Orchid Photography 101   Leave a comment

"Ice Harvest" A good photo can be both artful and documentary.

“Ice Harvest”
A good photo can be both artful and documentary.

Many folks in the past years have asked me how I take photos of orchids, what equipment I use, my techniques, etc.  In fact, I have written an article that was published by the International Phalaenopsis Alliance in their periodical (LINK HERE).  But for those of you without access to that, I thought I would present a short “how to” piece.

I will assume that you, the reader, are already familiar with the basic concepts and techniques of photography.  Subjects such as the relationship of F-stop to depth of field and shutter speed to F-stop, etc. have already been thoroughly covered ad infinitum, and without knowing these things, nothing I will tell you will improve your photos.  I recommend that everyone stop using the Automatic setting on their cameras and start learning.

"Volcano Queen" The use of lines can draw a viewer into the image, toward the subject.

“Volcano Queen”
The use of lines can draw a viewer into the image, toward the subject.

Orchid photography is basically portraiture or still life photography.  As such, the basic principles of portrait photography are very important to understand.  And the most important of these is lighting.  Light, after all, is the essence of photography.  An image is no more than the photons of that particular instant being laid down via a transducer (film or a sensor) into a permanent format.      Manipulation after the fact is difficult to do, and requires a tremendous amount of time and training, so creating the right image “in camera” is  essential to a great image.  What this translates into is this: a basic knowledge of how light behaves and how it interacts with your model is necessary.  There are several basic set ups for portrait photography, from simple photos that show the most basic elements of the subject (like a mug shot) to high-art productions that use multiple off-camera lights and multiple images to produce the kinds of photos one sees in a fashion magazine.

"Jason Fischer" Even portraits should be able to tell a story.  Leave room for your viewer's imagination.

“Jason Fischer”
Even portraits should be able to tell a story. Leave room for your viewer’s imagination.

First, let me say this plainly: “A flash is not necessary.”  The benefit of flash is that you aren’t a slave to the sun, control of the light is much more refined, and the high light levels available from the strobe allows handheld shooting without a tripod.  But using natural light is a perfectly reasonable technique.  It is how I started, and natural light does reproduce some colors better than flash.    However, it can limit your creativity.  You MUST use a tripod with natural light, as shutter speeds needed for adequate exposure fall very far short what is necessary for tack-sharp images (Remember, the rule for sharp photographs when shooting hand-held is that the shutter speed should be the inverse of the focal length of your lens.  An 80 mm lens should be shot no slower than 1/80, etc.).

There are 5-6 different “classic” lighting set ups for portraiture photography of people, and I invite you to examine all of them and try them out.  All have a few things in common.  Obviously there is at least one main light source, and this is called the “Key” light.  Any other light that falls on the subjective front of the subject is called “Fill” light.  Any other lights involved have specific uses, typically to highlight details or provide atmosphere.  Background lights and hair lights are types of these light sources.  The second commonality in these lighting set ups is directionality.  All position the key specifically to achieve certain effects.  Side lighting and Rembrandt lighting places the key to the side of the subject, and these positions offer a more dramatic image to the viewer by placing some areas of the subject in deep shadow while brightly highlighting others.  Butterfly lighting or Paramount lighting places the key light in front of the subject, sometimes directly on center.  Orchids come in many forms, and their 3-dimensional character is what makes them both so unique and sometimes difficult to photograph.  Translating this three dimensional nature onto a two dimensional image most often requires multiple light sources to allow the entire flower to be seen, and for details of substance and texture to be visualized.  In short, no single light set-up works for all orchids.

"Chilterns Hundreds" An example of a Rembrandt style of portraiture, using dramatic side lighting to emphasize the intense contrast between shadow and light .

“Chilterns Hundreds”
An example of a Rembrandt style of portraiture, using dramatic side lighting to emphasize the intense contrast between shadow and light .

I use 2 to 4 lights when I take my photos.  I position the key light slightly above and about 35-45 degrees in front of the subject.  I find this allows accurate depiction of a flower’s depth, as well as providing enough light to appreciate the overall shape of the subject.  I will use a second flash at 2-4 stops less than the main flash to provide fill light.  This light is most often positioned slightly below the subject and 20-30 degrees in front, opposite of the key.  I say “most often” because some orchids cannot be effectively photographed from the front.  Gongoras, Stanhopeas, and others of this section are best viewed 90 degrees from the front, and from slightly below.  Some orchids’ parts project in front or behind the frontal plane of the flower, and so require either additional fill light or different positioning of the primary fill.  I will use reflectors or flashes to provide additional fill.  Generally I place a fill light or reflector directly below the flower, and occasionally one at 90 degrees from the frontal plane.  These positions are effective at demonstrating the overall texture of the flower surface, especially those that are described as “crystalline” or “sparkling.”  I will almost always use a light 3-4 stops below the key flash, positioned 180 degrees opposite the key and projecting its light onto the back of the flower, to separate the flower’s edges from the background.  This type of light is especially good at emphasizing fimbriations or hairs, such as those on the edges of Paphiopedilum petals.

Untitled Lighting from behind highlights the hairs along this flower's petals.

Untitled
Lighting from behind highlights the hairs along this flower’s petals.

