Photographing Sunflowers

August 05, 2017  •  1 Comment

Sunflowers, Sunflower Field, Sunset, Mathieson State ParkSunflower Field at SunsetSunflower Field at Sunset Mathieson State Park, Illinois People start to smile when they see a Sunflower field in full bloom.  Whether it's the height of the flower at 5-12 feet, the huge size of the flower head, or the sight of row after row of beaming sunshine, most people are captivated by them.  They have relatively little fragrance and a rather bristly stem, but at this time of year they are one of the most popular cut flowers at Farmer's Markets and gardens. It's nearly impossible to drive by a Sunflower field in full bloom without stopping to take a picture, so what's the best way to capture a shot that truly reflects the charm and beauty before you?  I've pulled together some strategies for shooting these phenomenal blooms for this blog post.

When to shoot:  In Northern Illinois, Sunflowers are usually in peak bloom between the 2nd and 4th week in July.  Weather conditions at the time of planting can have a tremendous impact on when the flowers bloom and how intact the field will be.  The tall plant stems are thick and strong, but heavy rain and wind can drive the flower heads down and crack the stem right below the flower.  It's best to keep an eye on the field beginning around the 4th of July if you live close enough.  If the field is far away, and the field is planted on a farm open to the public or on public land, try calling the office to get a bloom report.  Just a few days one way or the other can make the difference between Sunflowers that are upright and pointed straight ahead or droopy and on the decline.  Bloom time lasts about three weeks from the time the buds begin to open to the point at which the heads drop.  As the flowers get past peek bloom, the seeds mature and gravity begins to pull the flower heads down.   At this point instead of light little bees flitting around on the flower head, the flowers get visited by squirrels, birds, and other critters, and who can blame them?  The seeds are delicious!  Insects can also nip at the leaves, leaving behind holes and ugly foliage.  So--keep an eye on the Sunflower field and also note its placement in relationship to where the sun will rise and set.  Here's a link to a blog about how photographer Ryan Heffron planned a lovely photoshoot of Sunflowers beneath the Milky Way:

What shots to take:  It can be intimidating to look around and see all this beauty, then wonder--where do I start?  Searching Sunflower images online can help you determine which views you would like to incorporate into your shoot.  It's likely you'll want to take both landscape and macro shots, as each type of photography will provide a different perspective.  Use a tripod when possible, and don't be afraid to bump up your ISO if you have windy conditions, particularly if you have decent light.  Some shots will require you to go off tripod in order to get a difficult angle, but in general, stay on your tripod.

Landscape:  Include foreground interest, middle ground and background to capture the depth of the field.  The sky is nearly as important as the Sunflower field, and depending on the conditions, can create drama, playfulness (puffy clouds),  or can include a sunset or sunrise.  You may have to get down low in order to use the sky to your best advantage.  If your Sunflower field has distinct rows, find a row that has good looking flowers, possibly with blooms in different stages or in different heights to help provide interest and fill the middle ground of your image.  Taking a landscape image of the backs of the sunflowers can also be very interesting.

Macro:  It seems like every part of this flower is photogenic.  Find small details like an unusual curve in a petal or leaf, a bee collecting pollen, the spiral patterns of the seeds, or the back of the flower. Sunflowers, sunflower backs, Mathieson State Park, IllinoisJust Say No!Just Say No! Sunflowers with Backs Turned Mathieson State Park, Illinois

Pay attention to your background and depth of field.  Depth of field is a challenge with Sunflowers because they are everywhere, and can make a shot look cluttered.  Consider using a shallow depth of field, using the surrounding Sunflower coloration to enhance your subject rather than compete with it.

Portraits:  Every Sunflower is a little different, and you may be lucky enough to find a field where some of the flowers are just beginning to open.  The petals open in sections, and they often appear to be shyly covering up their centers, or hiding their "faces".  Portraits and any other type of shot can be enhanced with back lighting, which makes the petals glow and the centers stay dark in contrast.  Get low again to isolate a bloom against the sky, being careful to monitor your exposure if you have a great blue sky and/or  clouds to shoot against.  You will probably need to go off tripod for that.

High Definition Range (HDR):  Shooting 3 images of the exact same shot with three different exposures:  Normal, Bright, and Dark, can be very effective, particularly if you have a good sky to work with or are shooting at sunset or dawn.  HDR allows you to capture the full range of light that your eyes see, but your camera does not capture if only one image is taken. HDR requires special software, for example Photoshop or Photomatix among others. The three images are blended together to create a dramatic image.

Photo stacking:  I haven't been successful with photo stacking for Sunflower fields.  Photo stacking involves using manual focus and taking multiple shots of exactly the same image by changing where you focus your lens on the subject.  Sunflowers are seldom completely still, which is a requirement of this technique because software will be used later to stack all the images on top of each other to ensure that every single part of the image is in focus.  Any shift in the flower position between images creates shadows and "ghosting", and makes aligning the images difficult if not impossible.  If you happen to have a very still day, give it a shot.  Otherwise, spend your time on some other great shot.

Clothing:  Sunflower stems, leaves, and flower heads are all hairy and somewhat bristly.  I always wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt to protect my arms and legs. There are often weeds between the rows that you will be wading through, so closed shoes and socks will help protect your feet.  Mosquito repellent is always recommended at this time of year in the Midwest, and water and a hat will help keep you a bit cooler.  Sunflowers thrive in hot, summer temperatures, so it's great if you can get out early or later in the day when the light is best and the temperatures will not overheat you.  

Where to find Sunflower fields:  Two fields within 80 minutes of the Chicago suburbs are a field planted at Desplaines Valley Fish and Game in Wilmington, IL, and one planted at Mathieson State Park near Starved Rock.  

Desplaines Valley field:  From Chicago, take Rt. 55 South to exit 241.  Turn left at the top of the ramp.  Drive about 3 miles until you see the orange snow fence with the sunflowers behind it.  This year the field had a rough start with weather, so it was not as "organized" as it has been in other years.  Still, it had great opportunities for taking Sunflower portraits.  You will have to crawl through a fence to get to the field, and there is very limited parking in a small driveway up to the fence.

Mathieson State Park:  From Chicago, take 55 South to exit 250B for I-80 West toward Iowa.  Take exit 81 for IL 178 toward Utica/LaSalle.  Turn left onto IL-178S/E8th Rd.  Continue on 178 south of 71 to the RIVER entrance.  Drive the road back and around to the signs to the model airplane field.  You'll curve around, turn into the parking lot and you'll see a beautiful field of sunflowers.  This year they were peaking on July 25th, and Mathieson State Park published information about it on their website.  

Two more Midwest sites I've heard about this year but have not been to yet are Pope Farm Conservancy in Middleton, WI and L and A Family Farm in Paris, IL (which also has a Sunflower maze).  Community gardens are also great places to photograph sunflowers.  Although these gardens do not have large fields, there is great opportunity for photographing Sunflower portraits.

Search online for Sunflowers with your zip code or geographic area to find other Sunflower fields near you.  While people can sometimes be very secretive about their location, most folks are willing to share their spots with you if they know you will be very respectful of the site.  Do you have a favorite Sunflower field you'd like to share?  Please feel free to leave the location in the comment section.

 Sunflower, Mathieson State Park, IllinoisNearly OpenNearly Open Sunflower at Mathieson State Park, Illinois


Take care,








Terry Lee(non-registered)
I enjoyed reading your suggestions. Well done.
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