Photographing Rose Bouquets is excerpted from the forthcoming PhotoBotanic Guide to Photographing Roses.  Discounts on the preorder page.

Rose bouquet with English roses 'L.D.Braithwaite' and Dapple Dawn'

Rose bouquet with English roses ‘L.D.Braithwaite’ and Dapple Dawn’

I do love photographing roses in the garden. As a gardener I marvel at the beauty of plants in nature and celebrate the ability of gardeners to cultivate beauty. There seems nothing quite so miraculous as the simple beauty of a rose unfolding in the garden.

In the Rose book I have been talking about ways to photograph that beauty in the garden, but quite often we bring roses into our homes. Rose photography is not limited to the garden nor to those who grow roses. A beautiful bouquet of roses can inspire the photographer whether s/he grew them or not, and indeed many photographers don’t have gardens at all.

'Sally Holmes' rose in simple bouquet with lambs ear foliage in living room

‘Sally Holmes’ rose in simple bouquet with lambs ear foliage in living room

Over the years I have photographed many rose books that often incorporated bouquets. I think the most charming and spectacular are those using garden roses rather than florists’, so it’s not surprising four of my books were done with Ray Redddell of Garden Valley Ranch.

Rose 'Fair Bianca' (English or Austen Rose) cut flower for bouquet in garden trug with red penstemon at Garden Valley Ranch.

Rose ‘Fair Bianca’ cut flower for bouquet  with red penstemon at Garden Valley Ranch.

Ray almost single-handedly popularized fragrant, garden roses in bouquets back in the 1980s, starting Garden Valley Ranch after many of his florist friends clamored for the roses he grew in his own garden. He became the first rose grower I know that specialized in garden type roses and shipped them to consumers all over the country. When we created bouquets of garden roses for those photo shoots we had glorious choices.

Photographing a bouquet of roses is a different challenge than photographing in the garden. The floral arrangement itself must be beautiful and I am not going to pretend I made any of the arrangements you see here. I hired stylists or asked the gardeners to create a bouquet that showed off the roses in a manner that was pleasing to them.

There are guidelines to creating rose floral arrangements published by the American Rose Society, American Rose Society Guidelines for Judging Rose Arrangements, since Arrangements is a  competition category at ARS rose shows and a section of their photo competitions. Those guidelines are available at the ARS website, free to members or $10 per copy.

Rose 'Evening Star' in arrangement in front of yellow painting

Rose ‘Evening Star’ in arrangement in front of yellow painting

The examples here were not prepared with those guidelines in mind, so if you are an ARS member wanting to submit photos for a contest, please don’t mimic any of these bouquets thinking they meet the qualifications. But I certainly think they are all prizewinners and will tell you why.

Though I don’t pretend these arrangements are prizewinners for an ARS show I will begin by quoting from American Rose Society Guidelines for Judging Rose Arrangements:

“One of the most important factors in the judging of arrangements is the quality of the roses… An exhibition form rose bloom is generally at its most perfect phase of beauty when one-half to three fourths open.”

In this chapter I will explain some of the styling choices we made with props and the composition of these photos, but all must begin with good roses. You will see in almost every example the roses are not fully blown open and never will you find one past its prime. If you are struck with the urge to photograph a bouquet you find beautiful be very sure to pull out any of the roses that are not quite right, then photograph the rest of the bouquet. Fuss with the bouquet, rearrange the elements, make it right to your eye before you photograph it – the camera will not make it better.

Let’s look at some specific bouquets and I will explain what makes them work. In every case I use a tripod to nail down the basic framing and move the bouquet and other elements within the four walls of the frame to make the final composition.

Here is a bouquet of roses ‘Pascali’ on a windowsill. Note how the roses are all about half open, just as the ARS guidelines suggest.

Bouquet of white rose 'Pascali' on windowsill

Bouquet of white rose ‘Pascali’ on windowsill

Also note the bouquet is positioned along the right third of the frame and that the window behind is divided into three sections.   The camera was set up to take advantage of those three window panels then the bouquet was placed precisely along the right-hand third using the Rule of Thirds, a composition tool I use and have written about frequently in the Workshop books.

Grass lawn path with perennial border leading to garden bench at Digging Dog Nursery

Rule of Thirds to compose a photograph

The bouquet was also positioned front to back so that it overlapped the frames of the window.

To add a bit of extra color and a suggestion of lifestyle we added the small basket of Meyer lemon, and placed it so that it would lead out of the frame. If the frame were looser, and that basket could be seen entirely, the photograph would not be nearly as dynamic. The Meyer lemons were perfect choice by my stylist. They not only pick up the terra-cotta color of the vase, they help to bring out the subtle undertones of the rose.

I well remember the day of the shoot working with such simple but well matched elements. There was gentle North light coming from the window and all I needed was a simple white reflector card that bounced some light back into the scene. North light is a term used to mean defuse, indirect light coming through the window rather than bright direct sunlight.