The quality of light must also be considered.  Hard light, such as unfiltered sunlight, produces edges that are sharp and shadows that are deep and strong.  For journalistic flower images such as award photos, this light is inappropriate.  I use this when I have a specific idea about the flower and something about that flower that demands dramatic portrayal.  But most often, the light should be bright and soft, such as that on an overcast day or in a very bright shadow.  I use a diffuser to produce this light.  A soft box with a strobe is my favorite diffuser, and it transforms a harsh flash into a broad and even light source that softens shadows while still accurately depicting a flower’s form.  I use a portable soft box designed for strobes, as I do not want to invest in or cart around a large studio lighting system.

"Light Touch" Very intense back lighting against a white background can produce very dramatic high key images.

“Light Touch”
Very intense back lighting against a white background can produce very dramatic high key images.

Another aspect of light quality is color temperature.  Adjust your camera to the light you are using for the image.  This means ALL of the light sources at the time the image is made.  I say this because rarely is one shooting in a darkened room with no other light source that the flash.  Flash and typical room lighting have different color temperatures, and adjusting for one while ignoring the other can lead to problems with the colors you are trying to depict.  A white card or grey card is incredibly helpful, and I don’t shoot without one.  With this tool, it is easy (or at least easier) to adjust colors in post-processing to the true representation of the subject.

"Tsiku Taiwan"   Groups of three work very well, as do groups of 2, or 5, or even 7.

“Tsiku Taiwan”
Groups of three work very well, as do groups of 2, or 5, or even 7.

The part of the image behind the subject and out of focus is called the bokeh (say “BO-kay”), and can complement or compete with your subject. Backgrounds for portraiture should not be too complex.  Fantastic patterns and mixed colors will contend with the subject, and at worst can draw attention completely away from the flower, even if they are significantly blurred.  I prefer neutral colors, darker than the subject, and of even color.  A piece of black velvet is my favorite background.  A black background defines the flower very well, and velvet generally collects all errant light making a perfect black.  I will occasionally use a background of a complementary color to the flower (red flowers on a light green or grey-green background, for instance) but I prefer to keep these colors very muted.  This is most often helpful with exceedingly dark flowers.  I have been experimenting with a pure white background, created with strobes projecting through a sheet of translucent white acrylic.  I have also created some of my own backgrounds of many colors using a piece of foam board and spray paint applied randomly.    Beware of putting the subject too close to the background!  Often orchids must be shot at a very small aperture (a high f-stop) to ensure a great enough depth of field to put the entire flower into focus.  Imperfections in your background, like pieces of hair and lint, become glaringly obvious in a larger image, and removing them from an image in post takes a great deal of time and effort.   I try to remove any “hardware” from the scene, like flower stakes or hangers, as well as lint or dust from the flowers themselves, but sometimes this is impossible without damaging or significantly altering the subject.

"Simplicity" An example of a homemade background.  I used a piece of foam board and randomly applied spray paint.

“Simplicity”
An example of a homemade background. I used a piece of foam board and randomly applied spray paint.

Composition is a huge subject, and again something you should be familiar with at the basic level.  But I can offer a few tips to help.  Be aware of the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Section, and use them to add visual interest to an image.  Understand the importance of lines in your image, and use them to draw a viewer into the scene rather than lead them out.  Small identical subjects provide the most visual attraction when presented in groups of prime numbers.  Pay attention to the empty space as much as the subject.

Framing the subject appropriately is important as well.  Always check the edges of the frame to insure the main subject isn’t cut off.  Stray leaves or objects protruding into the field will prove to be distracting.  Objects or reflections that cross through the frame will form lines and draw the eye away from the subject.  These may seem like small annoyances at the time, but they can ruin an otherwise perfect photo.  Framing can also help your image tell the story you wish to show the viewer.  A portrait of an entire inflorescence tells a much different story than a close-up of a single flower.  It is up to you to find the best pose for your subject, but a general rule to follow is try to find at least 5-10 different ways to take the photo.  When I don’t do this, I often find myself wishing that I had taken one more series of shots of a pose that I didn’t even think of until much later.  The best thing one can do is get it right the first time.

"Magic Bell" Hard light emphasizes edges and shadows.

“Magic Bell”
Hard light emphasizes edges and shadows.

Post-processing is the act of digitally altering an image directly from your camera with software like Photoshop or Lightroom.  Most images need some degree of sharpening – sensors have not advanced enough to record individual photons.  Some adjustments to exposure and contrast may also be helpful.   Everyone develops a different work flow, but it is important that yours be smooth.  Repetitive actions used on multiple images can be scripted and automated with some software, and this is extremely helpful when processing many images.  The best piece of advice I can give you about post-processing is “less is more”.  Strive to create the perfect exposure and composition when you are taking the image!  If you do this, you may only have to sharpen your images to finish them.

My last piece of advice is simple.  If you want to be a better photographer, then take more photos.  There is no substitute for actual experience.  Don’t be upset when you make a mistake; it is a way to reinforce a lesson learned.  I have had many moments where I realized what I did wrong after the fact, and experiencing these problems first hand prevents me from doing so again.  Look for the opportunity to shoot, even if conditions don’t seem perfect or even right at all.  Force yourself to use your camera’s functions as the tools to overcome photographic problems.  You will be rewarded with some fantastic images that are unique to you alone.  I hope this helps!

Lake Harbor 'Marvelous' Soft light of adequate intensity can make even a dark subject pop on a black background.  Rear lighting also separates a subject from the background.

Lake Harbor ‘Marvelous’
Soft light of adequate intensity can make even a dark subject pop on a black background. Rear lighting also separates a subject from the background.

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Posted October 23, 2015 by brianmonk in Orchid Photography

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