Photographing Wildflowers & Closeups

The following article is a rewritten version of the wildflower photography chapter from my book Wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians. I wrote that book in 1995, long before I had any inkling that one day I would own a digital camera. Although much has changed regarding the equipment side of photographing wildflowers, the application of proper technique remains the same. And no matter what changes lie ahead, no camera will ever remove personal creative vision from the photographic equation. I've updated this article to suit our modern digital cameras and accessories, but remember, the camera does not take the photo. You do.

With digital cameras come opportunities to explore our creative vision in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Multiple exposures, stacked images, infrared photography, and numerous other special techniques are as easy to accomplish with a digital camera as it is to load a roll of film in a film camera. These creative photographic techniques are not included in this article. This is more of a meat and potatoes introduction to making closeup and wildflower photographs. I plan to add a separate page that addresses special digital techniques later.

Many of the concepts discussed here are not specific to wildflowers and close up photography. Composition, lighting, good technique, exposure, and quality equipment are important in all types of photography.

With all the workshops, photo tours, books, and magazine articles pertaining to wildflower photography, you would think that photographing them would be easy to learn. Yet many photographers have a difficult time interpreting what they see and translating it into a photo. Beginning photographers, especially, seem to have trouble with the whole process of closeup photography. Part of the problem may be that there is too much information, rather than too little. Camera stores and manufacturers bombard us with claims that their gear is ideally suited to the task. Also, many books and magazine articles only list the various methods and types of gear available without explaining fully why the photographer should use one over the other. I think it's best to identify what works, explain how to use it, and forget everything else.

Once you finish reading this article, you should realize that with proper technique and a few simple pieces of gear, you could handle the majority of your closeup requirements. In fact, you should understand that proper technique, not equipment, is the most important factor in any type of photography, including wildflowers.

Cameras For Photographing Wildflowers

Function, adaptability, convenience, portability, cost, and image quality are the factors to consider when purchasing a camera. For wildflowers, the Single Lens Reflex (SLR) wins easily in all the above categories. People often ask what brand of camera I use. Well, it doesn't really matter because the answer has little to do with the quality of the photos. That has to do with technique. All the major brands of cameras work just fine, but if you are just starting out, I recommend either Canon or Nikon because of the excellent selection of lenses and accessories available for them. And since both companies are competing feverishly for the same market, you can count on them offering new and better photography equipment on a regular basis. Listed below are the important features to look for when purchasing a camera for photographing wildflowers. Every mid-range and top-of-the-line camera from both Canon and Nikon will have all the features you need for close up photography. Listed below are a few of the features that I use regularly for wildflowers.


—Automatic Exposure Override

Having manual control over the exposure is often critical in any type of photography. Make sure the camera you purchase has a manual-exposure control, or at the very least, an exposure compensation dial.


The depth-of-field-preview feature permits you to view the depth of field by manually closing the lens to the shooting aperture. This allows you to see what is in focus, and how distracting the background may be. Many photographers complain that they cannot easily see what is in focus when pressing the preview button because the image is too dark. I have this problem too, but I use the preview mainly to determine what the background looks like. For wildflowers, a depth-of-field preview is indispensable.

—Mirror Lock

At the instant you click the shutter on most cameras, the mirror, which directs light to the viewfinder, moves up out of the way to allow light to reach the film. Because it must move very quickly, it slaps against the top of the camera, increasing the possibility of vibrations. These vibrations are most evident with shutter speeds ranging from 1/4 to 1/30 of a second, and they are especially noticeable when using high magnifications. A mirror lock allows you to move the mirror up manually before releasing the shutter, eliminating the possibility of a blurred picture from mirror slap. Some of the newer cameras have special dampening devices designed to lessen the vibration, but despite claims to the contrary, they have not totally eliminated the problem.

—Live View

I've heard professional photographers make fun of the live view feature on digital cameras. Why not just look through the viewfinder, they ask. Well, that's fine and dandy if the viewfinder is anywhere from one to 5 feet off the ground. But what do you do if you set up the camera inches above the ground so you can get a unique angle on a plant? You could use an accessory called a right-angle finder, but these are expensive and a pain to use. If your camera has live view, you're all set. You can view the composition and focus on the back of the camera, without having to look through the viewfinder.

Tripods For Wildflower Photography

A sturdy tripod is necessary for quality results in most photographic situations and essential in close up photography. Photographers often say they don't like tripods because they are heavy and bulky. If weight or extra baggage concerns you, then go ahead and leave the tripod behind, or carry a small, lightweight model. Just don't plan to come back with any good wildflower photos.


A tripod allows you to fine-tune the image by carefully examining the scene for composition. You can look at the edges of the frame to make sure there are no distracting elements jutting in. It encourages you to slow down and take a careful, studied approach-the only way to make beautiful photographs consistently. And, of course, it allows you to use slow shutter speeds. Another advantage is that on windy days you can get all your gear set up and at the instant the wind calms you're ready to fire the shutter. None of this is possible when handholding the camera.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because you are using a tripod that your pictures will be sharp. A sturdy tripod used incorrectly is worse than a cheap model used properly. There is no substitute for good technique. Always extend the larger leg section first, as it is sturdier, and make sure to tighten the knobs. Firmly seat all three legs in the ground. Make sure they are not bouncing on top of spongy soil. A trick I use is to leave the smallest leg section extended a couple of inches so it will more thoroughly seat itself in the ground. A good test is to tap the tripod while looking through the viewfinder. If the scene dances wildly, the tripod is not stable enough.

Regardless of which tripod you buy, look for these features. First, make sure that it will extend to your viewing level while standing. You won't be shooting many wildflowers this way, but for other photography it will save your back a lot of pain. On the flip side, an extremely important consideration is how low to the ground it will go. All else being equal, choose the model that sets up the lowest, which means you will not be buying one with braces extending from the center post.

One problem you'll run into is that when you attempt to set up the tripod low to the ground, the center post gets in the way. Either saw it off or buy a short center post to fit your tripod. Most manufacturers offer a short post for all their models. On some Bogen/Manfrotto models, the short post is included as an integral part of the regular center post. If anybody tells you that to shoot low to the ground you should simply reverse the center post, politely disregard the statement because that person obviously has little experience shooting closeups. Houdini could not contort his body to photograph that way on a regular basis.

Just as important as the tripod is the head to go with it. A cheap head, as with a cheap tripod, means poor results on film. Without question my first choice in heads are ballheads, as opposed to the pan-tilt type. The pan-tilt heads are just too bulky and cumbersome to work with, and they're ridiculously slow to use.


You're going to need some type of quick-release system that allows you to mount the camera on and off the tripod quickly. Trust me, you need it. The Bogen/Manfrotto heads come with a hex-plate system that is okay, but I much prefer the dovetail system that is standard with the Arca-Swiss-style heads. You can buy a dovetail clamp and mount it on a Bogen head if you like.