Because I had soft light I decided to go outside the house and shoot back in. As I was setting up the camera the stylist repositioned the bouquet. Seeing her red sweater stopped me in my tracks. Bingo!

Woman in red sweater placing bouquet of white hybrid tea cut rose 'Pascali' by windowsill

Woman in red sweater placing bouquet of white stoptea cut rose ‘Pascali’ by windowsill

Without her being in that position the room would be much too dark and lifeless. We really get a sense of a fleeting moment and a story of living with roses.

Also note once again, I have used the Rule of Thirds for this composition, placing the bouquet exactly in the left third of the frame.

woman with rose bouquet

Rule of Thirds to compose a photograph


The same day, in the same house we also shot this bouquet of ‘Tiffany’. I don’t think I have to show you the Thirds grid for you to recognize the pattern and the “Rule” at work to create an interesting composition.

Bouquet of pink rose 'Tiffany' on sun porch with lunch table

Bouquet of pink rose ‘Tiffany’ on sun porch with lunch table

Here again the props were carefully chosen and the roses only half open. In the bouquet itself are a few pieces of a purple verbena to pick up the deeper tones of the rose; and the food on the table, all warm tones, suggest the story of a delightful afternoon lunch on a sun porch. Indeed, it is a sun porch and soft light suffused the scene.

These photo shoots were carefully planned. We picked locations we knew offered good available light at the time of day we needed to work. When you take your own photographs of rose bouquets, do your own planning, don’t just plop down some beautiful roses in a mismatched vase in a cluttered, poorly lit room. Create a style.

When photographing a floral arrangement you need to think about creating a story and then think like a stylist gathering some basic props. A little effort goes a long way, as we see in this simple bouquet of ‘Jacques Cartier’.

Bouquet of pink rose 'Jacques Cartier' on table by window

Bouquet of pink rose ‘Jacques Cartier’ on table by window

The roses here are about three quarters open and a small sprig of Philadelphus adds to the sense of a fresh picked bouquet on the kitchen table with tea on a spring afternoon.  You have just put down your book to stretch your legs and look out the window, a languid special moment. Life is good.

The composition is carefully constructed.  Once I positioned the bouquet in front of the window and locked down the camera on the tripod, we teased the roses to look relaxed and added the lifestyle props, moving them around until they felt comfortable.

Note the camera angle is looking straight on into the bouquet. While not a rule of thumb for photographing a floral arrangement, it is often the way it would be judged if it were in a competition. A judge looks for the one best angle and often that is straight on, in order to consider how the elements are proportioned and designed to fit together.

Looking straight on to a bouquet, I like to use a small telephoto lens, one that allows the background to go a bit soft and without optical distortion common in wide angle lenses. A small telephoto, I like a 105 mm, also allows you to back off the arrangement a bit so that you can get in front of the camera (on the tripod, right ?) and tweak the various elements.

This next bouquet of the rose ‘White Delight’ does not look quite so simple, but really, as you study it there are only a few props. Note the camera angle is again, looking straight into the bouquet.

Bouquet of rose 'White Delight' on floral print background

Bouquet of rose ‘White Delight’ on floral print background

What really makes this work is the floral patterned cloth that we used as a background, sweeping underneath the bouquet. It is a fairly small piece of cloth, carefully pinned to the wall and then draped over a table.

I don’t know where in the world the stylist found the wonderful oriental patterned plate that picks up all the colors of the other flowers in the bouquet – the purple Scabiosa and blue Larkspur,  but it really adds energy.  The tiny bit of yellow in that plate serves to brighten the entire composition.

It bears repeating that I used a tripod when putting these photographs together. Here, once we had put the bouquet  into position on the background cloth we added the other elements to fill out the scene and tell the story, a story of building the bouquet. Extra roses and cut flowers on the table help move the eye up and into the bouquet.

Not every photograph needs to be so carefully constructed as if you are painting a still life. This picture of a girl at the Mayfair is one of my favorite rose pictures.

Girl as May fair princess with flower garland of roses in her hair

Girl as May fair princess with flower garland of roses in her hair

I needed a photograph of the miniature rose ‘Magic Carrousel’ for one of my books with Ray Reddell. I grew them myself then took a basket to a local school Mayfair knowing that every child makes a crown of flowers. In this photo Lisa, a friend of the family, made her own crown then posed in the shade of a tree in the town Plaza. Sunlight was reflected off of windows across the street as she smiled, proud of her garland.

For a photo shoot of species roses I invited myself to the garden of my friend Michael Bates, knowing he loved old and species roses. The old-fashioned pink Sweet Briar rose (R. rubiginosa) makes a nice combination on his picnic table with Rosa canina.

single species roses in simple bouquet on picnic table

single species roses in simple bouquet on picnic table

For the final photo we used in the book, below, we fussed over the roses to put them closer together and shot at an angle a little over the top to take advantage of the blue cloth on the table.

