Photographing Aquatic Blooms at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Article and images by Anne Belmont.

Some of my favorite flowers to photograph in the summer at Chicago Botanic Garden are the water lilies and lotus flowers. Photographing these aquatic jewels always brings to mind Monet’s impressionistic masterpieces of water lilies. CBG is home to many different varieties and colors of aquatic blooms. The displays are beautiful now and they will continue to bloom throughout August and September. abelmont_pink_waterlily

The two areas of the Garden where water lilies and lotuses are most accessible to photograph are the Heritage Garden and the Aquatic Garden within the Graham Bulb Garden. The water lilies typically open mid-morning and stay open until late afternoon. There are a few varieties that open earlier and stay open a bit later if you are limited to shooting early morning or late afternoon. Catching lotuses in bloom requires a bit of lucky timing. There are fewer of them in bloom than water lilies and when the buds do fully open, the blooms last for only a day or two.abelmont_lotus_bee

It is important to shoot water lilies and lotuses in more subdued light, which is often more difficult to get mid-day when they are completely open.  I try to wait for days with good cloud cover or a bright overcast sky. I use my 70-200mm lens or my 180mm macro lens to get in as close to the flowers as possible and try to shoot the flowers from many different angles, both high and low.  With the right light, proper exposure and a good angle you can darken the water, eliminating distracting details and leading the eye right to the main subject. This creates a portrait with more impact and emotion.  When shooting I am constantly checking for highlights and blown out areas and I almost always shoot water lilies and lotuses by underexposing a bit to help darken the water and intensify the colors. Including the beautiful patterned lily pads and reflections in the water make for a more interesting portrait. Dragonflies, damselflies and bees often linger around the water lilies and lotuses and with luck, you can capture one in your image.abelmont_waterlily_damselfly

If you are limited to shooting on a day with little cloud cover, a polarizing filter will help reduce the glare and highlights. I have also seen clever photographers using diffusers held out over the water with long armed plamps. Using your body to shade the flower can help, as well.  It’s rare to get an image that doesn’t need some doctoring in Photoshop.  Cloning out brown spots on lily pads, floating bits of leaves in the water or some of the underlying roots are a necessity to keep your eye focused on the beauty of the flower. The water lilies in the Aquatic Garden have had a lot of algae growing around them this year, good for aquatic animals but not for lovely photographs. Look for the flowers with as few surrounding distractions as possible or zoom in as close to the flower as possible to eliminate those distractions.


Visit the water lily and lotus flower gallery on my website to get more ideas for photographing aquatic blooms:

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