Other Methods Of Camera Support

When you need to set up the camera at ground level, you probably won't be using the tripod in the normal fashion because it won't set up that low. Even with a tripod like Gitzo, which sets up flat on the ground, you still have to account for the height of the ball head. As stated earlier, reversing a tripod's center post is not an option either. The camera must remain in an upright position. So what's the answer? Among devices some photographers use for low-level work are bean bags, platform pods (a piece of 3/4" plywood with a tripod head bolted to it), and a rolled up jacket. Each of these has drawbacks. One good option is to Bogen/Manfrotto Super Clamp attached to one leg of the tripod. The Super Clamp is a heavy-duty device that clamps on just about anything up to 2" thick and has various studs to which a ball head is attached.

To use the clamp, first roughly determine the camera position needed and set up the tripod so that one leg extends into this area. Then clamp the Super Clamp onto this leg. Those of you who have tape or foam padding attached to all three legs will have to remove this from one of the legs. Now take the head off the tripod, attach it to the Super Clamp, and begin the slow, careful process of composing the photograph.

This set up works beautifully in most low-level situations you'll encounter. Furthermore, it permits photography in one other situation that defies conventional methods: When the camera needs to be positioned very close to a steep bank or rock wall. plant two tripod legs on the ground and extend the third horizontally against the bank. The Super Clamp is then attached to this horizontal leg at any point along its length.

When I only need to setup a little lower than the tripod splays, I simply flop the ball head into the vertical slot. Since my main closeup lens has a tripod collars, I can shoot either verticals or horizontals from this position.

Filters For Wildflower Photographs

Since I switched to digital capture, I regularly use only two filters in my photography, the polarizing filter and the graduated neutral-density filter. Most other filter effects I need are handled with greater precision in the computer. The graduated neutral-density filter is used mostly for scenics. The polarizer, although it does a great job of saturating foliage, cuts out roughly two stops of light, which is unacceptable for most close-up photography. Still, whenever the wind is calm, I always check to see how the polarizer affects the image. The filter works wonders to remove distracting glare from foliage and to saturate the colors. And despite what others may tell you, it is impossible to duplicate this effect in Photoshop


Image Magnification

Throughout this article, I speak of image size and the implications of shooting at a given magnification. In photography, image size refers to the size of the subject on the sensor, relative to its size in reality. When this size is equal, the image is said to be "life size," or 1X. Full-frame digital sensors are roughly 1 x 1 1/2 inches. If you photograph a subject that is this size so that it fills the sensor from edge to edge, then you're shooting at 1X. If that subject only fills half the frame, then you're shooting at 1/2X, and if only half the subject fills the entire frame, you're shooting at 2X.

If this is confusingto you, don't feel bad. You don't really need to know the exact magnification you're shooting at except for specialized applications. Even in an identification guidebook, it is usually less confusing to give the size of the plant, instead of the illustration's image size. However, you should have a basic understanding of the principles. It's usually useful to relate to real-life objects. If you photograph my old Wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians book so that it fills the frame, you are shooting at roughly 1/7X magnification. A credit card requires not quite 1/2X and Washington's portrait on a dollar bill is about 1X. These examples are for a full frame sensor. Most digital cameras have smaller sensors that effectively magnify the image more than a full frame camera. The principle remains the same, though. Regardless of the sensor size, if you photograph a subject so that it fills the sensor from edge to edge, you're shooting that subject at life size, or 1X.

So how does this apply to wildflowers? Truth is, you don't need to know the magnification you're shooting with unless you are working on scientific project. You just need to know that your equipment will give you the magnification you want. So use the examples above to give you some sort of an idea to apply to the equipment discussion below. For instance, if you rarely shoot subjects the size of George Washington's head on a dollar bill, you don't need to concern yourself with the methods of achieving life-size images.

Using Accessories For Higher Magnification

Many lenses, such as the 70-300mm and 80-200mm zoom lenses will focus down to about 1/8X magnification all by themselves, and many have a built-in macro feature that takes them down to 1/4X or even 1/3X. This range will easily handle portrait photos of the larger wildflowers like Turk's cap lilies and trillium, but when you photograph smaller species, or want to get closer to the larger ones, you need a different lens or one of the accessories listed below.


Extension Tubes

Any time you extend a lens's elements farther from the film plane, the lens will focus closer. Whether that extension comes from the lens's built-in focusing device or from a set of add-on extension tubes, the result is the same: closer focusing ability. Extension tubes are nothing more than a hollow, mechanical linkage added between the lens and camera to permit closer focusing. Two big drawbacks to extension tubes are that they add a wobbly connection between the lens and camera, and they reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. The more the extension, the more light it costs. You'll need extension tubes in only a few situations. I'll discuss each in the lens section.

To determine the amount of magnification obtained with extension tubes, simply divide the amount of extension into the focal length of the lens while focused at infinity. For instance, if you add a 50mm extension tube to a 100mm lens, you are automatically at 1/2X when focused at infinity.


A teleconverter, or multiplier as it is sometimes called, is typically used to make long lenses longer (increase the focal length), but it can be used effectively for closeups as well. Consider that a teleconverter has the unique ability to multiply whatever you place in front of it. If you place a 1.4X teleconverter behind a 300mm lens, focused at infinity, the result is an effective 420mm lens. However, if you first add an accessory to make that 300mm focus at say 1X, then when you add the teleconverter you will be shooting at an effective 1.4X magnification. As with extension tubes, you do lose light. A 1.4X teleconverter costs one stop, while the 2X converter costs two stops. Two stops are often too much to lose so you may want to stick with the 1.4X types.

Supplementary Lenses

If your camera salesperson knows you enjoy photographing closeups, he or she has probably tried to sell you a set of cheap, single-element closeup lenses, or diopters. The +1, +2, and +3 closeup diopters usually come in a set of 3 and work just like a filter. If the sales pitch worked, and you bought any of these, immediately go to the nearest hardware store and buy a 2-pound sledgehammer. Take this hammer and smash these diopters into dust before you accidentally place one on your lens. Now go back to the camera store and purchase a quality, two-element closeup lens such as those made by Nikon and Canon. These lenses screw onto any brand lens just like a filter and give you instant magnification with almost no loss of light. Furthermore, the quality is superb, and the cost is not much more than the cheap diopters. Several manufacturers make two-element closeup lenses but Nikon's and Canon's are the easiest to find. Nikon calls them 3T, 4T, 5T, and 6T. The 3T and 4T are 52mm in filter size and the 5T and 6T are 62mm in filter size. The 3T and 5T are the weaker of the two available strengths, while the 4T and 6T yield more magnification. If you buy only one, I recommend the 5T. You can use step rings on lenses with different filter threads. The closeup lens I use most often is the Canon 500D, which has a filter thread size of 77mm. Remember, these closeup lenses operate just like filters, so you can use them on any brand of lens.


That's it. These three accessories, and the lenses to go with them, are all you should need to get the magnification needed for photographing wildflowers. So what about all that other stuff you hear or read about? What about bellows, reversing rings, and stacking lenses? What about macro converters, enlarging lenses, and short-mount lenses? Well, in certain circumstances-notably studio work with extreme magnifications-they may be OK, but for general field work they are just not practicable. Concentrate on what works and forget everything else.

