Thursday, May 31, 2012

Flower Buds, Macro Lenses, and Finding Your Moment

I got into shooting with a macro lens from seeing a photo on one of the photography forums I like—I'll list them below. It was of a witch hazel bud just beginning to open. Magic!  Fireworks!  And a lot like that crinkly ribbon you can run a scissor blade across to make sausage curls as a final touch to gift-wrapped presents. That photo made me want to get a macro lens and grow my own witch hazel.

 It took me two years to find an affordable witch hazel and then another couple of years for it to flower.  This year was the first.  Now it will take me a few more years to find the image I have in my heart, still resonating from the first one I saw on-line.  Something to look forward to around the end of December and the beginning of January.

I researched lenses--I shoot with a Canon, so I stuck with them.  And then rented a 100mm and a 60 mm macro. Glad I did. (By the way, renting lenses is a great way to go when you're trying to decide what to spend way too much money on.  On-line opinions and looking through a lens in a camera store will only take you so far).  They're both wonderful and the only differences really are price, weight, and how close you need to get. If you're taking shots of bugs who might scare easily or if you don't like getting nose-to-petal with a flower, the 100 is it. Then again there's the 180, but that wasn't even on my radar. A girl's got to eat, you know. The 60 is cheaper, lighter, and flowers don't seem too concerned about personal space. And once I got it through my thick head that a decent tripod was crucial, I was set.

Almost. Along with waiting for the right light and having the right equipment, the biggest headache for taking botanical macros is wind. Air actually. Just the briefest little puff will start the petals trembling and the leaves waving all about. And unless you want to crank up the ISO or shoot so wide open that only the yellow speck of pollen at the closest leaf edge is in focus, you've got to wait. And wait. And fire off a few frames with your fingers crossed. And wait some more. HOWEVER, buds—leaf as well as flower--have the good grace to sit bloody still! A lot may be going on inside, but the outside is serene. Their density and lack of quivery surfaces make them a lot more stable. No flashes, no portable studios, just graceful nature waiting for me to get my settings right.

 This Rhododendron is a good example.  That lovely flower has enough tissue-paper thin petals and shuddering anthers to blur in a vaccuum.  OK, I exaggerate (often), but still.  That amazing bud, with the folds of petals interlaced with the sturdy sepals can really hold a pose.  

It also amazes me how the petals here look like a rich, Asian silk.  And, unlike my packing, when they unfold, no creases remain.

There's also a subtlety to a flower bud.  All that potential, all that promise only hinted at.  I bought this Speedwell below (Veronica spicata 'Giles van Hees') because the flower buds were "demure" yet dramatic.  I don't know how else to say it.

And while the flowers themselves are pretty, for me, they can't compare to the "romance" I see in the buds.

 But sometimes the drama, the energy, and the beauty can be found at the same moment, in the same plant, flower and bud, still enough to capture.

Thalictrum 'Black Stockings'  (Meadow Rue)

Good Photography Forums 

Helpful Sites for Choosing a Lens 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shooting Edge-On

Walk through any public garden in spring, and you'll see strollers admiring the flowers. Stooping slightly, they'll pull their cameras to their faces, position the viewfinder or LCD parallel to the ground, and snap shot after shot of those sunny, open, plant-catalog blossoms. Every detail in focus, the colors bright and depthless, seemingly honest in their accessible flatness.  Everything revealed.  Maybe.  Seeing everything isn't always the same as experiencing everything.  And “tack sharp” isn't always the gold standard in plant photography. At least not for me.

Sitting on the ground, is when I really take the time to look closely at a flower. It's the view of rabbits and cats, who take little notice. And only when I pause in my weeding or planting do I.  Eye-level and edge-on, I see moods (theirs or mine, I don't really know). And it's the ironic gift of a camera's shallow depth of field, revealing more when some edges are left unedged. When far petals softly echo (or contend with) those close by. 

Hellebores present an interesting challenge.  Most of them face downwards.  It's frustrating when you think of "flower" as full-on, open face.  Before putting this newly acquired Helleborus x hybridus 'Mardi Gras Pink' in the ground, I pulled its face upwards to get some shots.

That's a face alright.  And you get to see the pretty design on the petals and the anthers and pistil.  Open and honest . . . and, to my taste, sort of boring.
After awhile, I planted it and moved on.  Then, a week or so later, I was kneeling in the bed, weeding, when I found myself watching the Hellebores.  

Some facing down, some facing away, and all of them beautiful in their restraint; almost coy or maybe simply demure.  Like the edges of a parasol, the petals suggest something precious shielded from the heat of a direct gaze. 
So out came the camera and tripod.  Flat on my stomach, chin in the dirt to look through the viewfinder, I found an angle that gave me a much better sense of what this flower actually is, at least for me..  Same variety, but in a more characteristic position.

Getting every detail of a macro shot in focus is fun, I'll admit it.  You feel like you've mastered something, captured something your eyes don't always have time to observe in even a careful glance.  But shallow depth of field can highlight a single detail or a shape that says far more about the charm as well as the complexity of a flower.

