Flags are used as symbols for countries, organizations or actions. Their long history and their significance, along with their colors and gracious movement make flags a very good subject for photography. National flags are used as marks of power and national identity. Iconic images like the image of Neil Armstrong and the American flag on the Moon will always be in people’s memory. A flag is more powerful than words and if you know how to photograph it, a flag can tell an entire story by itself. Here are some tips to photograph flags like a pro.
The most impressive images of flags feature them in motion. A flag has grace and pride and emotion. It is a delicate object with a huge meaning. It is made to impress and you shouldn’t disregard this in your images. To have a crystal clear, sharp image of a flying flag, use a fast shutter speed. Try to use the sunlight and in the same time keep it away from your lens. Use a camera sun shield. To underline the importance of a flag, you need to give it the major role in your image. This means size is very important. If you use telephoto lenses for this, use a tripod to avoid camera shake. A low ISO is required because it gives you more space to work the exposure.
If you photograph a flag in the sky, make sure your camera covers the dynamic range of the composition. Sky may be very bright and if the flag is in shadow exposure will suffer. Use a circular polarizing filter to help you with reflecting light.
Catch the Context
While a flag has a lot of significance just by itself, putting it in context gives ground to the image. Imagine the picture of the American flag without Neil Armstrong and the Moon. It wouldn’t have the same impact. Catching the context means using the background wisely. Use a deep depth of field to have everything in focus. Include buildings, landscape, people, and anything you consider useful to your story. Sometimes showing location (for example, the sign with the altitude of Everest near the flags of all those who conquered the mountain) doesn’t need a wide picture. A single detail, a landmark, or a symbol can do the trick.
Context doesn’t mean just location. It also means emotions. People crying at a military funeral, people cheering at the Olympics, hopeful faces near a Red Cross flag are just some examples of emotional context. Pay attention to everything and keep in mind that as beautiful as an image can be, the story behind it is what makes a photograph.
Sometimes More is More
Flags have artistic features too. They are colorful, geometrical, and usually disposed in patters. In their case, more is more. If you are attending international events, finding more flags in one place isn’t a problem. Even hotels display more flags. Working with patterns and colors supports an idea and add more value to your images. National celebrations are also good places to find patterns of flags. They don’t need to be national flags. They can represent a community, an idea, support an action, or simply make the place more beautiful.
While flags are a frequent subject for travel photographers or for photojournalists, they are also a big responsibility. National flags must be treated with respect. Wars started for less than that. People take very personally the symbol of their country, organization or spiritual belief. You should always keep in mind that a photographer is an observer. Your aim is to present the reality truthfully, not to change it according to your principals. In an interview for British Journal of Photography, the war photographer Sir Don McCully said: “I have a strong creative desire but I’m not trying to be an artist. I don’t need titles. I hate the title, ‘artist’. I just describe myself as a photographer.”