Lenses For Wildflower Photography & Making Them Focus Closer

—Wide-Angle Lenses

The classic lens choice for scenics is the wide-angle lens. It works well when you want to photograph an entire field or meadow of flowers because the great depth-of field allows you to keep everything in focus. Although the southern Appalachians do not have the sweeping fields of wildflowers that are common in other parts of the country, there are a few instances when a wide-angle lens will be useful for wildflower photography. Often, trilliums grow in such abundance, and over such a large area, that a wide-angle is the only way to capture the scene. The same is often true with goldenrods, buttercups, and fringed phacelia, among others.

When I photograph such a scene, or any wide-angle scene for that matter, I rarely focus by looking through the camera. I use the depth-of-field scales on the lens barrel. If you are not familiar with this technique, ask your camera salesperson or workshop instructor to demonstrate it for you. I always hedge my bet a bit by choosing the next smallest aperture than recommended by the scales. If you use a wide-angle zoom lens, it may not have a depth-of-field scale. That is one reason to use fixed-focal-length wide-angles. Other reasons include the fact that the front element of a fixed-focal-length lens does not rotate like most zoom lenses do (a decided advantage when using polarizing or split neutral density filters), there is less likelihood of flare due to fewer elements, and the closest focusing distance is shorter. Still, even with these advantages, I can't remember the last time I shot a photo with a fixed-focal-length lens.


Remember the discussion about how to determine the magnification when using extension tubes? The formula is focal length divided by extension equals magnification. So you would think that a great way to achieve a lot of magnification would simply be to add an extension tube to a wide-angle lens. After all, with only 28mm of extension on a 28mm lens you're at 1X. The problem is that with wide-angle lenses you have very little working distance. Life-size on a 28mm lens puts the lens about 3/4-inch from the subject; not an insurmountable problem when photographing in a studio, but try that with a dew-covered daisy. Not to mention the problems you'll encounter when photographing a bee on a daisy. Also, a wide-angle lens' angle of view is too great for standard closeups. You need to narrow the background coverage to give that simplified poster look.

The time to use an extension tube on a wide-angle lens is when you want to get extremely close to a wildflower (or any object), while also showing an expansive background. One possible scenario would be isolating a single blossom in a large field of flowers. You'd have on blossom as a bold, strong foreground and a sweeping field of flowers in the distance. Keep in mind, though, that the instant you mount the extension tube, the lens will no longer focus to infinity. That field of flowers will appear blurry. That's not necessarily a problem, since a sharp foreground flower and a soft background can be very effective creatively. You just need to be aware of the limitations.

—Normal Lenses

Lenses that fall into the focal-length range of 50mm-60mm are considered "normal" because that is the focal length most closely matching the angle of view of the human eye. As with wide-angle lenses, I rarely use 50mm lenses for closeups because the working distance is so short and the background coverage is too great. One situation where I do use them is to photograph several wildflowers growing closely together, whether they are low-growing species like bluets, irises, and phacelia, or larger wildflowers like bee balm and sunflowers. To use a longer lens would isolate a few blossoms, but with the 50mm you can include the whole patch. Occasionally, you will need to add a very short extension tube to allow you to focus closer.

Make sure the lens is not picking up too much background coverage, which usually means you need to be shooting straight down, or into a dense patch of flowers. Shooting straight down has complications of its own because often there is no way to shoot without including a tripod leg. To solve this problem you need some sort of extension arm that projects the camera out from the tripod. See Special Accessories For Photographing Wildflowers below.

—Medium Telephoto Lenses

Falling within this range are focal lengths from about 85mm to 150mm. These lenses begin to address some of the drawbacks of wider lenses such as working distance and background coverage. It is a fundamental rule of optics that for any given magnification, the longer the lens, the greater the working distance, and the narrower the angle of view. With extension, the working distance with a 28mm lens at 1X is roughly 3/4-inch, with a 50mm it is roughly 3 inches, and with a 105mm lens it is roughly 6 inches. Also, with the 105mm lens the narrower angle of view is beginning to give the background a poster effect.


To be honest, I only occasionally use this focal-length range for closeups because the next category of lenses will do most of what these will, with even greater working distance and narrower background coverage. One situation in which I do use them is when I want to shoot a patch of flowers, but can't get close enough with the 50mm lens, or discover that the normal lens's angle of view is too great.

—Telephoto Lenses

I use telephotos more than any other lenses for wildflowers. I love the way they isolate a blossom while creating a posterlike background. Also, compared to shorter lenses, the working distance is great when using extension. However, I rarely use extension tubes with telephoto lenses because to realize any benefit would require an unwieldy amount of extension. This is where the aforementioned closeup lenses come into play. Closeup lenses are unique in that they make all lenses, regardless of focal length, focus at the same working distance. Mount Nikon's 3T or 5T closeup lens on a 50mm lens focused at infinity and the working distance is roughly 2 feet. On a 100mm lens it is roughly 2 feet, and on a 300mm lens it is the same 2 feet. Now it seems to reason that if the focusing distance is the same, the lens will yield more magnification on a telephoto lens. This is true, and it is why I love them. Nikon's 6T on a 75-300mm lens yields about 1X at 300mm, when focused at infinity. Rack it out to its closest focusing limit and the magnification is nearly 1.25X. What's more, these lenses don't cost precious light like extension tubes, and they don't add a weak mechanical linkage. Remember, while these lenses work very well with long lenses-from about 100mm and up-the increase in magnification with shorter lenses is insignificant.

An ideal camera lens for wildflowers is the 75-300mm zoom or similar. Its focal length ranges from near normal to telephoto, and it is fairly light and compact. I've always wondered why more people don't buy these lenses over the limited-range 80-200mm or 70-210mm zooms. When you put a closeup diopter on a 75-300mm zoom, you have a closeup outfit. Imagine the benefit of being able to zoom from 75mm to 300mm to get the exact cropping you need. No longer do you need to change lenses or add other accessories to shoot at a different image size. You no longer need to reposition the tripod constantly to change the cropping. Simply zoom the lens. Also, the Nikon 75-300mm zoom has a rotating tripod collar, a decided advantage with closeup photography.


—Macro Lenses

Macro lenses cover a broad range of focal lengths from 50mm to 200mm. Many people think they need one of these lenses to shoot closeups effectively. This is just not true. A macro lens is nothing more than a regular lens that focuses close by itself. With a macro lens, you do not need to add extension tubes or closeup lenses to get the lens to focus closer. They are also optimized for flat-field reproduction (sharpness from edge to edge), but this is meaningless for field work. The biggest drawback of most macro lenses compared to the 75-300mm zoom lens plus closeup lens is the inability to crop by zooming the lens. With a fixed-focal-length macro lens, you have to reposition the tripod nearly every time you change the composition. Nikon once made what might be the ideal lens for close up and wildflower photography. It was a 70-180mm macro lens. In addition to combining close focusing and zoom capability, the lens features a tripod collar (very helpful with closeups) and superb image sharpness. Fortunately, I bought one of these lenses when it was available. Today, they are tough to find on the used market.

