Spider Chrysanthemum

White chrysanthemum

White chrysanthemum

Fall officially started last month, and I haven’t had much time to write anything for Focal Plane since the end of summer. Actually, not having the time isn’t quite true. My time has been spent in other ways, including doing quite a bit of nothing. I suppose most people feel overwhelmed occasionally. I sometimes find that when I have too much to do, it’s easier to just put it all out of my mind and do nothing. Plus, I’ve been sick with the flu for about a week and a half and just haven’t had the mental energy to think, let alone write coherently.

Well, the rainy weather has finally let up and the flu bugs have left me for another home, so I’ve finally had some time to go back through my photographs for some ideas to jump-start some new art and writing projects. Sometimes you just have to go through the motions even if you don’t feel inspired, you know? The physical work of typing sometimes is enough to get ideas moving. Not flowing, exactly: just sort of creaking along at a glacier’s pace. But that can be enough. Even a slow-moving glacier eventually carves out the whole valley! Anyway, on to the featured picture.

This spider chrysanthemum was one of the first studio photos I took. It’s lit by professional overhead lighting, but a single strong light source at least three or four feet overhead would give a very similar look. If you want to replicate the lighting, make sure you only have one light source: all windows and doors should be shut or covered, and any other lights turned off. You will still need the flash on your camera to help bring out the detail in the petals. This technique is called fill flash, because you use the flash to help fill in the details in the darker parts of the scene. If you don’t use a flash, the upper part of the flower will be lit but the lower part will be too shadowy for you to see detail, and you can’t coax them out in a photo editing program, either, because they won’t be there. The detail has to be there when you take the picture. Start with a good photo before you try to do photo editing. Remember: garbage in, garbage out.

Here, the flower is simply resting on its side on a black cloth, and the camera is placed level with the table about three feet away. I don’t remember the lens I used, but it was most likely in the 75mm range. If you have a macro lens, this is the place to use it. See how the pressure of the flower resting on the table creates an almost triangular shape to the flower? Notice how the contrast of the petals at the top (which are fanned out so nicely) with the petals at the bottom (which are pressed together) creates a dynamism to the photo. There isn’t the traditional symmetry here that you would expect from a straightforward flower shot.

When you’re photographing familiar objects, try placing them in unusual positions. Most people would expect a flower in a vase, photographed from the side. But a head-on shot of a flower gives a whole different image, and placing the flower so that light and shadow give it an unusual shape adds another dimension to the image. It’s this play of light and shadow that gives the photograph its appeal, so don’t be afraid to try unusual settings for your subjects.


Crocus in the Rain

Crocus after a rainstorm. Focal length: 75 mm at f-16.

Crocus are wonderful little flowers, and are always the first flowers to bloom in our yard in the spring. A couple of years ago I bought a bargain bag of 100 assorted crocus bulbs and planted them along my sidewalk and in a small garden next to the house. These crocus are from that bargain bag.

The difficulty with photographing crocus flowers is that they are very short. It’s relatively easy to stand and shoot down at them, and the overhead view is good for showing the internal structures of the flower, but I think that the overhead shots aren’t always very artistic, even when the details of the flower are crisp and clear.

This year spring has been very fickle. Today we’ve had snow, sun, and more snow flurries — and it’s April already. I would have run outside to photograph the crocus in the snow, except that the little flowers have come and gone already. A couple of days of very warm weather followed by freezing temperatures did them all in. Crocus don’t last very long anyways, but this year they were out only about a week. This photo is from Thursday a couple of weeks ago. It had rained most of the day and was fairly chilly, so the crocus didn’t even bother to open up that day (they need both sun and warm weather to open).

I haven’t done a lot of work with flash photography, but the instant feedback of the digital camera and its built-in flash make it very easy to experiment with different exposures and f-stops. I took some photos without the flash, but had to use a longer exposure time to compensate for the overcast weather. Because I was hand-holding the camera, those images weren’t as sharp as I wanted, or else I had to open up the aperture to get the speed fast enough to get a sharp image. Bad combination: not enough detail or too dark or fuzzy. But I was too lazy to go inside for the tripod, and even with the tripod getting down low enough for the crocus is a problem.

Using the flash allowed me to crouch down close to the flower and hand-hold the camera, keep a good depth-of-field (f/16) to get maximum detail on the crocuses, and get a sharp image. My first shot was a bit overexposed (too much flash), so I adjusted settings to get approximately 1/3 power from the flash. This gave me the best exposure: the raindrops glisten and are crystal sharp, the color on the flowers and surrounding grass are correct, and there is enough visual texture in the photo to get a really good feel for what the little crocus look like.

Pink Water Lily Close-up

Pink Lily Close-up

This close-up image of a pink water lily came about more or less by accident, rather than direct intent. We had gone out to a public garden to photograph water lilies, but there were a lot of leaves and other debris floating on the surface of the water. Faded blossoms from other plants, as well as torn and pockmarked lily pads, didn’t exactly help promote the site, either. While the garden would have been okay for a snapshot, trying to find a subject suitable for fine-art photography in this mess was a bit of a problem.

Since there was no “landscape” as such to photograph, and the water garden area wasn’t clean, I abandoned the idea of getting an entire flower in the frame. Sometimes leaves and twigs can add to an image, but there just wasn’t much of a subject here. I decided to try and get some close-ups of the flowers and to direct my energies to the details of the flowers, rather than the whole flower.

This image has a slightly soft focus, which some photographers might not like. I don’t remember the aperture settings, but this was likely shot with Velvia film which has a film speed of 50. Velvia is a nice film for plants and renders wonderful greens, but it is slow enough that you will need a tripod. I probably ended up with the soft focus because I got lazy about carrying around a 10-pound tripod and tried to hand-hold the camera. It didn’t help that much of the water garden was in partial shade, so a longer exposure was necessary.

Technicalities aside, I’m pleased with the final image. I like the asymmetrical shape that is formed by having the center of the flower at the left side of the image, while the petals reach up to the right edge of the photo. This creates a more dynamic image than if I had centered the flower in the frame. What do you think?

Edit: June 16, 2009: This image is available for sale on my FineArt America page. Click on the ad below to go to the site.
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