Everything you need to know about taking photos of wildflowers from one wildflower lover to another
With an almost annual superbloom somewhere in the United States every year, it's nearly on everyone's bucketlist to "get the shot" and see the hills in bloom for miles in every direction–but it needs to be done in a way that doesn't damage the flowers for years to come
Wildflowers in Glacier National Park on 35mm film, taken August 2021
Growing up on the east coast, specifically in Florida, I always thought the photos of wildflowers in the mountains, or the pretty flowers along the California coastline were fake. Granted, Instagram wasn't alive yet and my only source for seeing these images was through Tumblr reblogs which had maybe a 20% accuracy rate for what the scene was supposed to look like. After all, as millenials we were raised to question anything and everything we saw online so these magical places did seem too good to be true.
I moved out west in 2017 where I got to see first hand how BEAUTIFUL and stunning these wildflower fields truly were, but I didn't realize how fragile they were-I saw photos of people dancing and laying in fields of flowers and thought that was completely normal, until I learned the harm those types of photos could have. I'll be sharing some information about preserving flowers, the importance of sticking to the trail, and also how I've gotten creative photos without harming these beautiful little plants.
Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but... footprints(???)
Or... maybe don't leave those either.
Wildflower etiquette: Enjoying wildflowers, responsible
Get creative: Photo compositions for the wildflower enthusiast
Wildflower etiquette: Enjoying wildflowers, repsonsibly
Let's talk about trails! And social trails... and game trails, and what kinds of trails humans are meant for.
Social trails: are trails that are unofficial and have been created from people venturing to a spot, they are created by repeated traffic through terrain. These trails can lead to erosion over time. You can read more about these trails here on the official NPS website.
Game trails: are trails that animals use for navigating an area. Sometimes they will look like social trails but they're just for animal friends to get from where they sleep to where they eat!
Roads: are designated paths for vehicles to drive on. Some may be paved, gravel, or dirt. When driving on off-highway paved trails in a forest service or BLM area these routes are typically designated with a number.
Hiking trails: are specific trails designated by the land management of an area for foot traffic, sometimes horses, and sometimes dogs. Official trails can usually be found on the land management's website (ex: USFS, BLM, NPS) as well as in maps of the area.
When it coes to wildflowers, land officials have been asking for people to stay on designated, official trails. While social trails may seem like a good, sturdy, durable surface they're actually harming and limiting where flowers can bloom. A lot of popular wildflower trails have designed designated pull-offs for people to take photos in. If you see one of these, you can absolutely stand in them to get your photo!
In some areas, picking wildflowers is illegal. And while it may seem harmless, that flower that is picked can no longer polinate and create future flowers--and we don't want that. We want to see flowers bloom year over year! As a general rule, we should avoid doing that--don't worry, though, I have a trick for the perfect bouquet photo coming up soon!
If you're planning to skip a hike and view wildflowers from the road-side, be mindful of traffic and only stop in designated pull offs and parking areas. Several towns in California have restricted access to viewing wildflowers and driving during peak season as a result of inconsiderate drivers. While this may sound like an overreaction, locals don't seem to think so. Remind yourself "what would happen if every single person did this." Viewing wildflowers from the roadside is one of the few ways people with mobility issues can sometimes enjoy this beautiful phenomena so making sure that access still exists for them is something we all can play an important role in.
This last one should go without saying, but please, don't step on the flowers. This past year I noticed a trend on social media where people would be trampling through the flowers then say "oh, but it's a social trail" or "oh, but it looked like a social trail" and it was just where the deer were going up and down a mountain to get their morning breakfast. And while there's some social trails that don't have as much of an immediate impact to the environment, the social trails through the wildflowers can be seen from above... here's a link to show an example of the damage. It's not just one person's footprints, so lead with a better example!
And lastly, it can be so exciting to share locations of flower fields for everyone to visit but before you press "share" consider that area's ability to manage an increase in traffic safely. Some local, state, and national parks are better able to staff and prepare for blooms by adding additional rangers and volunteers for peak season. A good example of this would be Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona who, during past super blooms, have been able to staff other state park rangers to make sure guests are enjoying wildflowers and protecting the delicate environment. Other examples of this would be Diamond Valley Marina which keeps entry limited to certain hours of the day and has the funds to allocate extra rangers and volunteers by charging visitors a fee for the wildflower walk (and yes, before you ask--it's 110% worth it!) In Utah, Albion basin charges and also sets up ropes to keep visitors on trail. Locations like these are great ways to get people out to visit beautiful sights while managing crowds so we don't let history repeat itself. The superbloom in Lake Elsinore a few years ago really showed the damage virality can have on a delicate ecosystem--let's do better together :)
Get creative: Photo compositions for the wildflower enthusiast
Ok, now that the housekeeping is done and we've talked about how to responsibly enjoy wildflowers, here's some of my favorite ways to get the shot!