—Lens Summary

Okay, let's review what we've learned about making lenses focus closer. First, disregard everything irrelevant. That means bellows, reversing rings, macro lenses (If you already own one certainly use it, just don't go out and buy one because you think you have to have it for wildflowers) stacked lenses, macro converters, enlarging lenses, and short-mount lenses. Now, concentrate on what is relevant for wildflower photography. Wide-angle lenses work well for scenics, little more. Normal lenses work well for including a larger area, and long lenses work superbly for isolating flowers against a posterlike background. You can use a short extension tube on a normal lens but for telephoto closeups it is better to use a two-element closeup diopter. If you need more magnification, add a teleconverter. Everyone shoots in their way with different equipment, but this works for me.

Special Accessories For Wildflower Photography

—Focusing Rail

When you photograph a landscape and need to move a little closer, it's no problem to pick up the tripod and move it, but when shooting closeups, moving the tripod a few inches can be disastrous. It might mean the difference between a photograph of a dew-covered spider web and one without dew because the tripod leg bumped against it. With high magnifications, any movement of the tripod not only disturbs the subject, but also creates serious problems with composition and focusing. What you need in these situations is a focusing rail. The camera mounts on the rail, which then mounts to the tripod head. A geared track and adjustment knob allow you to focus precisely by moving only the camera back and forth.


A few rails feature both fore-and-aft and side-to-side positioning of the camera. Avoid these. They are bulky, heavy, and a disaster when shooting verticals unless your lens has a tripod collar. One good alternative to expensive geared rails is some sort of slider, which can mount in the dovetail clamp of your quick-release system. Really Right Stuff offers several options for these sliders. They are nothing much more than a long dovetailed plate that slides back and forth in clamp, but it has two big advantages. First, it is light and compact compared to regular focusing rails, and since the camera mounts to a quick-release clamp on top of the slider, there can be slight side-to-side positioning without worrying about bulk. Of course, to use this type of rail, you must use the Arca-Swiss quick release system, but I recommend that you do that anyway. If you already have a regular focusing rail, you can mount an Arca-Swiss-style quick-release clamp on it to achieve the same side-to-side positioning as the Slider. Really Right Stuff also sells a geared focusing rail for about $300. It's pricey, but it may be the best all-around focusing rail on the market.

Most wildflower situations don't require you to use a focusing rail. Only when magnifications are 1X or greater, or when positioning the tripod could disturb the subject, will you reach for the rail. But on those occasions, you really need it.

—Extension Arm

Often, to achieve the composition you want, you need to aim the camera straight down on the subject. If you're using a long lens, it isn't much of a problem-just tilt the tripod a little. However, if you're using a normal or wide-angle lens it is just about impossible to photograph without including a tripod leg in the scene. The only way to solve this problem is to shoot with the camera extended out from the tripod. Several manufacturers make extension arms for this purpose. I use the one made by Bogen/Manfrotto called the Accessory Side Arm. It is relatively lightweight, sturdy, and inexpensive. Regardless of which model you choose, you'll need to attach a ball head to one end. You can take the head off the tripod and attach the arm directly to the tripod, then attach the head to the end of the arm, but this gives you less flexibility than if you attach the arm to your head, then attach a second head to the end of the arm.

Some manufacturers offer tripods that have an extension arm as an integral part of the design. Unfortunately, all of them that I am aware of are too lightweight and unstable for serious work. In fact, even when you use a stable extension like the Accessory Side Arm, camera shake can be a huge problem if the arm is extended very far from the tripod. In these cases, I use another Bogen/Manfrotto product called the Long Lens Support. It provides a rigid connection between a tripod leg and the extension arm.

Photographic Exposure

Exposure once was the hardest part of the photographic equation for most photographers, including me. It's also among the most important. Blow the exposure and you can throw away the pictures. Today's expensive cameras with the latest and greatest exposure systems help alleviate, but don't solve, the problem. I promise you that if you leave your camera set on automatic exposure, you won't be happy with many of your wildflower images. But with today's digital cameras, why would you ever do such a thing in the first place? With digital, photographic exposure is literally a piece of cake.


I'm going to give you two different exposure lessons. First, I'm going to include verbatim the text I wrote for Wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians. When I wrote the book, I was still shooting film. While nearly everyone today shoots with a digital camera, the basic principles of exposure that we learned with film photography are good know. After that excerpt, I'll tell you how I approach exposure today.

—The Original Film Version Of Photographic Exposure

The first thing to clear up concerns meters. I can't think of any reason why a general nature photographer would need to use a separate hand-held meter. Your camera's meter is just as accurate, probably more so. When you take a meter reading with your camera's meter, you are metering TTL, or "through the lens," and the meter takes into account most variables. Variable-aperture lenses, filters, whether the lens is focused at infinity, the camera's position relative to the subject, and accessories such as teleconverters and extension tubes, all create variables that must be accounted for with hand-held meters.

All reflected-light meters, like the one in your camera, measure the amount of light reaching the film after it has reflected off the subject. If the subject is average in tonality, all is well. Photograph a medium-toned Jack-in the-pulpit and the meter will suggest the proper exposure because it is calibrated to render all subjects medium in tonality. Meters are not capable of determining when the subject is not average, so calibration is for the tonality you are most likely to photograph, which is average.

Now, let's consider what happens if the subject is not average. Suppose you meter a black bear. The meter thinks it is reading a medium-toned (average) subject that is receiving very little light because dark objects absorb most of the light. The meter thinks the subject needs much more light than necessary, and will suggest an exposure that will make the bear medium in tonality. You'll end up with a gray, black bear. What you have to do is override the meter. Decrease the amount of light and the bear will appear normal. The opposite is true for light subjects. Snow is a good example. When you meter snow, the meter thinks it is reading a medium-toned subject that is receiving a lot of light because light objects reflect most of the light. The meter thinks the subject needs less light than necessary and will suggest an exposure that will make the snow grayish. You must increase the exposure to make the snow white. This is the foundation for all exposure calculations. Light-toned subjects require more exposure than the meter suggests, dark-toned subjects require less. It's important to remember that it doesn't matter what color the subject is; if it is lighter or darker than average, it requires compensation.


How much should you compensate? I'll discuss a few specifics later on but there really is no substitute for trial and error. One problem I often hear is that it's difficult to determine when the subject is lighter or darker than medium. Consider this: If something is very dark, a black bear, for instance, you'll instantly recognize that it is darker than medium. If it is very light, such as a large-flowered trillium, you will know that it is lighter than medium. If you look at a subject and have to ask yourself if it is lighter or darker than medium, it's probably medium! This is as precise as you need to be for now. With experience, you'll learn the idiosyncrasies.

Some photographers use a special type of meter, called an incident meter, because it measures the light before it reflects off the subject. It seems this would be the way to go since you wouldn't have to compensate for the reflectance of light or dark subjects. This is partly true, but you still have to compensate for a host of other variables, such as the ones mentioned earlier, and there are other problems inherent in their use. Stick with the meter in your camera.

