I love Spring in New England and all that it brings. The longer days, the fresh new smell in the air, the first call of the loons on “our” lake, it all just makes me feel antsy to get outside. With this Spring awakening comes large doses of much-anticipated pain and suffering. You see, I love to photograph wildflowers, with all the cuts, bruises and bug bites that go with it . For those of you already afflicted with this brand of masochism I probably don’t need to go into detail, but for those just starting out, you will come to embrace the pain, looking forward to it every year. Because for all the beauty in a wildflower, photographing them often comes at a price.
First, there is the waiting and wondering. Wildflowers have a pretty set schedule as to when each is going to make its appearance. The weather plays a key role in the timing of their emergence, and abnormally warm or cold weather can really alter that timing. Last Spring for example, we had an early week of unseasonably warm weather, followed by normal colder temperatures. This caused several species of wildflower in my area to bloom as much as three weeks early. The painted trillium that I “knew” would be starting to show their pretty faces by late April, and in full bloom by early May, were almost all passed by the time I could get to my local hot spot for these beauties. I also ran into similar circumstances with other wildflower favorites, but the trillium blooming so early did help me prepare for that. There is one last thing that can add to the mental anguish that comes with wildflower photography that I would like to mention. Most of them are very short-lived, and what is in full bloom one weekend may be a wilted shriveled mess the next. If you are like me, with photography being a hobby and the need for a day job to pay the bills, this can mean the difference between capturing the images you envision or “better luck next year.”
The suffering part taken care of, here comes the pain. Black flies, the most vile of New England’s biting insects in my opinion, are tops on the list of the suffering I willingly endure. Not only do they swarm you by the hundreds the second you set foot outside, but they get in your ears, you inhale them up your nose, and you haven’t lived until you “blink” one in your eye. But that is not the worst part, oh no! Their bite is only act one in a two-part play. A day or two after an encounter with these little pests, their bites start to itch. Not just any itch mind you, it’s a scratch until the top five layers of skin come off itch. Then you want to scratch some more. Even with a liberal covering of insect repellent, more on that in a bit, I’m still not safe from them and they are still right in my face annoying the hell out of me.
Next, just as the black flies are winding down, come the mosquitoes. The black flies never really go away, but their numbers do seem to diminish and there is at least a bright side to them, with the black flies I don’t have to worry about what fun, debilitating, and possibly deadly, disease I might get from a bite. Not so with mosquitoes. Who knows what a bite from one of these rotten little vampires could bring. In no particular order, we have the West Nile Virus, click the link and see if that doesn’t that sound like good time! Then there is Eastern Equine Encephalitis, where do I sign up for a case of that! I’m sure there are others, but these top the local news as something to look forward to every year. Remember the good ole days when all these flying hypodermic needles did was cause a little pain and take a little blood?
Another biting insect that comes bearing “gifts” are the ticks, specifically deer ticks. Anyone for Lyme Disease? I’m so proud to say this bit of fun is named after the town of Lyme, in my home state of Connecticut where it first showed up. I wonder of they have a Lyme Disease Day Parade and crown a Miss Deer Tick to celebrate their international fame? Over the years, as a bird hunter and now photographer, I spend plenty of time in areas any self respecting tick would be proud to call home. As a result I have found ticks, too many to count, both crawling on me, and attached, doing their ticky thing. Knock on wood, no Lyme Disease. Both my dogs have tested positive for exposure though, so I guess I’ve just been lucky.
Now for the faint of heart, there is insect repellent. And for me the only ones I will use, when I use them at all, contain good old DEET. I have tried many of the “natural” insect repellents on the market, and can describe them in two words, ABSOLUTELY USELESS! I’ve tried several of them thinking they might be a safer alternative to DEET, but the only thing they safely do in my opinion is waste your money. If any of them have worked at all, the coverage was minimal at best, lasting only a very short time. Better living through chemistry is my motto. But I usually try to forgo the insect repellent because of the damage DEET can cause to plastics and the coatings on expensive camera lenses, instead relying on long sleeve shirts, long pants, socks and a hat.
All this and we haven’t even touched the camera yet. What more could there be, you ask? Well the techniques for shooting wildflowers are also likely to be found highly placed on any self-inflicted torture list. Most of the best images I have seen are shot low, close and at “flower’s eye level.” This can require lying or kneeling in and on some pretty uncomfortable stuff. Thorns, sharp sticks and rocks, muddy wet ground, all discomforts I accept with a smile. Then, since a good frame filling shot with a pleasing bokeh, is what I’m usually after, focus is critical. At the close focusing distances I’m shooting at, even with a fairly small aperture of f8-f11, the depth of field can be very shallow, open the lens up a stop or two, and it only gets worse. When dealing with an area of focus that can often be less than 1/8″ front to back, sometimes much less, getting the focus exactly where you want it is a challenge even under ideal conditions. Now throw in even the slightest breeze and watch the aggravation level soar. What was in focus one second can often be horribly out of focus by the time you click the shutter. To help mitigate this I use live view for almost all wildflower photography, and if your camera supports this feature I highly recommend using it. Turn it on and zoom in on the part of the flower you want in focus, adjust focus manually(don’t trust auto-focus at such close distances) and click the shutter. I have found that not only is live view, coupled with manual focusing, great for ensuring that what you want in focus is in fact in focus, the magnified image on the camera’s lcd screen will show even the slightest movement of the flower. The flower that looks statue still to your eye, may be swaying in a breeze so slight that you can’t even feel it on your skin. This can make getting a sharp image a near impossibility. Seeing this movement magnified on the screen though can help you time your shot for when the flower is still. A remote shutter release is invaluable for this, as is a tripod. Hopefully I don’t need to mention a tripod, but just in case, if you don’t have one, get one and use it. A tripod slows you down so you can put some thought into the image you are trying to create, and you will never get as sharp an image hand-holding as you will with a good sturdy tripod. I would like to add a few other tips I’ve picked up over the last few years. Try shooting the same image at different apertures to vary the depth of field and help ensure you have enough depth of field to get as much foreground to background in focus as you want. Try shooting with the camera in portrait orientation for a different view of the same subject. And if you plan to use live view a lot, bring an extra battery or two. The only drawback to live view is that it is a battery life sucking feature, so having extras will come in handy, and having to cut the day short because the only battery you have is dead is no fun.
I think I’ve described all the pain that can go into wildflower photography that I can think of, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The images I capture and the time spent outdoors makes it all worth it.
It has been brought to my attention by Susan Cole Kelly that I forgot to mention one more hazard that we as wildflower photographers willingly face, poison ivy. I can’t believe that I actually forgot to mention this wonderful little plant, since as a kid I used to get it so bad that I needed to take medication for it. As luck would have it, its effects on me are pretty minor now. But for those who are highly susceptible to the oils this plant produces and the itchy rash it causes, be prepared with a good supply of calamine lotion.