Tips and Tricks for Photographing Wildflowers

Happy First Day of Spring!

Before getting down to brass tacks, how about a few images of wildflowers that are blooming this week on southern Vancouver Island:

Fawn Lily (Erythronium oregonum):

This lovely bloom, with its cream coloured petals, graceful stem, and fawn-spotted leaves is a favourite on Southern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. Many folks call it “Easter Lily”, because it is usually out around Easter time. This year, like many other plants, it is out early.
Fawn Lily

Small-flowered Woodland Star (Lithophragma parviflorum):

Vancouver Island, thSmall-flowered Woodland Stare Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast, Okanagan, and south central BC all the way to Williams Lake get to see this little beauty nodding in the breeze. This member of the Saxifrage family comes on early in the Spring. A very delicate shade of feathery pink, this flower likes dry bluffs, meadows, open forests, and grasslands. On Vancouver Island we usually see it along coastal cliffs.

A few folks have asked about some simple tips and tricks for taking wildflower photos. I’ve got a few ideas to share that are not highly technical (and some are a lot of fun to experiment with).

  • The 3-P’s: Patience, Practice, Perseverance.
    Yup, the same as with anything one wants to get good at! Wind will be your nemesis, creaky bones and joints will complain as you bend down yet again for that perfect shot, and technology will change – usually rapidly. Keep calm and carry on shooting, reflecting on your work, tweaking, learning, and fine-tuning your process.
  • Get a tripod. If you don’t have one, its a great investment. Get something light and sturdy. Bring your camera with you to the photo shop when you buy one. You want a tripod that is sturdy enough for your camera’s weight. With a point and shoot this shouldn’t be a problem at all. There are even tripods (or top mounts for tripods) that work with camera phones like Galaxy and iPhone.If you aren’t sure about the whole tripod idea, just fill a ziplock baggy with rice and bring that along with you — plop the bag down on a rock, or the ground — it will conform to the land, then nestle your camera on top of the bag. The rice will make a solid support.More info on “How to choose the best tripod: 10 things photographers should look for”
  • Get a remote release. This is something that lets you release (press/trigger) the shutter without actually touching the camera. It can be a cable that attaches to the camera, or an electronic remote control. With many new point and shoot cameras the cable release might not be an option. The reason you want something like this is because with closeup photography any little movement, even as slight as pushing down the shutter, can cause camera shake. Camera shake equals blurry photos. So, with your camera mounted on the tripod, I suggest some type of remote release to guard against motion blur caused by moving the camera.Remote release systems, even cables, can be pricey, so there is another method – use the timer on your camera. Many cameras have a 2 second timer, but even a regular timer (10 seconds) will work — after all, it isn’t like your subject is going anywhere!
  • Use a light reflector. This inexpensive and light-weight item is a real help in getting ambient light into tight places, or in lighting up the underside of a plant, or even helping to balance light in a high contrast light/dark situation.I use a 22 inch disk with several different reflective “skins” I can zip into place. The reflector lets me “bounce” light into the subject. Where I bounce depends on the subject and the angle of light coming into the reflector. Of course, you can bounce a flash off a reflector, but keeping things simple, I usually stick with ambient light. Photography Life has a nice primer on using reflectors: How to use a reflector. Although they are inexpensive, you might want to try something found around the house — a bright white towel, or shirt can work, so can tinfoil, or some of that fancy reflective wrapping paper, or even a purpose for that old disco sequin dress! Be creative — however, you’ll probably need someone to help you hold these items in place. I can usually hold a purpose-built reflector myself, but sometimes I need to prop up in some way (or use one of my hiking companions).
  • Get a kneeler. You’ll be up and down a lot — get something to kneel on. Maybe a garden kneeling pad, or one of those thin blue camping foam pads. Your knees and back (and washing machine) will thank you.
  • Look for different angles / composition. Take your time with your subject. Move around the plant (although do it delicately – some plants are extremely sensitive to being touched), try a lower angle, try a higher angle. Try both portrait (higher than wider) and landscape (wider than higher) views. Snap and go is fine for capturing a sense of the plant and its environment, but to really infuse your work with a sense of place you’ve got to spend a bit of time with your subject and the environment it lives in (see the first point!).
  • Use a card for background. Sometimes you see a flower you would like to highlight in a shot. You want the entire bloom, but not the busy background of stems, grasses, twigs, etc. If you travel with a few pieces of card — they don’t have to be big — index card size or a bit bigger — you can place this behind the plant. White gives an “arty” look, while other colours can blend with the background, or serve as a good contrast to the subject. A card can also help your camera achieve focus. Sometimes the focus point in the camera can’t “grab on” to the bloom you want to capture. This is because the background is full of detail and the focus sensor doesn’t know “where to look”. If you hold a card up behind the flower, the sensor will have less clutter to sort through and will focus on the bloom. At this point you can remove the card and shoot, or keep the card in place. No card to hand – no worries — you can use your hand for the same “de-cluttering” purpose. Gently place your hand behind the subject and focus. However, you’ll almost certainly want to remove your hand before you shoot.
  • Learn about your camera. How do you get your camera into “macro”? You’ll want macro for close up shots. How do you set a focus point? Can you “underexpose” or “overexpose” (let in less light / more light) to your image? Can you take a bit more control of the photographic process — set the aperture size (size of the hole letting light into the camera), select the shutter speed (how fast the shutter opens and closes), or choose the ISO (how sensitive the camera “film” sensor is to light)? All of these things are a bit more technical than the preceding points, but as your interest in photography deepens, you’ll probably want to know more about all or some of these things. Your camera manual can help, but so can a course at your local rec centre, college, or university. Of course, you can always “ask the Google”! For example: “A Beginner’s Guide to Photography” .

Of course, the main tip is get out and have fun with your camera — who really cares whether you are shooting with the latest and greatest DSLR (digital single lens reflex), a point-and-shoot, or the camera in your phone. It’s all about being out of doors!

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