One way to avoid having to make compensations for tonality is to meter a medium-toned object in the same lighting as the subject. I often do this whenever there is a suitable object available. Some photographers meter their hand and open up one stop (your palm is about one stop lighter than medium) to get the proper exposure setting. I do not. The hand is only two feet from the camera, and if the subject is much farther away, exposure errors can result. If the subject is close to the camera, and not medium toned, you can meter a gray card, but be aware that exposure errors can result if you do not precisely place the card. I find that using a gray card usually creates more confusion than it prevents.

Any time you meter a medium-toned object to get the exposure for a non-medium-toned subject, and that non-medium-toned subject is very light or very dark, you must make an additional exposure calculation. For light objects, such as white wildflowers, stop down one-third to two-thirds of a stop after all calculations. For dark subjects, open up one-third to two-thirds of a stop. This will keep the subject from losing detail.

To make compensations, you need a camera that lets you override the meter's chosen setting. A full manual override or an exposure compensation dial will suffice. Newer cameras have highly sophisticated metering systems that can compensate for you if the light or dark areas do not take up a large portion of the frame. Canon calls their system evaluative metering, Nikon's is matrix, and other names include multi-zone and multi-segment metering. These systems will suggest proper exposures in most situations, but remember, if the subject is not medium and occupies most of the frame, or is far off medium in tonality, you still have to compensate.


You probably have heard of the sunny f/16 rule. It's a guideline for non-metered exposures on sunny days. We'll, it just doesn't work-not for me, anyway. The rule states that on a sunny day, the proper exposure is 1/60 of a second at f/16 (or any equivalent setting), when using ISO 50 film. In theory, it should work, since the sun's light is consistent. In practice, it's another story. As with using hand-held meters, there are simply too many variables to account for. Variable aperture lenses, filters, and other accessories must all be compensated for. The sun must be shining brightly, with no haze or clouds. It must be between two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. The rule doesn't work with sidelighting, backlighting, or when shooting closeups (exactly the situation we're shooting in). Also, with dark and light subjects, you must compensate in the opposite direction as when taking a meter reading. Why do all this? Why not simply take a meter reading? Besides, how often do nature photographers photograph on days that qualify as sunny f/16 lighting anyway?

Let's look at what we've learned so far. First, use the meter in your camera, and forget the sunny f/16 rule. Much of what you read about exposure concerns these two aspects, so we've considerably simplified things. There's no point cluttering your mind with things that don't apply. Next, remember the basis for all exposure calculations: light-toned subjects require more exposure than medium toned subjects do, dark-toned subjects require less.

It's very important to understand how the metering pattern you're using sees the scene and to consider how much of the frame the subject occupies. If you're using the matrix-type metering pattern, the camera is analyzing the entire scene. If the subject is not medium, but the surroundings are, it won't make much difference if the subject is not occupying a substantial part of the frame. However, in such a case, you will still need to stop down about one-third of a stop if the subject is white because the meter is using a scene of predominant medium tone to determine the exposure. If you don't stop down the white flower will wash out.

If you're using the center-weighted or spot metering pattern be aware of the tonality of the object within the meter's' parameters. Remember, these patterns basically disregard everything except what is in the center of the fame. My usual preference for closeups is the center-weighted pattern. I point the center of the camera at the subject to get a meter reading and work in tones from that. This ensures proper exposure of the subject, the primary interest of our photo. Normally, the subject takes up enough of the frame that we do not need to use the spot meter. To shoot wide-angle scenes we often switch to the matrix pattern. It usually does a great job of averaging exposure over the entire scene.


You should make tests, and not take anyone else's word or mine for anything. Take notes, but don't confuse things by recording the f-stop and shutter speed information. What you need to record is why you felt it necessary to make an exposure compensation. Your notes might read something like this: On this wildflower scene, I metered off the pink petals and increased exposure 1/2 stop because I thought they were 1/2 stop lighter than medium. I also bracketed in 1/2 stop increments. Now, when you get the film back, compare it with your notes. You may discover that this particular wildflower is one full stop lighter than medium. You'll then begin to learn how to distinguish tones.

In my experience, I have come to recognize a range of tonalities from one stop under medium, to two stops over. In most situations, you will not photograph a scene that requires more exposure compensation than this. However, with experience, you'll learn to determine tones that vary only by half stops.

Dark: Black bears, crows and ravens. Underexpose 1 stop from the suggested setting. Trailing arbutus, wintergreen, and partridge berry leaves require about 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop underexposure.

Medium: Grass, most foliage, most tree bark, average landscape scenes, white-tailed deer, sunrises and sunsets metered to the side of the sun, and 18 percent reflectance gray card. Shoot at the suggested exposure. The foliage of most wildflowers is medium in tonality, as are the blossoms themselves. The ones that aren't are usually shades of pink, white, and pale blue.

Light: Snow in the shade, sand on the beach, most white birds, polar bears. Overexpose about 1 stop from the suggested setting. Most pink and white flower blossoms require from one-half to one stop overexposure, unless you spot meter directly on the petal (see below).

Very light: Snow in the sun, white sand beach. Overexpose about 2 stops from the suggested setting. The only time you will need to open two stops for wildflowers is if you are spot metering a very white petal, such as large-flowered trillium, or the bracts of flowering dogwood. Even then, the amount of compensation needed varies from 1 1/3 to 2 stops. Remember, only experience will teach you the idiosyncrasies.


—And Now, The Digital Approach To Photographic Exposure

I typically keep my digital cameras set on aperture-priority, matrix metering, and with no exposure compensation applied. With general nature subjects, I shoot an exposure and then look at the histogram. I want the mountain in the histogram's graph to peak in the right third section, without overly clipping the highlights. (Note that with the bright white petals of certain wildflowers, some clipping may be unavoidable without severely underexposing the pic). If the first shot I took is not correct, I delete it and shoot another one with a plus or minus exposure compensation. I keep trying until I get it right. Then, I purposely bracket exposures by about two-thirds of a stop in both directions. This gives me the ability to fine-pick the best exposure after evaluating them in the computer.

That's it. No guesswork. No wondering whether I got it right. The histogram lets me know. It is critically important that you indeed use the histogram and not the image preview. The preview is based upon a jpeg rendering and it is not an accurate representation of the correct exposure. For that matter, the histogram-also based on a jpeg rendering-is not truly accurate either, but it's plenty close enough, especially if you bracket a little bit.

Coping With Wind

On a top ten list of problems encountered while photographing wildflowers, dealing with the wind occupies the first seven positions. It is a big, big problem. Occasionally you can incorporate the movement into the photo with good results, but more often, any movement will ruin the image.

The first approach is to photograph early in the morning before the sun warms the air and creates thermals. Nature is always seeking a balance and when warm and cool air exists together, the result is wind. Shooting in the morning has another benefit. That's usually when the best lighting occurs.

