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Photographing orchids (or other plants) in the wild

Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips

Photographing orchids (or other plants) in the wild

Monkey orchid

I have been photographing British wild orchids for many years, it has become something of a passion. Although plants do not run or fly away like mammals or birds, they are far more challenging a subject than many people think.

Hurdles to overcome in taking a good photograph:

Subject movement

Wind is public enemy number one- particularly when it is in combination with low light levels. Even the gentlest breeze will create a blurred or softened image if a high shutter-speed of at least 1/250 of a second is not achievable on the day.
To avoid this problem, you can try to go to the site in good weather but this is not always feasible. Early morning and late afternoon provides nice light and the wind often drops at these times.
There are often short lulls in the wind, and with patience , you will often get a moment or two to take your shot. It's funny though how the sun and the wind appear to be linked - you can be waiting for the sun to come out from behind a black cloud, and the moment it does the wind seems to pick up - maybe it's just sod's law in action!

Sometimes orchids can grow in very exposed situations such as on a cliff-top where the wind never seems to abate. Under these conditions I often use a perspex box shelter - easily constructed using clear acrylic sheet from Wickes, cut in a similar manner to glass - with a tile cutting blade and straight edge and then applying pressure at the joint.
I join the panels together with ducktape which acts as hinges and enables the box to be stored flat. There are limitations to this method though - it is difficult to use flash as you will see reflections of the flashlight, the background can look milky as it is being viewed through the perspex, and it is important to avoid getting edges of the box in the picture. The box works best when you are really close to your subject.

Another method is to use a Wimberley Plamp which is a clever flexible arm which clips onto a tripod leg and has a clip at the other end like a clothes peg. The peg is opened and the clip grips the stem. With small delicate stems this is not a problem as a hole in the clamp prevents any pressure being applied and no damage is caused to the plant. This gadget can get you out of a tight spot, but it still has it's limitations - by supporting a stem the upper part may appear still, but it often is vibrating at a high rather than a low frequency which is just as bad. However it does stop the plant from blowing right out of the frame in big gusts.!

When trying to get a close-up shot (macro i.e. 1:1 or greater) of a flower in breezy conditions, you will probably have your work cut out as the tiniest movement is amplified enormously at these high magnifications. To make matters worse you will need to be working at small apertures in order to maintain adequate depth of field to keep everything in focus, so this necessitates low shutter speeds in order to maintain the correct exposure. Long shutter speeds give the wind lots of opportunity to do it's worst !

If all else fails, I resort to using flash as the sole light source - usually a two flash set-up such as the Canon Macro Twinflash MT24-EX. Excellent, but pricey. The drawback with using flash in this manner is that unless the background is very close to the subject, the fall-off in light invariably results in a black background. This can be quite striking as the subject will be bitingly sharp against blackness, but you don't really want every shot to look as though it has been taken at night or in a studio! This is good for record shots but can become samey and is not very adventurous aesthetically .
Camera shake

Camera shake is public enemy number two. Unless you are using flash as the sole light source it is essential that a sturdy tripod is used to support the camera combined with a remote cable release. If shutter speeds are very low it is advisable to also use mirror lock-up on the camera if it has this facility as the internal vibrations that are created will soften the image.

Benbo

This is a picture of a benbo tripod which is invaluable in getting to ground level in all sorts of difficult terrain. The legs and centre column can be arranged in a number of different ways - it is best to keep the centre column adjusted as short as possible to retain maximum rigidity.
Even when using flash - where the duration is so short that camera shake becomes irrelevant, I still like to use a tripod as it gives me maximum opportunity to compose the shot. I find I have more time to notice something I don't like in the background and can then get up to "garden" it out (if possible)
and then return to the same shot that I left before I stood up.

Busy Backgrounds

Most of the time, unless you are intentionally taking a plant in it's habitat shot, you will need to isolate the subject from it's background. This simplifies the image and helps the eye settle where you want it - on the subject.

Look at the picture of the monkey orchid (Orchis simia) above - notice how the background is soft and clear with no distractions such as twigs, bright bits of pale grass and worst of all crossing blades of grass. The highly defocussed buttercups which create the soft yellow glow behind the orchid do interrupt the continuous soft green background it is true - some may prefer it that way - personally I liked the touch of yellow as it just seemed more aesthetically pleasing to my eye. As removing a couple of buttercup flowers could hardly be described as an ecological disaster, I would have "gardened" them out if I hadn't liked them.

The first way to achieve this is by using as wide an aperture as you can get away with while keeping all parts of the subject in focus that you would like to remain sharp.