The trail shot
Up the hill
As a foreground
As a backdrop
The trail shot is probably one of my favorite ways to create a visually interesting wildflower image. Utilizing leading lines to draw your subject's gaze toward other features, with wildflowers accentuating the overall mood is a great way to create a compelling image. This is also one of my favorite types of wildflower photos to post as it encourages people to utilize the trail as the subject and gives a clear message to the viewers that no flowers were harmed in the making of the image. In addition to trails, roads can also be substituted for the leading line so long as you're taking it from a trail!
examples of trail shots! typically i love a central composition but a leading line that complements the surroundings can do a world of wonders as shown in the third image.
From below and up the hill are two similar but different ways to achieve great wildflower photos. When I say from below, what I mean by that is utilizing trail switchbacks or turns in a trail to frame a person upwards. And up the hill is exactly what I mean, just taking photos up the hillside. Both of these are a great way to get photos of the wildflowers, and from below is a great way to incorporate a subject safely. When posting images like this, I always advise adding a dislcaimer that no flowers were harmed. While you may have used creative angles, your viewers may not realize it and take inspiration from you--resulting in flower trampling. Whenever I post an image with a person as a subject I make a note of flowers not being harmed, and while this isn't necessary I have noticed that when I don't I 1) get a ton of hate messages in the DMs or 2) feel a guilt when I see short form video content which involves people trampling flowers and wondering if an image I posted that went viral could have contributed to the problem. The easy solution to both of these is a simple disclaimer with an ounce of education content. And while I've never been much of a blogger, here I am writing out this entire guide because I feel like I haven't done enough and I'm sad to think of negative impacts the photos I've shared to inspire finding magic in the outdoors could have caused.
not a single wildflower was harmed in these photos! while they may look like someone is running through fields to get thr comp, every subject was on a trail as well as the photographer!
As a foreground is one of the most popular ways to shoot wildflowers! This is simple because you can stand from the trail, find a bush that makes you smile, and bring the camera close to blur the background. Or you could take it from further back or further up--either way, using the flowers as the foreground and relying on other compositional elements to make the image. The closer you go to the flowers when using a camera with a fast lens, the better you can get the ~blurred out~ effect. If that's your vibe, this is the composition for you!
Blurry wildflowers in the foreground of a few images where the flowers are not the subject, rather just a visual add-on :)
As a backdrop flowers can be used to create a dreamy setting for your subjects. A background full of ambient light and wildflowers? Sign me up. Some locations, such as Albion Basin near Salt Lake City, Utah have designated stops along the trail in which you can position your subject so it looks like they are either in the flowers or leaning up against them. Albion Basin recognized the desire and demand for people to take photos in which it looks like the subject is being swallowed in a sea of wildflowers and responded appropriately by picking a few spots along the trail where people can do this. Not all wildflower fields open to the public have these, but when visiting a location that has these features, be sure to use and not abuse them.
Additionally, while picking flowers is sometimes illegal but almost always frowned upon--you can pick up a quick bouquet before heading up to your photo location! Just make sure to pack it all out before you go and not leave any traces behind! This is a great way to incorporate that carefree vibe with... giving the right amount of cares about your impact. Shoutout to my friend Amanda Horton for snapping a photo of me holding a flower from a bouquet, not our public lands (shared below).
Have a good time! +my 2024 predictions
I sincerely hope wildflower season is a fruitful one for you! If you've made it this far, of course I have a present and that's this year's West Coast wildflower timeline predictions. I'll be updating this as we get closer to season.
Central coast: March-May
Mountains: end July-August
Southern, low elevation: March-April
Southern, high elevation: April-May
lower elevations: May-July
higher elevations: June-August
Front range foothills: April-June
Between 7-9k feet: July-August
Above 9k feet: end july-early August
Foothills: early May-July
Sea level: April-June
Higher elevations: mid June-August