Using a fast shutter speed is another approach, but one that is rarely applicable. The choice of shutter speed is limited to available light and depth-of-field requirements. Of course, when the wind is blowing you should use the fastest speed that you can.

—Stem Stakes

If you cannot use a fast shutter speed to stop the wind movement, you need to bring in the heavy artillery. I have a large collection of specialized barriers and stem stakes that allow me to photograph in all but the strongest winds. Each has a specific use depending on the situation at hand.


The first approach is to stick a wooden stake into the ground so that it intersects the stem at a point just out of the frame. Then carefully twist a pipe cleaner around the stem and the stake. Do not use string or wire as they can damage the stem. Also, be sure to do this before setting up the camera because it always moves the flower a little.

The stakes I use are 3/8-inch-diameter dowel rods from the local home center. I also carry five-foot-long poles made from broom handles. Each dowel and pole is sharpened on one end to stick into the ground.

—Wind Barriers

Stem stakes alone are often insufficient to stop wind movement, and they are useless when photographing a clump of flowers. Plus, it's sometimes difficult to keep them out of the picture. To help solve these problems I use wind barriers. The setup consists of four, thirty-two-inch wooden dowel rods that I stick in the ground to surround the flower. I then stretch plastic around the dowels to serve as the barrier. I also carry a second system, identical except the poles are five feet long, and the plastic is five feet wide. Using these setups is rather painstaking and solicits puzzling stares from passersby, but it works.

A problem you'll quickly notice when using a wind barrier is that it often shows up in the photo. Sometimes you can move the plastic around to get it out of view, but often you cannot. In these cases, you have no choice but to use an artificial background, but more on that later.

—Using Flash To Stop Wind Movement

Sometimes no combination of stem stakes or wind barriers is enough to stop the wind and you are left with only one option: Flash. Because the flash's duration is so short, it will stop most any movement. However, I dislike using flash because of the unnatural lighting that it sometimes produces. I much prefer the look of diffuse natural light, and only use flash when necessary. It's true that when used properly, today's flash units can produce natural-looking lighting. The problem is that learning how to use them properly requires a tremendous investment of time. Despite what the manufacturers would have you believe, without a lengthy learning period, you can no more make consistently good photos with the latest flash units, than you could take a new camera out of the box, point it at something, and expect a great photograph.


Of course, one huge advantage to using flash today as opposed to ten years ago is that we can instantly see the results on the digital camera's view screen. For this reason, I find I'm using flash on an increasing basis.

Some photographers like to use a subdued flash only to create a little sparkle in their closeups, rather than relying on it for total lighting. I prefer to do this with mirrors and reflectors, although admittedly this is limited to somewhat sunny days.

—Tilt Lenses For Faster Shutter Speeds

Some combination of the above methods will stop minor wind movement in most any situation. There is one situation, however, in which none of them will help: wide-angle scenics. With wide-angle scenes, there is simply too much in the scene to use stem stakes, flash, or surround with a wind barrier. And fast shutter speeds are not an option because you need to stop down to get the most depth-of-field. You can go ahead and shoot at the slow shutter speed and the resulting image may be okay. Sometimes, blurring some of the blossoms is effective, but with a wide-angle scenic you'll need to have some of the blossoms sharply rendered. Of course, anyone who has tried this on a windy day knows it is an exercise in frustration.

View camera users have a readily available solution to the problem. Their lenses have front elements that tilt to better align the lens plane to the film plane. This allows a wider-open aperture and thus a faster shutter speed. But DSLR lenses are fixed. So what can we do? Well, there actually are a few lenses designed specially for this purpose. These lenses have a built-in tilting feature that helps align the planes. With one of these lenses, you can shoot nearly wide open and still have enough depth-of-field to keep everything in focus from near to far. Imagine the possibilities with a lens like this.

Both Nikon and Canon offer such lenses. Canon's lenses come in four focal lengths: 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm. Nikon has a 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm.

If you can afford only one, you might want to consider the 45mm or 90/85mm focal length. The 90mm lens covers such a narrow field of view that you may be able to use wind barriers to stop the wind movement instead, thus allowing you to stop down for depth-of-field. But those situations will be rare. The depth-of-field in a standard 24mm lens is often great enough, even when opened up somewhat, to allow a faster shutter speed. I used to won the 24mm tilt lens primarily because it offers an extra feature I once considered indispensable for waterfalls and lighthouses: a shift feature (perspective control) that helps keeps tall subjects in proper perspective. Canon's other lenses offer this feature as well, as do lenses from several other manufacturers, but it is most useful with the 24mm focal length. Today, I can counteract perspective distortion in Photoshop.

These lenses are not cheap and you'll only occasionally use them in the tilting mode. Still, for serious landscape work involving wildflowers, they can be indispensable.



Perhaps the best aid you can have is patience. The saying, "Good things come to those who wait," might be rephrased to say, "Sharp photos come to those who wait." After you've done everything to stop the wind and there is still movement, don't pack up and leave. Breezes are rarely continuous for hours at a time. Set up all your gear, take hold of the shutter release cable, and carefully watch for a lull. Then fire the shutter. You may not get off many exposures, but you'll at least get the shot.

Paralleling The Subject

It is a confounding rule of optics that the more magnification you shoot at the less depth of field you have. Thus, camera positioning becomes critical. You can optimize what little depth of field there is by making sure the film plane is parallel to the subject plane. If you're shooting a leaf, for instance, make sure both the leaf plane and film plane (camera back) are parallel. However, you usually won't be shooting a subject with such an obvious flat plane as a leaf. That is when you must determine what portion of the scene has to be in focus and align with that. Often, there is no flat plane at all and there is nothing you can do but focus on the most important part of the scene and watch everything else go soft.

It is often suggested that you should focus one-third of the way into the scene to get the most depth of field. This is technically true, as there is more depth of field behind the point of focus than in front of it. However, it is next to impossible to determine at just what point one-third is when shooting closeups. You can compromise by focusing on the most important part of the scene and then backing off ever so slightly toward foreground focus. This will maximize depth of field while assuring the most critical element is in focus.


One of my biggest pet peeves is cluttered backgrounds. I want closeup photo subjects to be the center of attention, not some leaf or twig in the distance. That is a primary reason I love telephoto lenses for close up photography. These lenses have an extremely narrow angle of view that effectively isolates the subject against a posterlike background. The important thing to keep in mind is the closer the background is to the subject, the less posterlike it will appear. You could open the lens aperture to help isolate the subject further, but often you need to use smaller apertures just to keep the entire flower in focus. The trick is to look around. Where you see one flower there are probably more, and maybe one of them presents a less-cluttered background.

If you've found the best subject and there is still too much clutter, there are several things you can do. First, look carefully through the camera while pressing the depth-of-field preview button to see what is causing the distractions. If it is grass blades or dead twigs, you can clip them off. I carry small scissors in my pack for this purpose. If the distraction is from living material other than common grass, you should not cut it. Instead, tie it back or lay sticks over it while you're shooting. Then restore the plants to their original position.