Single petal species roses in simple bouquet on picnic table; pale Rosa canina with Eglantine or Sweet Briar rose (Rosa rubiginosa).

Single petal species roses in simple bouquet on picnic table; pale Rosa canina with Eglantine or Sweet Briar rose (Rosa rubiginosa).

Shooting bouquets outdoors has many of the same challenges as the garden shoot and the photographer needs to be very mindful of light and wind.  Never shoot on a bright sunny day, as I talked about in the previous chapters, and have a nice large white card you can place right by the camera to bounce light into the bouquet.

I have a weakness for the relaxed look of a country garden and a casual, carefree look. So, when photographing this rose, ‘Summer Fashion’ we staged a bouquet on a picnic table, a delightful summer moment when the garden is set up for lunch party, a fashionable straw-hat party, casually elegant.

Rose 'Summer Fashion' in rose bouquet on table in country garden with straw hat

Rose ‘Summer Fashion’ in rose bouquet on table in country garden with straw hat

In most photo shoots where you have gone to the trouble of arranging a bouquet, organizing some props, and planned for good light, you will want to take more than one picture. You’ll want to work the scene, reorganizing the props, and fuss over the composition.

Rose 'Summer Fashion' in rose bouquet with Campanula and Verbena flowers

In the bouquet with ‘Summer Fashion’ are a few simple old-fashioned flowers, some geraniums and verbena. Study how the photo is constructed.  It’s not unlike the process a painter goes through when creating a still life.

On the table with the straw hat are some green apples and deep red strawberries. The final composition is made after carefully moving each prop a little bit this way and that until the colors and shapes feel right.

This was shot in the shade of high trees, setting the camera White Balance accordingly, on a morning when we knew we would have a couple hours of good light.

Shooting outdoors is often the easiest way set up bouquets to photograph, but it can be frustrating if you do not allow enough time and the light changes while you are putting together the composition.  I always bring along a scrim (as I demonstrated in the last chapter) to soften any sunlight that creeps in, but often your scene and the background is too wide for a scrim.

Let’s look at how a real painter paints a rose bouquet. Let’s look at Sally Robertson at work. You can see her work here at her website and get an idea of how to present your own work once you have a photo you are proud of.

Sally Robertson Watercolor of roses paired with a bouquet in her garden

Sally Robertson Watercolor of roses paired with a bouquet in her garden

She has a signature style where the flowers burst out of the paper using a blocking technique that gives her work a three-dimensional feel.

Sally is a remarkable artist and wonderful gardener.  She has a glorious garden and grows everything she paints. If you get really inspired by her work and want to work in it yourself you can visit her garden in Bolinas, California and stay in her one room bed and breakfast.

She often photographs her bouquets so that she can remember exactly how they looked at their freshest, as it sometimes takes her days or weeks to complete her watercolors.

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden with pink 'Sparrieshoop', pale 'Sally Holmes' and 'Flutterbye'

Rose bouquet, created and photographed by Sally Robertson photographed in her garden

On the day I went to shoot at Sally’s garden, for a project called The Gardener’s Bouquet, Sally created two arrangements and staged them in the garden.

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden

We see in the distance the first arrangement, a bouquet with yellow ‘Pat Austin’ and ‘Distant Drums’.  Nothing but the two roses, exquisitely matched.

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden with yellow 'Pat Austin' and 'Distant Drums'

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden with yellow ‘Pat Austin’ and ‘Distant Drums’

The one she is photographing, with pink ‘Sparrieshoop’, pale ‘Sally Holmes’ and ‘Flutterbye’ we ended up moving under the pergola to give it strong framing.

Rose bouquet, floral arrangement outdoors in Sally Roberston garden with pink 'Sparrieshoop', pale 'Sally Holmes' and 'Flutterbye'

Rose bouquet in Sally Roberston garden with pink ‘Sparrieshoop’, pale ‘Sally Holmes’ and ‘Flutterbye’

When you have such a beautiful roses to work with you really don’t need much in the way of props: a nice vase and a simple mat or cloth to put it on. It does take an artistic eye to combine the roses, and working with Sally, the photographer’s job is to not screw it up.

Anyone who grows roses knows the satisfaction of cutting them to make a bouquet.  Plan a photo shoot for when roses are at their peak.  Imagine making your own notecards, a calendar, or print for your wall.  Spend a bit of time anticipating your scene, a story to tell; plan for success, then let the roses show off.

Bouquet of fresh cut pink roses, 'Bewitched' on potting bench in greenhouse shed

Bouquet of fresh cut pink roses, ‘Bewitched’ on potting bench in greenhouse shed

Simply putting the flowers in a vase on your workbench may be all you need when the flowers are spectacular, like these ‘Bewitched’.

But don’t rush the photography. Give yourself time to enjoy the process. Have fun.