Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Photographing wild orchids


It's all too easy to be lulled into thinking that you have to travel the earth got get interesting photographs. For me, one of the joys of photography is that there vast array of subject matter on my doorstep. All one needs is a bit of imagination and a sense of adventure.

For instance, Anthony and I were on the North Downs in Kent yesterday evening photographing monkey orchid. As well as proving interesting subjects, the peace and tranquillity in the countryside at that time of day proved a real tonic after a hectic day at work. 

In contrast to this, we will be at the Folkestone Air Show on Saturday, with as much noise and raw power that one could want. Totally disparate subjects and environments with entirely different photographic techniques required - a challenge that we both enjoy!

My nature photography journey

I've been interested in nature from a very young age, with a particular fascination for birds. Seasonal, gender and age variation together with migration meaning that there's always something interesting around at any time of the year. I have been photographing birds seriously for about eight years now and last year I diversified and developed a passion for wild orchids. Living in Kent gives me lots of opportunities to capture images of these as there are a number of excellent sites in the county.

My bird photography is characterised by paying very careful attention to the background (diffuse but complementary) as well as rendering the main subject sharp, and my approach to photographing orchids follows the same principles. The advantage with orchids is that they don't fly away; the disadvantage is that they are static and can't 'pose' for you. So it's all about lighting and composition.

I very much like to photography butterflies but numbers are very low this year, I guess in part due to the very wet April.

My approach to photographing orchids

Everyone has their own approach and there's no right or wrong way; that said, some work better than others. Here's a quick check-list:

  • Do some research to estimate the best time of year to go for your target species. Some will only be in flower for a couple of weeks and this period will vary from year to year depending on how warm/wet the spring has been
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast and plan your trip for when there will be light winds - ideally less than 5mph - you may think the flower head is not moving but it's the biggest factor leading to blurred images
  • Avoid bright sunny days as there is likely to be too much contrast to capture the subtlety of the flowers effectively
    • For the two previous reasons I prefer the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset to maximise my chances
  • Equipment wise, an SLR/macro lens combination is preferred. However, any lens with a focal length above 200mm can give good results. A tripod and/or a large beanbag is a must, as is a reflector to push light under your subject when doing close-up shots (don't underestimate the value of these simple props)
  • Technically, I use mirror-lock-up in combination with a 2-second timer delay (although many people prefer using cable release)
  • I shoot in aperture priority mode, with apertures ranging from f/4 for the whole flower to f/16 for close-ups
  • It's then a case of composition and execution - carefully checking exposure, focusing and keeping those backgrounds nice and uncluttered!
  • Start wide and work in close - see the examples and comments below
Monkey orchid in their natural environment. Early morning dew still heavy on the vegetation. Note the different shapes and heights. For single flower and close-ups pick a good specimen!

Single flower in its environment. This was taken in direct sunlight - note the high-contrast effect which  is a bit heavy for my taste
Getting in a bit closer now and depth-of-field is much narrower. I like this representation as it focuses the eye on the orchid flower and stem, with a subtle, complementary background melting away
Just the 'flower spike' lots of detail becoming apparent now, with the individual 'monkeys' clearly recognisable. The background is complete mush but a very natural colour!
A single 'monkey'. You really need a macro lens to get in this close.
If you have never photographed wild orchids before I'd recommend you give it a try. You won't get it right first time but you'll start on a journey that is not only fun but it will seriously hone your photographic skills

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