by David Bigwood
(from his e-book Starting Nature Photography)
“Wow!” That was Margaret’s reaction as she viewed the masses of colourful blooms that were just beginning to carpet the heath above Perisher Valley in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales that only weeks before had been covered in snow. She had only taken up photography seriously a few months previously (an ‘if I can’t stop him, I might as well join him’ decision or maybe it had something to do with me giving her an Olympus SP350 for her birthday) and before I even had my camera out of its bag she was across the road crouching among the flowers shooting like a professional.
We had come to the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, one of my very favourite parts of Australia, in early summer. I had not previously made a habit of photographing flowers but the display in the alpine meadow beside which I had stopped the car was stunning — not as breathtaking as later in the summer perhaps but certainly stunning. And, joining the ‘if I can’t stop her, I might as well join her’ brigade, I fell into line and was soon crouching before the flowers myself engrossed in the sheer beauty of these plants that survive and flourish in the harsh environment in which they live.
We became so enthused by the images on offer that our usual habit of staying close while photographing so that we can confer easily went out of the window. We each began a meander of our own with our enthusiasm mounting with each subject we found. We spent many pleasant hours that day as we traipsed through the alpine grass near a flowing creek discovering a proliferation of colourful flowers.
Not being Sir Joseph Banks or botanists of any sort, most of what we saw were strangers to us so we hurriedly invested in a comprehensive book on wildflowers of the region. Even then we were still seeking the right answers several months after the shoot. But, at least we could do that at our leisure as we had captured the images of the plants in the first place. If you want to make a wildflower collection then I hope that these notes will assist you wherever you shoot and whether you know what you are shooting or not.
The first thing to do when you come across a likely specimen is to take some time to assess the best angle from which to shoot. Walk around it and really look at it. Don’t make the mistake of walking too close to the plant as you won’t want footprints in your picture. Check where the light is coming from and decide whether now is the right time to make the picture or would it be better to wait a while or even come back on another day.
Wildflowers, especially those in areas prone to strong winds, generally grow close to the ground and while a tripod is useful, I find that a mini-tripod — I use one designed for table top photography — is more suitable and lighter to carry. Even with my mini-tripod, I sometimes find that it is easier to lie down and support my camera with my elbows firmly on the ground to shoot low lying flowers. If you have to do this, a groundsheet makes lying on the ground more comfortable but do check where you are lying and try to avoid damage to plants growing nearby.
If you have a macro lens then you are set for magnificent close ups. No macro lens? Then consider a set of close up adapters that fit on the front of your lens to enable you to get much closer to the flower. As I did not have a macro lens at that time I bought for about $35 on the Internet a set of 1, 2 and 4 dioptre adapters which had a 10 dioptre thrown in free. The benefits of these adapters, apart from the price, is that they are lightweight compared to a macro lens and so make hand holding your camera easier when a tripod is not viable. Of course, they also do not provide the quality that a good macro lens will. However, they do give a means of getting close ups that are very acceptable.
But, be warned, the depth of field while using anything that focuses closely on the subject is particularly shallow. Closing the aperture is necessary to maximise this shallow depth of field and this can result in very slow shutter speeds so if you are hand holding the camera you may have to increase your ISO to ensure a sharp result.
It is not necessary to get in close and most cameras will allow you to focus on the whole plant with no difficulty. It is not even necessary to get down for every shot. If the flower is like the alpine buttercup or daisy with blooms at the end of the stem pointing upwards, a shot straight down on to them can be very effective.
I have found that trusting the camera’s exposure meter (I use an Olympus E510) generally provides the right result although I do sometimes check this with my hand held spotmeter when the light seems to be a bit tricky.
The ideal conditions for flower photography are on a cloudy bright day when contrast is reduced and heavy shadows disappear. If you do have to shoot in bright sun a little fill-in flash can work wonders for the contrast under these conditions. To add some fill flash that doesn’t overpower the ambient light, set your flash gun to a quarter or half power if possible, then shoot at both strengths and see what is best. The same applies if you are using an internal flash in a DSLR — my Olympus E510 lets me choose between a reduction of a third and half power and I find that the third reduction is best under most circumstances. When I was using film, I only had a small flash unit that had no adjustments and then a clean white handkerchief draped over the flash worked adequately. I carried a handkerchief in my camera bag and used one or two layers according to conditions. Hardly scientific but it worked!
On flower hunting expeditions, especially in the high country, it is advisable to dress to minimise the attentions of the many insects that are drawn to the blooms. I wore shorts on the first day but after the constant clouds of bush flies that surrounded me and irritated every inch of bare skin, it was long trousers and a long sleeved shirt for the next expeditions. By the end of the week I had my face shrouded in fly netting that fitted over my hat. I had resisted at first as I thought that I would have to lift the netting every time I wanted to take a picture but I found out that I need not have worried as I could use the viewfinder perfectly easily while looking through the netting with the camera to my eye.
The background to some flowers can be a problem so I carry a piece of black felt (bought from an art and craft shop) which I can use to isolate the bloom from the clutter behind it. Felt is perfect as it does not reflect.
In Australia, it is illegal to pick wildflowers, but we photographers are fortunate that we can make a collection without the full weight of the law falling upon us. And, if you need a book to help you with your flower capture, one that I have found very useful is Digital Flower Photography by Sue Bishop, a talented and prolific photographer and writer. It is published by Photographers’ Institute Press — ISBN 978-1-86108-516-0.
This article is from my e-book Starting Nature Photography which is available for tablet readers from Smashwords at http://tinyurl.com/ofbqeeg