Destination Holland: Focus on Flowers

If you enjoy photographing flowers, 2012 is the best year to visit Holland.

Yes, it's the middle of winter, so why talk about flowers? The Floriade, a gigantic floral exposition which happens every 10 years, will take place this spring in Holland. It's time to make travel plans!


A visit to the Netherlands in the spring is an eye-popping experience. Photographers hardly know where to turn first as they encounter flowers of every type, shape and color. There are the magnificent gardens, like the 70-acre Keukenhof, where seven million bulbs and other flowers are arrayed around the grounds and stately trees with amazing artistry. The canals are lined with flowering plants and every town boasts colorful window boxes and picturesque flower markets in addition to their traditional Dutch houses and windmills. And then there are the tulip fields!



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In my decades of photographic travels around the world I must say that there’s no place like Holland when it comes to floral landscapes. The vast and colorful tulip fields stretch across the land like an unimaginably huge patchwork quilt. Don’t forget that Holland went wild over tulips back in the 1600’s. Their enthusiasm for bulbs and expertise in growing flowers in general is legendary, far-reaching and a great commercial enterprise. (On a trip to Vietnam last year I learned that the Dutch were helping set up that country’s budding flowers-for-export industry!)


Not only do you have to stop the car; sometimes you have to climb up on it! I spotted these backlit sheep toward sunset while driving in North Holland. I had to work quickly and from a distance, so I grabbed my Nikon D300s and my 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens and raised myself onto my car. At 200mm, this lens allowed me to compress the scene and throw the background flowers out of focus. And with this slight elevation, I was able to frame the sheep just below the band of red tulips in the background and shooting 1/500 second at f/2.8 stopped them in their tracks even in relative low light.

And this year is extra-special for anyone who enjoys photographing flowers. It’s the year of Floriade, a gigantic floral exposition that occurs in Holland every ten years and showcases the best and newest developments in floral culture.


You can make a flat landscape exciting through good composition, interesting light and strong contrast. In this landscape near the town of Lisse, I framed the shot with my Nikon F5 using a 28mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens to get a wide perspective so the rows in the field converge and give a sense of depth. I also used the beautiful soft clouds above as a counterpoint to the straight lines below. Then I waited for the sun to illuminate the fields, opted for a fairly fast 125sec/f11 exposure and polarized to deepen the blue of the sky. (Gitzo tripod)

If you decide to make Holland your spring destination, prepare by thinking about the kinds of photographic challenges you are likely to face:

Working with a flat landscape. We’re so used to admiring photographs of rugged mountains that it’s almost shocking to be faced with a landscape that’s essentially flat. The excitement comes from looking with a fresh eye and finding ways to compose this very different topography:

  • Provide a sense of depth by using lines to draw you from the foreground into the background.
  • Portray the land and sky as abstract bands or layers of contrasting color.
  • Find visual interest in textures and reflections to define and depict this terrain.
  • Make foreground objects, such as windmills, steeples, or animals focal points against a more distant horizon line.
  • Think about your depth of field as you shoot – sometimes you’ll want to maximize sharpness and other times you may want a partial blur.


This early morning shot at the Keukenhof Gardens is a study in contrasts. Using my Nikon D90 with a 80-200mm Nikkor lens, I set off the dark, massive trunks of the trees against the wispy fog. To enhance the soft atmosphere, bring out detail in the flower beds and add sparkle to the backlit leaves, I overexposed by one f-stop shooting at 1/250 sec at f/5.6. Then, using Photoshop CS4, I added black to darken the silhouetted trees. (Gitzo tripod; UV lens filter)

Making the most of every lighting condition. Holland is not sunny California. While there are plenty of bright, clear days, you’ll also find mist, rain, and cloudy weather:

  • Exploit the positive aspects of every kind of light. Then you’ll be ready to create beautiful moody shots in mist and fog.
  • Take advantage of cloudy days to get sensual colors; and, when you can, welcome bright sun to get dramatic shots that make the most of shadow plays.
  • Get out early and stay out till after sunset for the best photographic opportunities for backlit and side lit images, whether you’re shooting landscapes or close-ups.
  • Remember to pinpoint what may be tricky exposures by using the histogram and white balance features on your digital camera.


