Long before I ever took a photograph of any plant or flower, I loved botanic illustrations. In college I worked in a framing shop that specialized in old prints and saw classic old botanic prints by Besler, Catesby, and in the Curtis magazine. Later, when working on the Smith & Hawken rose books I plastered stickers by Redouté on my camera case so I would always have inspiration in the rush of illustrating 10 -12 roses a day.
“When I heard that there were artists, I wished I could some time be one. If I could only make a rose bloom on paper, I thought I should be happy! Or if I could at last succeed in drawing the outline of winter-stripped boughs as I saw them against the sky, it seemed to me that I should be willing to spend years in trying.” – Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood 1889
Somewhere between my photojournalism days in college and becoming a garden photographer I began to fancy myself as a botanic illustrator. My future wife, Mary, and I would go hiking looking for wildflowers, she with field guides, me with a camera.
I loved that the camera frame created a potential print and all I had to do was fill the frame accordingly.
There is monumental leap from a photograph to an actual illustration, and like Lucy Larcom I am “willing to spend years in the trying”.
A series of PhotoBotanic illustrations I call “extractions” are in the works using various computer techniques to isolate the plant.
But the most important technique is in the point of view of the original photograph. A botanic illustration is a silhouette, a direct view straight on. The camera needs to be set up at the same level as the plant to truly appreciate it.
For wildflower photography that usually means a belly shot, with the photographer on the ground, communing with nature. Yes, it means getting a bit dirty and sometimes the knees rebel on getting up, but the beauty revealed by getting down at ground level is well worth any effort.
Recently I spent several days in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, searching for meadows and photographing wildflowers and grasses. I chose places I could drive right up to and camp, knowing I would want to work until dark and be up before dawn.
At Martin Meadow, a forest service campground in Eldorado National Forest, the campground surrounds the meadow and at an elevation of 7100′, even in a very dry year, there is still moisture in the tiny creek that is part of the headwaters of the American River.
The pink haze is a Lepidium nitidum -Shining pepper grass, a tiny flower that seems non-descript – until getting down next to it.
Then to make it even more dramatic, a bit of cropping.
This beauty was 50 feet from my car. Across the meadow, beyond the outhouse was a mass of Collomia grandiflora, a peach colored flower I had never seen. Here I was, still virtually in the parking lot, and flowers were everywhere. So much for not finding much in bloom in this drought year.
To really isolate the flowers I use a small telephoto lens (105mm) with macro focusing capacity. It throws the background out of focus, setting up the silhouette effect of a botanic print.
While I was down on the ground, tripod straddling my legs, I notice the gray haze was another wildflower, Artemisia arbuscula – little sagebrush.
The same lens, the 105 macro, is often used by portrait photographers, as it has a very accurate rendering of proportions with none of the distortion that often comes with more wide angle lenses. The flowers stand tall from this low angle, posing for their portrait.
At the other end of Martin Meadow, near the damp seep that would be a creek in a wet year, I found wild delphinium, growing 5 – 6 feet tall. No need to get low for these guys, indeed, to get a straight on view, I needed to raise the tripod high and stand of tip toes.
Seeing the bright spot between distant trees I saw an opportunity. Here I used a 200mm telephoto lens that makes even more of the background blurry and the other flower stalks became an interesting abstract shape.
I photographed several locations on this trip and the meadow on the road to Wright’s Lake was spectacular, with grasses throughout.
Meadows are grass ecologies, often transitional ecosystems, following forest fires or storms, or farmers abandoning a field. More on meadows in the post The Summer-Dry Meadow. They knit together the ecosystem where wildflowers often hide. Notice the yellow flowering Goldenrod in this photo. Looking down is not very interesting.
Down at the flower’s level, the portrait shot, sharp focus on just the Goldenrod reveals the relationship of the flowers.
This photo illustrates another important technique for photographing wildflowers – controlling the light. We can’t always shoot in the sweet light of early morning or late afternoon. Often we are hunting for wildflowers on sunny days when the light can be harsh, flat, and contrasty.
Look again at the photo above. Notice the soft light on the the goldenrod is part of a shadow that extends beyond the flower. I am holding a scrim above the flower, a semi-transparent disc that diffuses the sun.
I carry several different sizes of diffusion discs when I am shooting, and this one is 30″ wide. It’s very effective lighting technique because it softens the flower while leaving the distance sunlit. For macro work, when that background is blurry and bright, the flower really stands out as a silhouette.
Same technique, now on Castilleja miniata – Great Red Paintbrush.
And shooting stars Primula jeffreyi.
Allowing the sunny area to be bright and overexposed, knowing the blur is a distant part of the meadow, helps create a sense of intimacy on the flower, an isolated scene and special moment in the tangle of plants.
The more time I spent on the ground, the more I began to find these moments, juxtaposing plants and looking through the grass, my camera a ground level probe.
Finally, when shooting wildflowers, there are times when you have to work in bright light. Try backlight.
If it is early morning and you are in a glistening meadow use the backlight, living in a fairytale.
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