Wildflower Photography Basics

I made my annual pilgrimage to photograph Blue Bells along the banks of Bull Run (US Civil War battle field). Not only Blue Bells, but Spring Beauties, Dutchman’s Breeches, Trout Lilies, Violets….

Those blossoms are 8 inches above the ground (and pointing down). Where do you think I am with the camera? 😉
Photographing wildflowers can be both challenging and fun. Having the right equipment for the job is important – else it’s challenging and frustrating.

  • The absolute minimum requirement is a tripod that can get down to ground level.
  • Once the camera is near the ground, if you must use the viewfinder (no articulating LCD), a right angle finder is essential. In the image above the back of the camera was 2″ above the ground – even an articulating lens wouldn’t save you.
  • Knee pads – yesterday was very muddy (plus your knees will thank you even if it’s dry); maybe a ground pad, too, although I never bother
  • Also, a L-bracket for your camera is a good idea else you’ll tend to shoot all of your images in the same orientation (portrait or landscape) and this is usually not a good idea.
  • Lastly, your lens choice is important – one that allows you to work up close and to fill the frame with a flower is desirable. I use my Nikkor 105mm 1:1 macro lens.

This next slide show, illustrates my setup from 6 years ago. Today’s camera is a D300 (D70 shown) and the tripod is still a Gitzo with the identical features as shown but now carbon fiber instead of metal. (Ignore the double bubble level.)
[slideshow id=2522015791368070863&w=426&h=320] Long sleeves, pants tucked into socks, and Deet to keep the ticks at bay are worth considering. I once came home with 8 (that I know of ;-)).
Some non-equipment considerations –

  • Take care with your compositions. In addition to following the usual composition guidelines here are a few thoughts –
  1. Ask yourself – “Am I trying to make a pretty image (emphasis on pretty) or an image that is right for an Audubon field guide where every detail is clear & precise?” Myself, I’m not an Audubon shooter.
    • In the opening photo, most of the blossoms on this Blue Bell cluster are soft & out of focus – intentionally so. I don’t need to show the entire plant in sharp focus, nor do I want to.
    • The focus in that image is on the two front open blossoms and the pink cluster between them – the rest is just muted soft background to provide some context (additional background detail ruins the image IMO).
  2. Distracting backgrounds usually are the downfall of most floral images. Note the opening image – there basically is no background. This was accomplished by choosing an angle where there were few, if any, objects behind the subject (often moving your camera just an inch or two will find you this spot) AND shooting with a shallow depth of field
  3. I usually shoot 3-4 shots after setting up the image’s framing (composition) in the viewfinder and locking down the camera rock solid in its support.
    • The first shot (using a cable release) is with the lens wide open.
    • The next 2-3 shots each step the aperture down 2/3 or one stop from the previous (this gives me 3-4 optional images in the f/2.8 to f/8 range and I rarely use the f/8).
    • The DOF  with this approach is a fraction of an inch – I don’t want any more.
  4. The most critical factor in accomplishing what I just described is – you MUST use manual focus! My 105mm lens has a M/AF option right on the lens and it never moves from M(anual) for these types of images. Hey, the DOF is a small fraction of an inch and I want a very specific part of the image to be in focus – how does the camera know where that spot is? If you want to be really precise use Live View in combination with manual focus (if you can see the LCD).

Well, that covers the basics. You’ll discover the nuances yourself through practice & experience (like checking weather before hand – especially wind). Here’s a short slide show with eleven of yesterday’s images (blue bells, trout lilies, dutchman breeches, violet) –
[slideshow] _________________________________________________________
A Pet Peeve – Folks who think rules are just for others. Specifically, folks who trash our parks, feed wildlife, and disturb the flora (as in picking flowers). Trashing, feeding and picking are all in direct violation of the rules in our national parks (which includes Bull Run). It’s subject to fines & more – and I hope culprits are caught and punished.
Yesterday, while I was photographing, a couple came up to me and asked what the flower I was shooting was. I answered. Next question – man removes hat – what are these? (pointing at several flowers stuck in his hat band). The  only non-X rated part of my reply was that “If you pick ’em, nobody else can see them” (they were trout lilies, and in the area he had picked them there were about 10 of them amidst 1000’s of other types of flowers, i.e not common).
There’s a saying – Take only photographs and leave only footprints.  If this is too much trouble and you want to take flowers home and leave your trash behind then stay the hell out of our national parks – and elsewhere.

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