If this doesn't work, you may have to open the aperture a little or increase the magnification. The more you magnify the less depth of field you have, resulting in a background that is more out of focus.

If you're using a long lens with the most magnification and widest aperture that is practical, you've eliminated all the clutter you can, and the background is still cluttered, then there is only one option: artificial backgrounds. I don't like to use an artificial background, much preferring the natural look of out-of-focus foliage, but sometimes they are necessary. Several materials will work for these backgrounds, from poster board to fabric stretched around a frame. I've tried them all, and the only method that results in a natural looking background is a blown-up photograph of an out-of-focus scene. The ones I carry are 24 x 30 inches, mounted to stiff foam-core poster board.

Using And Controlling Natural Light

Lighting is everything in photography. A poor subject photographed in great light makes a much better photo than does a great subject shot in average lighting. Always be aware of the light and how it affects the scene, and be prepared with the proper accessories to control the light to suit your needs.

You almost never want direct, undiffused sunlight in closeup photography. The lighting is harsh and the contrast just too much. That's why closeup photographers like to photograph on overcast days, when the cloud layer acts like a giant diffuser. Of course, you can't always shoot on overcast days, so you need to have some sort of diffuser. You can use many different types depending on the situation. I carry large and small diffusion umbrellas with homemade aluminum handles that have a 1/4-20 thread in the end. The handles screw onto a small ball head attached to a Bogen/Manfrotto Super Clamp. The Super Clamp attaches to a second tripod. With this setup, there is unlimited flexibility with placement. Also, I carry a couple of 30" x 40" collapsible diffusers called Bo-flex. These fold up neatly for stowing, but give great coverage in use. Regardless of which method you use, make sure to diffuse both the subject and background. And be sure to place the diffuser as close to the subject as possible. If you place it too far away, you'll only be casting a shadow, rather than providing the soft, diffused light that makes great closeup images. By the way, the clear polyethylene plastic that I use for wind barriers makes an effective diffusion material. It's not clear like a Ziploc bag. It's more of a milky clear, which cause it to diffuse the light well.


After diffusing the scene, you may want to reflect a little light back onto the subject for drama. This might seem silly; after all, why diffuse the light in the first place if you're just going to put light back into the scene? The answer is that you will have control over the light. You don't have this with normal lighting. You can make a good reflector by covering a piece of cardboard with crumpled gold Christmas foil on one side and crumpled aluminum foil on the other. I like the warm light projected by the gold side most often, but it occasionally affects the color of white blossoms. When you want to cast a direct beam of light onto the subject, use a mirror. The best mirrors for field work are the plastic type. You can get them at craft supply stores, or check with glass supply houses to see if they have scraps lying around.

You've probably heard photographers talk about a preference for early morning and evening light. I share that preference for most photography, but for closeups, only the morning is preferred. That is when the light is golden and the wildflowers are laced in dew. In the evening, the wind is usually blowing and there is no dew. It is important to understand that when we talk about morning and evening lighting for closeups, it is not the same as for landscapes. You need to wait until the sun is high enough to provide sufficient illumination. How long you should wait varies. If you're on an east-facing slope in line with the horizon, or on a mountaintop, the subject receives direct sunlight immediately after sunrise. You can start shooting right away in this case, often with spectacular results. Just keep in mind that the sun quickly becomes too intense and must be diffused.

Rarely, though, will you be in this situation while shooting wildflowers in the southern Appalachians. More often than not, it is several hours before you see the sun. Don't make the mistake of shooting too early, particularly if you are on a north-facing slope, completely shaded from the sun. This is a ready-made prescription for creating a cool, bluish cast to your photographs. You can control the cats to some extent by changing the white balance settings in the camera or, my preferred method, shoot RAW and adjust the white balance in the RAW convertor software.

My favorite lighting for wildflower photography occurs just after a rain shower when the sun is beginning to break. The flowers are covered in raindrops, the wind is usually calm, and the light is magical. Could anything be better?

As with everything else, the best advice is to get out there and shoot in all lighting situations and conditions. You'll soon learn when to leave the camera in the pack and when to pull it out.

Photographic Composition

The vast majority of photographs I see in image critiques could have been improved if their makers had followed one basic rule: simplify the composition. If there is an element in the scene that is not obviously helping the composition, it is taking away from it. Get it out of there. Ask yourself, What am I photographing? What is my subject? Then photograph that and that only. Anything else in the scene should be included only to enhance the subject. Beginning photographers often try to include the mountain, the stream in the foreground, the raven soaring overhead, the deer drinking out of the stream, the flowers growing along the bank, the-well, you get the idea. Pick one of these and photograph that. There is nothing wrong with a photograph of a mountain with a babbling brook flowing in the foreground as long as one enhances the other and doesn't compete for attention.


Wildflower photographers should have no problem identifying their subjects. Obviously, it is the flower. However, it can be difficult to discipline yourself to photograph only the flower and not everything within wide-angle view of it. That is one of the biggest problems I see with wildflower photographs. The photographer just didn't get close enough to the subject.

You've probably heard of the rule of thirds that states that an image's strongest compositional points are at the intersections of lines drawn to divide the frame into horizontal and vertical thirds. Consider placing the strongest part of the scene on one of these imaginary intersections. Obviously, this won't work with all subjects, but it often works well with wildflowers.

If possible, don't place the subject dead center in the frame. This creates a static image with no emotional impact. There are a few exceptions to this rule however, such as when shooting an extreme closeup of a flower with perfect radial symmetry. In this case it is sometimes effective to place the blossom in the center of the frame and have everything radiate out from it. Also, when shooting individual flowers that grow in narrow spikes, like ladies tresses and colic root, it looks funny placing them off-center. Go ahead and center them even though there is dead space on either side. Ideally, you want to look around until you find several specimens growing together, and compose the scene to fill the frame.

You can create artsy, moody wildflower images by selectively using soft focus. The trick is to try out all different points of focus until you find one you like. If you're using a lot of magnification and a wide-open aperture, only a tiny portion of the flower will be in focus, with everything else going soft. This is what you want with soft-focus images: some part of the scene in focus, with everything else blurry.

Another method for creating artsy wildflower images is to shoot a double exposure. Make one exposure with the scene sharply focused, and the second with the scene a little out of focus. This creates a soft-focus image that retains a measure of sharpness. To determine the exposure simply figure out what the proper exposure should be and shoot both exposures one stop less than this. For instance, if the proper exposure is determined to be 1/30 at f/16, shoot both exposures at 1/60 at f/16 and the image will be correctly exposed. Of course, to use this method, you need to have a camera that has double-exposure capability.

There really isn't a right or wrong way to shoot soft-focus images because they are so subjective. Each person has his or her own ideas as to just what works and what doesn't. However, it is usually better to overexpose the image slightly.


Wildflower Photography Technique

Proper technique is the single most important factor in producing quality photographs. You hear the term used frequently, but just what is good photographic technique? If you employ every applicable situation listed in the following outline, I promise your photographs will improve. This is assuming up front that you have a sturdy tripod and quality lenses that are clean. Also, this outline applies specifically to closeups; other types of photography require modified approaches. Remember, achieving quality results takes time. It is not unusual for me to spend several hours on a single wildflower image.

