Hybrid Camelia

It’s that time of year when colorful summer flowers are everywhere. A great time to get out and enjoy mother nature, and a most excellent time to put a macro lens on your camera.

A macro lens allows you to get close to the subject. Getting close means the photographer can see small details, fine textures and slight gradations in color that are not obvious to the casual observer. With that macro lens, we can capture another level of visual information. How are we going to use that additional information?

In the universe of photography, as in most art forms, one of the things that separates amateurs from artists is subtlety. If we are going to use that term to describe our work, it’s best to be perfectly clear about what we mean, and how the word is used in this context.

Subtle is a word that can be an adjective, an adverb or a noun. For our purposes, it means small details that are important, but not obvious. It’s about precise little details that are both delicate and elusive. They live at the edge of conscious perception. Those fine details don’t have much meaning individually, but their effect is cumulative. We see the effect, but it registers mostly in the unconscious. What’s going on below the surface is what shapes conscious perception.

When photographing and processing flowers or other botanicals I try to look for those little things that will make the image more appealing. Imagine you’re out in a garden and find some brilliant red flowers, probably a hybrid where generations of gardeners have crossed and recrossed different cultivars to produce the beautiful red coloration we see today. You setup and take your photograph, and later process it. It’s so easy to push that saturation slider in Photoshop and max out that red. That approach comes with a high cost. What’s lost is the fine detail. The color is bright, but it’s also flat.

The exotic blue orchid, Vanda tessellata

Another approach is to bring out as much of the texture and subtle gradations as possible. It takes more time to carefully work the contrast levels to bring out the texture of the flower’s petals. It almost always means turning down the luminosity, and sometimes saturation as well. It’s not about levels, it’s about balance. The warm reds blend into the cool reds smoothly, the shadows look transparent. The fine texture becomes more apparent.

If you’re photographing a purple flower against a green background, you know instinctively those colors are going to clash. When that happens, the image can look childish. To get the blues and purples to pop, it helps to pull some luminosity and saturation out of the background greens. One trick I sometimes use is to adjust the contrast curve on the green channel only. Normally curve adjustments are used to increase and fine tune contrast. But you can also use a reverse curve to lower the contrast. And you can limit the adjustment to the lighter or darker part of the channel. Then the highly saturated color of the flower will pop like crazy. Maximizing the bokeh effect of that expensive lens.

It’s about focusing the viewer’s attention where you want it, getting them immersed in the image.

Everybody has their own way of doing things. Their own artistic vision. But I find that if it was worth making a trip, lugging around cameras and lenses, tripods and filters, and spending hours out in the sun setting up a shot, it’s worth spending some extra time processing the resulting images. The first thing you see is a brightly colored flower on a sunny summer day, but when you look deeper, there will be a lot of subtle things going on within that image. A lot of that information will not be obvious when you first look at the raw file. It’s the photographer’s responsibility to use those subtle colors and textures to get the most out of the image. When your investment in time pays off, you’re going to be a happy camper. That image is going to “feel” more like real life. That’s what it’s all about. At least for me.


Quote of the Day
“Botany,—the science of the vegetable kingdom, is one of the most attractive, most useful, and most extensive departments of human knowledge. It is, above every other, the science of beauty.”

Sir Joseph Paxton