Sunday, March 12, 2023

Some spring wildflowers, and thoughts on the photography thereof


f/9, ISO 250, 1/100 - 100mm macro lens

A Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) grows before our eyes - or at least mine, at the time. I shot this poppy family member back on February 26 - a very early date. When I passed this spot on the trail a few hours earlier, I saw no sign of the flower. A fairly warm and virtually snowless February spurred southern Ohio wildflowers to erupt earlier than normal.

The image above and all of the following were made on either February 26, or March 9, at the Arc of Appalachia's Ohio River Bluffs Preserve, or their Chalet Nivale Preserve. Both are in Adams County, Ohio.

When I go afield with botanical photography as the objective, I generally pack three lenses: Canon (all my camera gear is Canon) 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, 16-35mm f/2.8 II wide-angle, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 II. In the case of these images, all were shot with the Canon R5 mirrorless camera. I have examples made with two of those lenses in this post, along with some thoughts on using the gear effectively to create wildflower portraits.

f/7.1, ISO 250, 1/8 second, 100mm macro lens

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) peeks from leaf litter. The hardy little parsley is one of the first spring (late winter!) wildflowers to emerge.

Even old dogs should be able to learn new tricks. At one time, I tended to use narrow apertures (often f/11 to f/16) for greater depth of field, and - horrors! - often flash. Then I met Debbie DiCarlo and we began teaching some photography classes together. I loved her botanical work and was astute enough to notice that it did not look much like mine. And I wished mine looked more like hers.

So, from her I learned about softer, more wide-open apertures, scrapping the flash, and thinking harder about composition. The Harbinger-of-spring above manifests this. Now, most of my plant work is between f/4 and f/7.1 and this image was made at the latter. The closest flowers are the focus point, and I do not care that the rest of the subject is not in sharp focus. The wide aperture melts the background but the dissected cauline (stem) leaves can still be seen.

f/6.3, ISO 200, 1/320, 70-200mm lens at 140 mm

Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) has a bizarre appearance when it is emerging. Nearly all parts of the plant are an attractive purplish shade, and the flowers are already mature even as the foliage unfurls. Their bright yellow anthers provide the only punctuation point to the plant.

For this, I used my 70-200mm with a 25mm extension tube, at 140mm. The hollow tube allows for closer focusing and does not detract at all from image quality as there is not glass within it. As usual, I am in my ISO sweet spot - 200. For plants, I almost always operate between ISO 100 and 400, and normally between ISO 100-200. I want the cleanest possible files, and there is normally no need to use high ISO when shooting plants. I like the effect of the mini-telephoto 70-200, which really compresses the subject and obliterates the background. A busy background is normally not a desirable quality for botanical imagery, at least to me.

f/7.1, ISO 100, 1/40, 100mm macro lens

A White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), the earliest of our lilies to bloom. This is a diminutive plant, and to make effective captures more challenging the flowers dangle almost straight down. I generally would prefer to have my camera horizontal to the flower, and better yet, slightly below it. The bottom line is plant photographers will spend lots of time on the ground, on their subjects' plane.

I'm almost always working off a tripod, and my current favorite is the relatively inexpensive Oben CTT-1000, with their excellent ball head. It is made from carbon fiber, is flyweight, versatile in positioning, and allows me to get my camera nearly on the ground. Stabilizing the rig is vital, for reasons I will expound on under the next image.

f/5.6, ISO 250, 1/320, 100mm macro lens

White Trout Lily flowers are botanical will-o-the-wisps, appearing to float low over the forest leaf litter. To get this perspective, my camera was under the plant and shooting upwards, thanks to my mini-tripod.

A major reason why tripods are important in botanical photography is because slow shutter speeds are often used. Of the three major parameters - aperture, ISO, and shutter speed - the latter is least important. I want a low ISO to keep my images as clean (less noise) as possible. The aperture is a major driver as it dictates the look that I get of my subject and its environs. The shutter speed is merely whatever the aperture and ISO dictate it to be. While this trout lily flower was shot at a comparatively fast speed, the Harbinger-of-spring above was shot at 1/8 second! And the previous trout lily shot was made at 1/40 second.

No one will have much luck hand-holding a rig at such slow shutter speeds. The miss rate would skyrocket, and you likely would not get any sharp images. This is why wind is the plant photographer's enemy. As long as the subject is immobile, one can use very slow shutter speeds in tangent with very low ISO settings, no problem. Windy days? I'm not going to be shooting wildflowers.

f/16, ISO 200, 1/2 second, 100mm macro lens

The seldom noticed pistillate (female) flower of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). It is truly elfin and thus overlooked. This was - for me - a rare case of using a tiny aperture, f/16 in this case. I did so because I wanted sharpness throughout the bizarre blossom. The bokeh (background quality) is creamy brown because there was nothing for probably 20 or more feet behind the subject. The brown tones are caused by a distant leaf-covered slope.

Note the shutter speed - one-half second! While the camera/lens was firmly stabilized on a tripod, there are additional steps to ensure a sharp image. I set my camera's shutter release to a 2-second delay so that my hands aren't even touching the rig when it fires (there is also a 10-second delay option but that's usually overkill). I also have the camera set so that I can just touch the back viewing screen with my finger, and it will instantly focus on that spot, then activate the shutter (2 seconds later). Complete stillness with the camera. Not all cameras (yet) have that touch screen option, but just about all DSLR or mirrorless cameras have the timer delay feature.

f/8, ISO 200, 1/30, 100mm macro lens

A lethargic group of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) flowers on a frosty morning. A few hours later, with significantly warmer temperatures, the flowers would be proudly upright and fully expanded. I stopped down a bit more than usual - to f/8 - for a bit more depth on this elfin flower forest. Focus was on the top right flower, which was closest to the lens. It's almost always best to focus on the nearest flower, as that is where the eyes of viewers of your image will likely first be drawn.

NOTE: I take the conservative position and lump the two hepatica "species" together under the available name Hepatica nobilis. If you split them, this would be the so-called Sharp-lobed Hepatica (H. acutiloba).

In my next post, I will share short sequences of two of Ohio's rarest and most beautiful lilies, with some thoughts on composition.


Midnitemike said...

Thank you. Your photos are awesome.

LarryC43230 said...

Jim, thanks once again for sharing so freely your insights on photographic techniques, I learn so much from your blog posts and your training courses.

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you both very much! I appreciate the kind words.