  • Pay any bills that are due, make up with your spouse or sweetheart, and return all phone calls before going into the field.
  • Arrive at the scene before you expect the best light so you are not rushing when you get there.
  • Don't try to photograph when you need to go to the restroom.
  • Make yourself comfortable. If it is hot, wear shorts and a T-short. If it is cold, wear a hat. If it is wet, wear a rain suit. This may seem like a big duh, but I see uncomfortable photographers in the field regularly.
  • Set your pack down several feet from the subject to keep from inadvertently jarring it.
  • Slow down and take a careful, studied approach.
  • Roughly determine what magnification you need and what the background is like. This will help you decide which lens to use (usually the longest focal length possible).
  • Try out all possible compositions while handholding the camera and choose the one(s) you like best while making a mental note of where the camera needs to be positioned. Then set up the tripod.
  • If the proper composition requires you to lay on your belly in the cold dew, or step into six inches of muck, so be it. You should prepare for inconveniences like this and not hesitate to endure them.
  • Be extremely careful not to disturb the subject when setting up the tripod. Watch out for any vegetation that may be against the subject. This is critical with subjects covered in dew.
  • Firmly seat the tripod and thoroughly tighten all controls.
  • Roughly compose the scene, readjusting the tripod if necessary. Check the background with the depth-of-field preview button. Remove any distracting elements by tying back, laying sticks on, or cutting out (never cut anything except common grass). Be very careful that you do not disturb the subject in the process.
  • Check the depth-of-field preview button again to make sure the background is not distracting.
  • Set up any necessary diffusers, reflectors, or wind barriers. Stem stakes need to be set up before composing.
  • Focus on the subject and determine the proper exposure. Fine tune the composition and look around the edges of the frame one last time for distracting elements jutting in.
  • Just before tripping the shutter, check the lens to make sure it is clean. Occasionally, insects or blowing vegetation will land on the front element. Even dust specks can cause image degradation if there are a lot of them. Carry a large bulb blower and blow off the lens at each new subject.
  • Attach an electronic shutter release if you have not yet done so, and determine if the subject is still. If so, lock up the mirror (if your camera has this feature) and release the shutter. If the subject is not still, wait until it is. Don't read a book or watch birds while waiting. Look at the flower. When shooting with high magnifications you should look through the lens for movement, as it is hard to detect with the naked eye.
  • If you are shooting fairly close to the subject, try not to breathe in its direction throughout the process. Doing so will cause a slight wind.
  • After making the exposures, look back at the subject and decide if you have photographed the best compositions.
  • Put the lens cap back on before stuffing the lens in a pack. You'd be surprised at how many people I see walking around with a bag full of unprotected gear.
  • Leave the scene as you found it.


When Not To Take A Picture

You may have heard it said that there is always one more way to shoot a subject, or that a good photographer can always make good photograph. This is nonsense. Very often, there is simply no way to make a good photograph, or there may only be one good way to shoot a certain subject. This is particularly true of wildflower photography, when good photographs depend on suitable living subjects. Photographers who do not understand this waste a lot of time making bad photographs. Conversely, it's important not to fall into the trap of justifying a lack of desire to photograph by reasoning that every situation "just won't work." At the same time it's important to know when that is the case. Unfortunately, I can't tell you that because every situation is different. What you should do is go over every possible angle in your mind and if nothing seems to work, think about it some more. If you still can't come up with anything, don't keep torturing yourself. Give up and look somewhere else.

Ethical Considerations

Not that many years ago, there were only a handful of nature photographers in the country. Now, millions of people carry cameras into the field hoping to bring back memorable images. Imagine the stress on the environment from all these people. If you think no one else is photographing your subject, think again. The southern Appalachians draw more wildflower enthusiasts than perhaps any region in the country. You may not see another photographer, but you can safely bet another will come along soon. You can minimize impact by always following this motto: the subject is more important than the photograph. It's as simple as that. No photograph is worth the destruction of the wildflower to get it.

The most common negative impact I see comes from photographers so concerned about positioning themselves that they are oblivious to what is around them. Consequently, they trample everything in the vicinity. If you find a flower that is not approachable without disturbing others, walk away. It is just not worth it. To those who say the end justifies the means if the photographs are used for education, I say nonsense. The world does not need another photograph of anything if that photograph was made at the expense of the subject.

It is common practice among some photographers to pick the wildflower and either take it inside, or mount it in a special device to make the photograph. Certainly, if these are backyard flowers, there is no harm done. But too often they are uncommon species taken from the wild. Not only is this illegal in many places, but it is quite unethical. For me, the joy of nature photography is finding a subject and photographing it in its natural environment. And it gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that the wildflower will be there for the enjoyment of the next person that comes along.

Into every discussion of ethics enters the question of subject manipulation. Is it okay to cut out distracting foliage? Is there anything wrong with using mist sprayers to create artificial dew? If you don't like the arrangement of elements in a photograph, what's wrong with moving them around? Everyone answers these questions differently, and each person must photograph within their own personal boundaries of ethics. That is, after agreeing that it is never okay to wantonly cut out or trample vegetation. I follow a philosophy of enhancement without creation. For instance, I'll tie back distracting foliage and use diffusers and reflectors to enhance a scene discovered in the wild, but I will not create a scene that did not exist. To do so takes something away. It seems too much an attempt to one-up Mother Nature. I'm trying to become a part of nature, not to overcome it. A big part of the photographic equation is in the dreaming, the planning, and the search. The click of the shutter is merely the culmination of this process. To shortcut it by overly manipulating the scene removes a part of the equation that I'm not prepared to give up.


Today, a discussion on ethical considerations for photographers is not complete without mentioning computer digital manipulation. With Photoshop and other image software, we can create images that did not exist and manipulate images to any extent. With this technology, photographers don't need to worry about distracting backgrounds. They can just remove the distractions in the computer, or move the flower, or change the color of the flower, or add a second flower, and on and on. That is, photographers who believe this to be ethical. Generally, I feel the same about computer manipulation that I do about manipulating the scene in the wild, at least for editorial work. I use Photoshop to optimize the image to its fullest potential, while remaining true to the vision I had while photographing it. However, it is important to understand that there is no right or wrong in this debate. If an artist can create a scene on canvas, why can't a photographer create a scene on a computer screen? After all, isn't that what art is all about? Of course, most of us would want full disclosure when an image has been manipulated beyond reality. But then this begs an answer to the unanswerable question, What is reality?

Get the point? The ethics of computer digital image manipulation remain a never-ending morass of questions without answers. And I think I'll shut up about it for now.

Regardless of whether you are behind a camera, or in front of a computer, I ask only that you leave your subjects unharmed. Remember, photography is merely an excuse to spend time in the natural world that we all love so much. In the end, that is what truly matters; the photographs are secondary. For those in the minority, those who do not care if they have a negative impact, I suggest you take up a different hobby.