Photographing Tulips at The Chicago Botanic Garden

I am always excited when Anne Belmont has a new article for us. It means there is something new to shoot at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Join Anne and me May 10th for a free photowalk at the Garden. We will meet at 7am at the Crescent Garden. Get details here.


After one of the coldest and longest winters in Chicago, we were all beginning to wonder if spring would ever come.   As it does every year, the temperatures finally rose, the snowed melted, the ground thawed and the beginning of spring was welcomed by all.  The snowdrops, crocuses and other early blooms that herald the beginning of spring all popped through the ground.  Throughout the past month, the horticulturalists and staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden have been busy planting every area of the Garden and each day new blooms appear. Daffodils are in full bloom now and the tulips are opening. As a flower and nature photographer this is my favorite time of year to photograph.  I love the renewal of life that spring brings and I eagerly watch as ferns unfurl, buds open and color comes back to our world.  The most spectacular displays of color at the Garden in the spring are the many different tulip displays. The next two weeks will be the prime time for seeing these beautiful displays.  Bring both a wide angle lens for capturing the beautiful beds of tulips in their settings as well as a macro lens for close up details.

When you pass through the Visitor’s Center and cross the bridge, the first Garden on your right is the Crescent Garden. Each fall the Garden plants about 26,000 tulips in these beds alone and each year the varieties and color palette varies.  With the backdrop of the lake and beautiful willow trees, this is the perfect spot for a wide angle shot of the entire garden.


Moving along the path south you will come to the Bulb Garden on your right (don’t forget to grab a map in the Visitor’s Center if you are not familiar with the Garden layout).  The Bulb Garden has five major tulip beds (two on either side of the path outside the entrance of the Garden and 3 within).  This is a good area to try out some macro shots as you can get right up close to the tulips along the paths and there is ample room to set up a tripod.


Continuing along the path, the Circle Garden is another area that has spectacular tulip displays.  Each of the four quadrants of this Garden are planted with tulips, as are the two “secret gardens” off to the side.  Again, this Garden begs for a wide angle shot.  Arrive early if you want to photograph any of these Gardens without lots of visitors in your shots; spring is a popular time at the Garden.


The Enabling Garden and upper walkway to the Sensory Garden have some of the most colorful and unusual displays of tulips, with fringed varieties and multicolored varieties. These gardens are a delight to the senses with bright colors, textures and the smells of spring.  The beds in both of these Gardens are raised making it easy to set your tripod on the ledge and get in close, but pull back and photograph the tulips mixed in with other colorful perennials and annuals, as well. Another area that is often overlooked but has beautiful displays is the Rose Garden Terrace, a patio adjacent to the Rose Garden where ice cream and snacks are served in warmer weather. This area is somewhat shaded making it good for macro shots. Last year I discovered gorgeous beds of some of my personal favorite tulips in the most unlikely of places – the far parking lots!  Keep your eyes open because there are tulips everywhere in the Garden.


I like to photograph tulips and all flowers in the early morning, late afternoon or on overcast days when the light is more subdued.   Bright mid-day sunlight is unflattering to flowers, creating burned-out highlights and hard shadows. When light is less than perfect, a diffuser can soften harsh light. Backlighting tulips, however, provides the one exception to this rule.  Because of their strong shape and color and their translucent petals, you can create beautiful effects by positioning yourself so the tulips are backlit, causing them to glow.


When photographing tulips up close with a macro lens, I like to experiment with a variety of approaches.  First, get down close to the ground and examine the tulips.  Even though tulips all look similar at a distance, up close you will discover that each tulip has it’s own personality, some with interesting curves, lines, textures or variations. I focus on capturing those interesting details and bringing them into sharp focus by using a tripod, moving in close and shooting at a higher aperture.  After a rain or an early morning watering is a wonderful time to capture tulips with water droplets.

CBG Spring-6808

Experiment with different points of view and always be aware of your background, being careful to eliminate distracting elements.  Many photographers stand over the tulips shooting down inside to capture the inner tulip.  There is nothing wrong with this approach – the inside of a tulip is beautiful – but try some different points of view.  Get down on the ground and shoot up under the tulip, capturing the stem and underside of the flower. If the light is hitting the flower just right it will appear to glow from within. When I find an interesting tulip to photograph I try many different variations. I might start photographing the whole flower and then move in closer and closer, so the entire flower fills the frame. I also shoot the flower with a range of aperture settings.  Tulips are beautiful subjects for using a wide open aperture.  I might open up to f2.8 or f3.5 and focus on one point of interest, a line or curve of the tulip, and let the rest fall dreamily out of focus.  If you pay close attention to your background elements and move around, you can pick up beautiful background color that is completely blurred by the wide aperture.  Shooting with wide apertures sometimes allows me the freedom to shoot hand held because I am using faster shutter speeds and my macro lens is equipped with image stabilization.  Shooting hand held allows you to move around more easily, get very low to the ground and experiment.


Get to the Garden and enjoy the tulips and many other spring blooms.  We all deserve a little sunshine, fresh air and color after our painfully long winter.  If you can join Chris and me on Saturday, May 10 at the Garden, we’ll walk to all these areas and enjoy a morning of photographing together.

Please visit my website at  My blog, which focuses on the Chicago Botanic Garden, is a good way to see what’s blooming at the Garden.


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