Picturing Peonies -- How to Photograph Flowers and People

We can’t even guess how many photos were snapped during this year’s Festival of the Peony.

Thousands of amateur photographers used Styer’s picturesque farm as a backdrop for portraits and family photos. The florally smitten zoomed in on on individual flowers and zoomed out to capture the rolling hills in full, spectacular bloom. Professional photographers reserved time in our photo garden and one lucky couple, who married at the farm on May 14, had a wedding vista like no other.

The evidence is overflowing on Instagram, where visitors and local media posted shot after jaw-dropping shot. But those were the winning photos, not the ones that were quickly deleted.

To help everyone get more keepers, we asked two professional photographers -- who shot the peony festival this year -- to share their best advice for setting up shots at the farm. Amy Cerrato, took some of our favorite photos this year, capturing a toddler as she toured the peonies on a bright sunny day. 

(Photo by Amy Cerrato)

Alexis McIntosh, of ALX Photography, shot the festival in 2020 and this year and is a master at showcasing the rich colors and lushness of the flowers. Here are five tips from the pros:

  1. Manage the sun, says Cerrato. Though conventional advice is to keep the sun at your back, she advises photographers to adjust for times when the sun is too harshly shining in the poser’s face. We recently spotted a portrait sitter waiting patiently on a quilt in the field for the sun to get behind a cloud. The flowers, too, show off better when the light isn’t quite so harsh.
  2. Keep changing your perspective, McIntosh advised. “Don't be afraid to switch up your angles; get down low and shoot up so the pink peonies pop off of the sky-blue background, or hone in on one stunning bud with a shallow depth of field to blur the background and really make that one flower the star of the show.” Cerrato agreed, saying “get down in the flowers” to capture the blooms on the periphery of the photo.
  3. Encourage interaction with the environment, Cerrato says. Ask your subject to move through the field rather than posing stiffly. Suggest they lean in and smell a peony in bloom, she says.
  4. Be creative with composition, which means accounting for all the elements in your frame, McIntosh says. That includes your subject, the in-close details and the background. “Avoid placing your subject directly in the center of the frame with each image,” she said. “Putting your subject slightly off-center allows for negative space to draw the viewer in to the photo.”
  5. Relax, learn as you go and have fun, McIntosh says. ““Enjoy the abundance of beauty that nature has to offer and let the landscape lead you to your perfect shot. Happy shooting!”

(Photo by Alex McIntosh)

For extra inspiration, check out some photographers that went all-in on photographing flowers.

Howard Feinstein, known for his black and white photography of Coney Island, published a book of exquisitely photographed single flowers. While creating 100 Flowers, Feinstein said he grew so absorbed with the blooms that he woke in the middle of the night and wrote poems about them. 

See a sampling of his floral photography - including peonies - at his website.

During the pandemic, pro photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank turned to flowers in the absence of her usual subjects. The result was 60 flower portraits, including several photogenic peonies.