How to photograph sunflowers
First of all here’s some science: I will start by dispelling the myth that all sunflowers follow the sun. Young plants do indeed follow the sun and turn back during the night which is why the French for sunflower is “tournesol”. Mature sunflowers on the other hand, always face the rising sun. The reason for this is that East-facing blooms attract many more pollinators. Basically, bees like warm flowers.
So, with this in mind, you know that the sun will be behind you in the morning and the heads will be lit up. In the evening the flowers will be back-lit. With so much detail in RAW files, I find that shooting in the afternoon can be just as rewarding. By simply lifting the shadows, you’ll have all the detail you need, whilst having beautiful back-lit petals. If you don’t have any plans for dinner, stay on until after sunset and shoot a field with a colourful sky. The heads will look a bit dark but the overall image can be very effective, especially when the sky is full of colour. Use graduated filters to darken the sky and balance the highlights and the shadows. Alternatively, shoot multiple exposures and merge in photoshop.
The main season in Europe is July and most fields can be found on large plains at low altitude. This presents a challenge for photographers as large, flat fields aren’t that easy to photograph. I try to find smaller fields on the side of a hill so more flowers are visible. Different lenses can produce different effects. I like to shoot a field both wide-angle and with e telephoto. The compression of a long lens is useful to capture a section of flowers, provided you are higher than the field. A wide angle allows you to capture one or two flowers close-up or a larger area of the field. When photographing a few flowers, make sure the main flower is perfect and not obstructed in any way. Blue and yellow are complimentary clouds so try to include some sky on the wide-angle shots.
You can spend hours in sunflower fields so make sure you have a hat and lots of suncream because you will definitely get burnt otherwise. Don’t venture too far into the fields in case the owner comes past. They are a cash crop after all.
I always take time to find fields of sunflowers during my Provence lavender photo workshop in late June. They look fantastic juxtaposed with fields of lavender!