An aperture of f 2.8 will give a lovely soft background , but you may find that too little of the flower itself is in focus. Use f 11 and you will see quite a lot of background - which may be fine if the background is pleasant - but if it consists of crisscrossing grass stems or vegetation you will need to try to soften it with a wider aperture - try f 5.6 for starters. If you have a depth-of-field preview button on the camera use it ! You stand your best chance of noticing a nasty bright crossing blade of grass if you stop the lens down while observing what happens with DOF preview.
Apertures that I commonly use when using a 100mm macro lens on my Canon digital slr camera :

Whole plant in it's habitat : f11-16
Flowering spike : Commonly f 5.6 - f 8. But I usually try a shot at f4 as well in case I can get away with it - i.e keep the subject in focus, but blur the background.
Single floret close-up: f 22

Gardening is a term applied to removing annoying bits of grass or twigs or other distractions from around the plant before taking the picture. Garden lightly to prevent it both looking unnatural in the picture, but more importantly, to not damage the plant's habitat or emerging seedlings. With rare species you should be conscious of the fact that gardening exposes a concealed plant to unscrupulous people who might then notice it and pick it or worse still, illegally dig it up. Also, the patch where you have been lying to photograph a plant inevitably becomes flattened - so do everything that you can to restore the flattened grass before you depart.
Quite often it is possible to bend distracting twigs or leaves out of the way temporarily by weighting them down with a stone or a branch and then letting them spring back when you have finished your photography.

Another way to separate the plant from it's background is to either cast a shadow behind it (an assistant comes in handy here) or you can use a reflector (lastolite for example - or attached some crumpled kitchen foil onto a piece of cardboard) to spotlight the subject, for example in gloomy woodland

Not all the flower is in focus in single floret close-ups.

The rare bee orchid variant (Ophrys apifera var bicolor) floret below is only about 1.5cm across, so this is a true macro shot. When working this close to the subject, sufficient depth of field becomes an issue. Trying to keep all parts of the flower in focus are a challenge even when using an aperture of f 22.

Ophrys apifera var bicolor

In the picture of the bee orchid variant above, notice how the tip of the lip (labellum) is sharp, as are the pollinia (yellow dangling pollen sacs) the inner sepals (the brown horns) . The outer sepals (pink) are just verging on going out of focus due to the tiny depth of field at this magnification.
To maximise depth of field, it is important to realise that the laws of physics operate here - namely that depth of field extends twice as far behind the subject as it does in front of it. In other words, if I had focused on the pollinia, the pollinia and the pink sepals would be in focus, but the very important labellum would not be sharp.
Instead, I elected to focus on the labellum at the point of transition between the brown and the yellow division (which is just further away from being the very closest thing to the lens) and then relying on the depth of field extending more behind the subject to keep the rest of the plant in reasonable focus. As the labellum and pollinia are the most important part of the picture, the eye settles on these and demands them to be sharply in focus. The eye tolerates the pink sepals behind being a tad out of focus as this still looks natural.

Autofocus won't lock on to the correct part of the subject .

As wonderful as autofocus is, it has it's limitations, and working in extreme close up is one time where it is simply better to turn it off and focus manually.

The image in the viewfinder looks all blurry in extreme close up except for one tiny bit of it which is in focus.

Remember that the image that you see in the viewfinder is at the lens's widest aperture - only at the moment of pressing the shutter button down completely will the camera stop the lens down to the small aperture (f 22 ) that you selected with the intention of maximising depth of field. So it is not WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). The only way to determine how the picture will eventually look is to either use the depth of field preview button if your camera has one - alternatively if you are shooting digital, you can take a picture and review it immediately and adjust accordingly before re-shooting.

Excessive contrast

How pleasant it is to be in a meadow on a warm sunny day with the smell of the herbs and bees buzzing all around. Trouble is - bright sunlight is very contrasty - that is it creates very black shadows and burnt-out highlights. This obscures shadow detail and can irretrievably destroy texture in white flowers in particular.

The best conditions for plant photography are bright but overcast so that there is plenty of light, but it is soft and retains all the texture and subtlety in the subject. The clouds have effectively diffused the light. So what can be done ?
You are going to have to reduce contrast in one of two ways - by using a diffuser to simulate the action of the clouds (tracing paper makes a good diffuser) or alternatively add a little extra light to the shadows by using a reflector of fill-in flash.

Making a bland subject look more interesting.

Not every orchid is stunningly beautiful, and some need a bit of a helping hand to look something in a picture. The rare Irish ladies tresses orchid (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) is not an unattractive shape, but it is a simple off-white flower with a green stem. When I found it growing beside a Scottish loch, I couldn't seem to make it look very exciting in the viewfinder. Nearby there was plenty of heather growing, so to help the picture along I placed a heather sprig behind the flower and the picture came to life. The blur of the purple heather added colour to the picture, but as it is just out of focus it doesn't fight with the subject. I have found this technique of bringing something relevant into the picture can be very effective if done well.

A pine cone introduced beneath this Anatolian orchid (O.anatolica) which grows in coniferous woodlands in Crete works well I think, and gives a clue to the habitat in which it grows. It also balances the compost ion diagonally, leading the eye into the picture towards the orchid, and then on to the rock behind.


O.anatolica

I often borrow a rock or branch to create a background where one doesn't naturally exist.
Aches and pains.

To save yourself getting a stiff neck an angled viewfinder is an invaluable piece of kit.
Also as you might be hunched up in an awkward position for long periods of time it is advisable to give your back and leg muscles a chance to recover by standing up and walking around a little periodically.



 



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