toned than it really is.

iris picador - too dark

Too dark – the lack of good light is making the iris look dim and somber, not as it does to the eye.

iris picador - too bright

Too bright – the sun is glaring and the colors are much more primary than the variety appears to the eye. Variety is Picador, (Morrison, 1930)

iris picador - just right

Just right – warm tones all over with color as it actually appears to the eye in the garden.

If you don’t have overcast light and need to get that shot, I have found that early morning or late evening light is good, though the color tones can sometimes be pushed off to blue (early morning) or red (late evening). A light diffusing screen can be very useful when taking snapshots in full sun, but is rather unwieldy to drag about the garden – which is a good reason to have a friend along to assist. The angle of the light can also play an important part in the success or failure of your photo. Try taking pictures from several angles and directions to determine best shot for that variety. Light coming from behind the flower lights it up and makes it almost transparent, while light from behind the camera gives a flatter look with less depth, but often truer color. I have achieved some very nice shots using late evening sun that lit up the bloom from the side, while taking the picture at a 90 degree angle to the light.

-( Photographing Irises pg 4, composition )-

Composing the shot is essential to getting good results. Be aware of the background – is there anything there that is distracting or off-color? I have had many beautiful shots ruined by a car or other clutter behind the bloom that drew the eye away or made the photo look jumbled and messy. Take a minute to move background objects or readjust the camera angle to reduce or eliminate distractions. Also try not to have other blooms in the background if their color does not harmonize nicely with your main subject.

[left: this lovely stalk of a blue noid is not so lovely against the street and the background clutter.]

Choose a flower that is intact and has a pleasing aspect, and try to keep leaves or stems out of the way of the flower. I try to take the perfect ‘glamour shot’ of a bloom (the view that is most idealized for that variety), but also try to get a few that show the typical aspect of the flower. For instance, I have an old white noid that has poor substance so its standards always flop over within a few hours of opening. My ‘glamour shot’ shows the ideal aspect of the bloom with closed standards looking pert and pristine just after the bloom emerges, but I also have shots of older blooms showing the mature habit with floppy standards and all, as that is what it normally looks like in the garden.

Choose a camera angle that shows the flower at its best, but doesn’t misrepresent the flower either. Does it have an interesting pattern when seen from above? Then raise your camera angle to capture that. Is the form exceptional? Then lower the angle to get a good side shot that really highlights the flare of the falls. Grass or green foliage is ideal as a backdrop, and you will never regret taking a minute to remove spent blooms or tuck a diseased leaf out of the way (of course you should never do this in another’s garden without permission). All the little details can really add up to make your photo successful or not.

-( Photographing Irises pg 5, processing )-

Don’t fret too much over composition in the garden though, as many problems can be corrected later with image processing software. I have always used Photoshop products, but there are many others available. These applications can really help a lot with finishing your photos. You can adjust and fine tune many aspects of a photo. Here are the most useful:


Cropping – This tool allows you to cut the photo down to just what you want in the shot. The bloom (or other focal point) is easy to center in the frame, and distracting items at the edge can be cut away.

Photo resize – This refers to the physical size of the photograph – its height and width. Normally displayed in pixels, it can also be set to display in inches if you plan to print out your picture. I have found that 300-500 is a good range of pixel size for online display.

File size – This refers to the number of kilobytes (kb) or megabytes (mg) of memory space that your digital photo is stored as. The initial picture file from the camera, if taken at a high resolution, is going to be very large. Mine are typically 1-2 mgs (1000-2000 kbs) to start and I aim to get them under 75kb when finished. The higher the file size the clearer and crisper the resolution and hence more detailed the picture. The lower the resolution or file size, the less detailed the picture – usually. So many things depend on your software. Resolution is sometimes given in DPI (dots per inch). My Photoshop Elements has a feature called ‘save for the web’ that automatically reduces file size without compromising resolution. Many applications have an adjustment feature called ‘resolution’ that can be manually set to do the same thing. 72 DPI is the usual setting for web photos, but a higher setting is needed if you wish to print your photos to paper. Every time a picture is uploaded to or downloaded from the web it loses a little bit of data. Multiple transfers can eventually cause so much data loss the photo may become worthless. It is advisable to keep a back-up of your original pictures or the final picture after processing so you will always have a good quality copy stored away to use when needed. Floppy disks or CDs are ideal storage mediums.

Color adjustment – Sometimes a digital camera wants to push the hue one direction or another. My old Olympus always photographed purples as different shades of blue, and my Nikon is off toward red, making photos of blue look purple. To compensate for this I sometimes need to adjust the color a bit to bring it back toward its true tone. It is always done as a last resort as this is a tricky process. I recommend spending some hours playing with the color tools to get the hang of how it is done. I find it helps if only the bloom itself is selected for adjustment, and not the entire photo.


These are just the functions I find most useful. Many others are available. ‘Cloning’ can help remove distracting background noise, smudging can help wipe out leaf spot, and the text features allow the varietals name to be added to the photo. Take some time to get to know your application’s functions and capabilities and you’ll be amply rewarded with better photos.

-( Photographing Irises pg 6, sharing )-

iris chimera

Chimera (Zurbrigg, 1961), close-up of a fall. © MU


Sharing your photos with others is half the fun of being online, and with digital cameras it couldn’t be simpler. You can easily set up photo albums at a variety of websites around the internet, or share directly with other iris lovers by posting your photos to the gallery at the HIPS Communications Center, Gardenweb’s Iris Forum or the Iris-Photo mailing list. HIPS members wishing to contribute to the main galleries should E-mail the Webmaster.

-( Photographing Irises pg 7, conclusion )-

iris ritz

Ritz, (Schreiners, 1968). © MU


Digital cameras and photo software put the tools formerly available only to large professional operations right at our fingertips – and just steps from the garden! Photography in the digital age is fun and cost effective, and it has never been easier for amateurs to get the experience they need to become talented photographers. So get out there and play around until you too are taking fabulous photos of your irises.