The wonders of wildflowers (part one)
Nature photography allows us to enjoy the beauty and serenity of our bushland areas, and it gives us a greater appreciation of the biodiversity and fragility of the natural environment.
Many of us already regularly explore bushland on our feet, but with a camera in hand, the experience is so much different. It allows you to slow down and discover the intricacies, patterns, shapes, colours, and fragrances that nature provides, and all while recording it to enjoy later.
Encountering chaotic variables
As photographers, we often face what I like to think of as ‘chaotic variables’ when exploring National Parks and other bushland areas.
You may find yourself shooting low to the ground on a windy day, or the sun might be casting bright highlights and strong shadows across your subject. Worse yet, the peak flowering period may have passed, the foliage may be damaged, or there’s competing colours and patterns in our frame.
Part of the challenge of capturing wildflower images in the wild involves tackling these problems to create a pleasing image. Taking the time to assess your subject, observe the light around it, and give weight to your lens choice and camera settings can significantly impact the final image.
Capturing the scene
Approaching a botanical shoot is no different to a family photography session. To avoid having your cards full of dozens of similar images, try to work to a shot list - capture individual portraits, fill the frame with fine details, take the group shot, and then capture your subject in its environment to give a sense of place, biodiversity, and scale.
To give yourself cropping and compositional options in post-production, you may want to consider shooting wide, but you also should try to fill your frame where possible and exclude distractions.
Finally, teach yourself to work the scene - vary your perspective and point of view, switch your pose, change your lenses, and move your feet.
When is the best time to shoot?
The light is softer when the sun is lower in the sky, so early mornings and late afternoons provide ideal shooting conditions for wildflowers.
I’ll seek out cloudy days as the clouds will act as a diffuser, eliminating the problem of blown-out highlights and dark shadows. Petals sparkle like jewels after the rain or when the reticulation has been on.
You can also achieve beautiful backlit images when the sun is low and behind your subject. When shooting backlit images, I find the best results using spot metering. The camera reads the light from the subject as opposed to the overall light in the scene.
If the wind is challenging, I recommend choosing high-speed continuous shooting and a fast shutter speed. This increases the chance of capturing the subject without blur. And while an umbrella or backpack can help shield the wind, I find them awkward, and another pair of hands is generally required.
Of course, there will be times when we have no control over the shooting conditions. You may be on a hike in the middle of a bright sunny day for example.
In these circumstances, I recommend activating the highlight alert function in your camera's menu system and have the histogram visible in the viewfinder. When reviewing your shot, the blown-out highlights will flash.
This allows you to reconfigure your exposure settings. Do you need to lower the ISO, raise the shutter speed, or increase the aperture?
When the light is bright on your subject, and we expose for the highlights, background elements may disappear. This is of no concern unless they’re integral to the composition.
However, when the background is brighter than the main subject, fill flash may be required to eliminate unwanted shadows. I try and make this as simple as possible by shooting with a diffused flash in manual mode on a low setting. If I don’t have a diffuser, I will position the flash at 90 degrees to the subject using a little white card at the top to direct a portion of light.
The importance of background
I’m a strong believer that giving weight to the background can make or break the overall aesthetic of your photograph.
There are ways we can avoid busy backgrounds and cluttered spaces. This might involve getting low to the ground, shooting up against a plain sky, or choosing a subject where the environment is off into the distance.
The further away the background, the more painterly it will appear. Remember that the lens length and aperture you choose will also have some influence here.
Learning to manage your depth of field is a graphic compositional tool. Use it well, and it can isolate your subject or add a sense of depth. For ethereal images, I will often shoot between F2.8-5.6, but when a subject has a variety of focal planes, an aperture of F11 or higher may be required.
Isolating your subject
Before you start shooting, first look out for fine details. These can often be hidden in an otherwise busy scene.
One way of separating a subject from its surroundings is to shoot light against dark and vice versa. Burnt logs and tree stumps make great backdrops for white botanicals. The contrast of light against darkness can also be exaggerated in post-production to eliminate distracting elements and emphasise fine details.
If you find there is too much clutter, separate your subject by selecting a specific area of focus, a shallow depth of field, and variations in height. In post-production, you can also brighten the central element in the frame (with the radial tool in Lightroom), or selectively sharpen the main focal point.
Look out for part two next week.