I bought some African Daisies (Osteospermum 'Astra Purple Spoon' and 'Astra Pink Spoon') to photograph because I couldn't resist those spoon-like petals.  After trying all sorts of angles, I sat down next to the table I'd placed outdoors to position them at a more convenient level--it was muddy outside and I wasn't in the mood to change pants.  Glancing over at them, I saw that I could express how bright and playful they seemed to me by shooting from the edges and working with much less in focus.

The 'Purple' to the left beckons to the viewer with its alien-pod petals, while  the 'Pink' below appears to be lit from within, and the trumpeting colors in both seize the focus.
Lastly, one edge-on image I especially love is this Anemone 'Honorine Jobert.'  Earlier in my life, I was a dancer.  And this flower at this angle says so much to me about the quiet center, the "still point," at the apex of a leap or the core of a pirouette, or the lift of an arabesque.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Getting To Know the Natives
(Part Two)

Returning to the project of photographing all the native plants on our guided walk through Stimpson Family Nature Reserve in leaf, flower, and fruit. Did I mention that most of Stimpson is in a forest? So it's kind of dark.  And often breezy. And using a flash feels like cheating (and looks like it too).  And hunkering down with your tripod, hoping for a moment where you can get a fast enough shot to get SOMETHING in focus, but at a low enough ISO to prevent image noise as other hikers have to creep around you, week after week after week might seem tedious.  Frustrating.  Boring?  Actually, weirdly, it wasn't.  It became a passion as well as a project.  Clearly, to get all the images we needed, we would have to look beyond our three-mile, three month project.  So we found ourselves becoming plant-hunters.  
Birds really do get up earlier than we do, so finding a plant that hadn't been picked clean of fruit was often a challenge.  When you point out something called Salmonberry 
(Rubus parviflorus) to people who have signed up for a native plant walk, they'd at least like to see a picture of the berries actually growing.  We scoured every local trail until we found a single, under-ripe berry and a couple of others just beginning to form.                                  
   On a walk around Lake Padden--another local park--we ran into a huge Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) covered in fruit.  Of course the people sunbathing nearby thought we were nuts as we ran gleefully around a bush snapping photos when there was a gorgeous lake right behind us. Then there was the time we went to an open house at Pilchuck Glass School—founded by Dale Chihuly—and spotted some False Lily-of-the-Valley (Maianthemum dilatatum fruiting! The dark forest was the culprit this time. We'd never seen our little patch flower, much less produce berries. We jumped off the walkway to get closer and took more shots of the marble-like berries than of the glass art.

And then there was Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) whose flower stalk mocked us for two months!   But we'd only seen it look this promising back at Stimpson. 


We ran out to the park every couple of days, checking several likely specimens that appeared just on the verge of blooming until FINALLY one did! But not where we'd been looking.  Off the trail, on a slippery hillside was a single orchid (yes, they are orchids) whose tiny, tiny flowers had louvered open.  Stomach on the ground, bracing a cheap tripod with one shoulder and myself with my toes, I got the shot. It may not be “Adventure Photography,” but plant-tracking has its rewards.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting To Know the Natives
(Part One)

For our Whatcom County Master Gardener project, David and I chose to give native plant walks at a relatively new park: The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve. We wanted to take groups of people on easy hikes where we would help them learn to identify local native plants. Nice idea except for the fact that we had just moved here from Los Angeles and couldn't tell one fern from another (and frankly, I wasn't exactly all that certain what “deciduous” meant).

Luckily, there were lots of opportunities to learn. We went on plant ID walks with some experts (one lovely MG went with us in late April when it snowed while we bent over tiny specimens trying to shield our open books) and took photos (lots and lots of photos). We eventually compiled a list of 60 native plants that could be identified (that WE could identify) on our walk. 

Which brings me to the next problem:  identifying what isn't there. Neat trick. Basically, it is sometimes difficult to identify a plant that isn't flowering; and plants flower, fruit, or even appear at all at different times of the year.  How much fun is it to go on a native plant walk and be told that the bunch of green leaves on your left will turn out to be either Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) or Piggy-Back (Tolmiea menziesii), but we won't know for sure until it blooms?

This one's the Fringecup


Piggyback closeup

How enthusiastic would you feel about looking at 3 oddly-shaped leaves and hearing that the Trillium--(Trillium ovatum)--is one of the most beloved, early flowers here in the Northwest, but you're too late to see it?

And how much would you really enjoy stopping at a bog and being told that sometime in late summer the stunning Mexican Hedge Nettle (Stachys mexicana) will emerge. Trust us.

Mexican Hedge Nettle

I'm all for using your imagination, but this seemed like too much too ask for a two-hour walk.

Some other MG friends who also gave plant walks solved this problem by carrying a flip-book of photos of the flowers in bloom. Genius! So we set about photographing our plants in leaf, in flower, and in fruit. Perfect!  But also a new set of problems.  

More about that next time.

Suggested Resources For Northwest Plant ID

Lyons, C. P. and Bill Merilees. Trees, Shrubs & Flowers To Know in British Columbia & Washington. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine, 1995.

Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Vancouver, BC: LonePine, 2004.

Taylor, Ronald J. Northwest Weeds: The Ugly and Beautiful Villains of Fields, Gardens, and Roadsides. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1990.

Turner, Mark and Phyllis Gustafson. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2006.