As much as we like a sunny day, photographically it can be too much of a good thing. Shooting in the middle of the day at the Keukenhof Gardens, I decided to eliminate the sky completely and look for a relatively shady spot to bring out the reds of the foreground tulips. Using my Nikon D700 and 24-70mm Sigma zoom lens set at a wide angle pushed the trees back and enabled me to play up the slight C-curve to create a nice sense of depth. To maximize sharpness on this calm day I set my exposure at 1/60 second at f/11. (Gitzo tripod)

Going for details and close-ups. Be careful not to fall into the travel photographer’s trap of shooting only wide shots. Wherever you go, go for details and close-ups as well. That should be a natural when you’re at the gardens, where you’ll have plenty of beautiful flowers to capture:

  • Bring a lens with macro capacity and, if you’re serious, your tripod and cable release to get true close-ups and keep your camera steady for maximum sharpness.
  • If the wind is blowing, don’t hesitate to adjust your ISO to 800 or even 1600 so you can shoot at a faster speed.
  • Beyond flowers, be on the lookout for interesting details in markets, along the canals and in the quaint towns you’re likely to visit.
  • Do some visual shopping by keeping your eye on items you might be tempted to buy, but bring home a captivating photo instead. It’s that kind of detail that makes a destination come alive.


In this overview shot at the Keukenhof Gardens taken with a Nikon F4 and a 35-70mm Nikkor lens, I used the colors and textures of the plantings as elements of an abstract image with a strong geometric orientation. The purple band made up of thousands of grape hyacinths dominates the bottom of the frame and contrasts nicely with the green swaths of the lawns. And the repetition in the rows of trees punctuates the top of the image. To maximize sharpness, I shot at 1/60 second at f/11. (Gitzo tripod)

Capturing a sense of place. In addition to taking shots of the amazing landscape, be sure to visit and photograph some of the charming towns and villages that dot the Dutch countryside. Start by exploring the location and looking for typical scenes, from the well-known houses and canals, to interesting shops and markets. The challenge here is to work with a limited amount of time, yet come up with images that tell an interesting story:

Be careful not to get stuck in the first spot that attracts your eye:

  • Work on identifying the visual elements that fascinate you, then find your own way to portray them.
  • Notice, for example all the means of transportation that cross your path – canal boats, trams, buses, bicycles, wagons, etc.
  • Integrate the people you encounter into your photographs. Look at the people who are with you in the boat or tram; or in the markets you’ll visit.
  • If you start a friendly conversation and smile—most Dutch people speak English—they are likely to cooperate with your picture taking and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.
  • Be ready for unexpected gems and serendipitous situations that will cross your path.


This overview shot, taken at 1/60 second at f/11 for sharpness, documents the wonderfully elaborate and extensive floral designs at the Keukenhof Gardens. The biggest challenge was coping with the overcast sky. I looked for a vantage point that would obscure most of the sky and draw the eye toward the design. I found the perfect spot at the top of a downhill slope where trees provided a good screen and interesting visual backdrop. I used a very wide angle 20mm Nikkor f/2.8 lens to encompass all the different elements, which curves the lines somewhat but not objectionably.

Thinking creatively with your camera. Today’s digital cameras are so sophisticated that they seem to think for us. But that’s not really so. They are only tools that we can use to fashion images. So stretch your imagination and envision images beyond the norms and traditions you’ve inherited. Take some risks, try new approaches and, with the magic of your digital camera, you’ll be able to look at the results right away and decide whether you should keep working to get the effect you want.

A good zoom lens, like the Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZ, will let you adjust quickly and easily to every situation so you can discover your creative potential. Then, when you get home, continue to shape your images using after-capture techniques until they match your aesthetic vision.

I had been scouting windmills in the Kinderdijk area when I came across one that actually was working. I was determined to capture this iconic scene with my Nikon D300 even though it was a rainy, windy and raw day. I knew I wanted to capture the movement of the mill’s blades so I added a 1 stop neutral density filter to the UV filter on my 18-270mm Tokina zoom lens. This allowed me to shoot at f/16 at a very slow one-second shutter speed, which caught the whirling blades and, as a bonus, also helped blur out the drizzle which I thought would affect the clarity of the image.

Because of Floriade, this is a particularly wonderful year to make Holland your photographic destination, especially if you want to focus on flowers. That’s why I’ve scheduled a nine-day travel photography workshop this spring called “Storybook Holland: Focus on Flowers,” sponsored by the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. I’ve planned this workshop to take us to Floriade 2012 plus an interesting selection of iconic Dutch locations at the ideal time of year. You’d have to wait another ten years to get that combination.

Since this will be a tour especially for photographers, I’ve planned to arrive at each location at the best time for natural light and allowed enough time for getting the shots you want. Instructions will be offered in the field as I work with participants on their individual photographic interests—I’m there to teach, not to take my own photos. And we’ll have time to review people’s images two or three times during our stay.

As I’ve often told people when they ask me how I got a particular shot: Think GPS: I made the time to go, I made the effort to pay attention and I stopped long enough to create the image. I hope you’ll do the same.


Allen Rokach and Anne Millman co-authored “Focus on Flowers: Discovering and Photographing Beauty in Gardens and Wild Places” and “Focus on Travel: Creating Memorable Photographs of Journeys to New Places,” both published by Abbeville Press. Learn more about Allen’s workshop “Storybook Holland: Focus on Flowers.”


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