Words and Images Angelika Stehle
Take a closer look at familiar plants, flowers growing in the average back garden, or anything you can buy in a simple flower shop, and you'll discover new dimensions of beauty. Fascinating detail can be captured easily with the use of a macro lens that allows you to focus up closely and produce almost life-size images. Macro lenses come in different focal length groups such as 50mm, 85-100mm and 200mm, depending on the required camera-to-subject distance, and 50mm is ideal for macro plant photography. That's when you use traditional SLR cameras. But these days, macro photography is made even easier by the use of digital cameras. Some have a built-in macro option, on others you can put a big macro lens on the camera body, and even compact SLRs accept one or more close-up lenses mounted to the normal lens or a lens adapter.
The main artistic aspect of close up photography is controlling depth-of-field. Varying it can mean, for instance, lifting stamens and pistils out of a surrounding blossom or, on the other hand, deciding that the entire blossom should be pin-sharp while the background has been beautifully thrown out of focus. Macro lenses are built with apertures as small as f/32 or even f/45. As a basic rule, the smaller the aperture, the more of the subject will be sharp, and vice versa. Also, the smaller the aperture, the longer the required shutter speed. The use of a monopod or tripod is therefore advantageous, as even the slightest movement will be magnified. Some tripods have a centre column that can be used in reverse to get close to the ground with the camera, which makes great perspectives possible. With SLRs, I normally use 1/60sec or 1/125sec for outdoor close-ups, leaving speeds as slow as 1/8second for studio experiments. A digital camera can be set to Manual, that's where you get the best results with macro distances, and that's how you can control depth of field most effectively.
Another factor that can completely change the character of an image is lighting. While full sunlight would blur the desirable details in an object, slightly overcast conditions will bring them out beautifully and will also make the colours appear more vibrant. Partial or full back-light can be used to create interesting effects. It can change the colour of foreground and/or background, or it may create a silhouette of the object, and it might cause a rim light to appear around the edges. Indoors the amount of lighting possibilities increases due to artificial lighting and being able to influence intensity, direction and colour of your light sources. Experimenting freely can lead to surprising results. Digital photography gives you the added option of easily manipulating your photos on the computer, using a program such as Photoshop or Photo Filtre Studio or Photo Impact etc.
What I look out for first, outdoors, or arrange accordingly indoors, is an attractive plant or flower positioned in such a way so that I can get close to it, walk around it and choose effective viewpoints from various angles, high and low. The goal is to highlight interesting details unique to that plant and if possible from an angle not previously explored by others. Foreground and background may need to be adjusted by carefully holding anything disturbing out of the way, possibly using sticky tape or clothes pegs. An unacceptable background can either be thrown out of focus or be replaced by an artificial background, especially if a colour contrast is desirable.
Windy weather conditions are not ideal but can be overcome using wire to fix the stem of a flower, or by shielding the object, but you'll still have to wait for a calm moment. Evenings have great advantages light-wise, but early morning risers will find soft light, plus the bonus of morning dew which makes for an attractive freshness in the images.
A look through the viewfinder or on the screen of your digital camera opens up a new world of fascinating details. All of a sudden you notice how delicate flowers are; how elegant their dainty shapes; how exquisite their petals. Only now you note the curls and frills, the graceful little tubes, flutes, cups, the colourful ornamentations, the variety in textures. Photography helps you to learn to SEE. And there are hidden secrets behind what we perceive as the colour of a flower: sometimes it's a pure and even colour, while with other blossoms there are hues and effects caused by unexpected patterns. And various light and weather conditions will bring about a change of impression and mood.
A point of focus
The main focus will usually be on a blossom's stamens and pistils for best results, but also the petals, stems and leaves are interesting. (Here it is important to have full control over your camera's focusing system, for best results check the instruction booklet that your camera came with, often it is best to focus manually when on close quarters with what you are photographing.) Later in the year, the seed vessels are worth pursuing, and not only their shapes and textures but also their different methods of dispensing their contents are intriguing. When it comes to magnifying very small details, an extension tube in addition to your macro lens may be helpful, depending on your camera model, but at the same time it will call for an adjustment in exposure to make up for the reduction of light, but your camera's automatic metering may compensate.
Mastering the macro techniques, your urge to discover more might well take you into the world of insects or other small animals that can be found visiting plants. The miniature world has opened up to you.
Anemone Coronaria, inside shot, 1/15sec at f/5.6
Gerbera, inside shot, 1/15sec at f/5.6
Peonies, outside shot, 1/125sec atf/8
Red Clover, inside shot, 1/30sec at f/8
Rose, inside shot, 1/15sec at f/8
About the author
Angelika (Angie) Stehle is a freelance nature photographer specialising in plant photography. Born and raised in Germany, but based in Ireland and having travelled parts of Europe, Angie concentrates mainly on European fauna and flora. Her work has appeared in magazines, on greetings cards, in newspapers, in tourist literature, and on the Internet.
For more information contact Angelika (Angie) by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or tel/fax no. +353 (0) 404 44569 (Irish time). Website: beautifulart.page.tl