I love photographing flowers outdoors during the growing season, but in many areas that season lasts from spring through the first frost of late fall, only about seven months of the year. Flower photography need not be limited to the outdoor growing months if you live in an area with colder temperatures. There are many opportunities for flower photography in indoor settings throughout the winter months. Photographing orchids is one way I continue my love of macro and flower photography during the colder months. Many botanic gardens across the country hold large and elaborate orchid shows in their conservatories and greenhouses during the months of January through April, and these are wonderful opportunities to challenge your flower and macro photography skills. New York Botanical Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden, Longwood Gardens, U.S. Botanical Garden and Missouri Botanical Gardens, to name a few, all have large orchid shows with as many as 10,000 orchids to make you feel you have entered a tropical paradise in the midst of winter. Many local orchid societies or orchid production greenhouses hold smaller weekend shows or open houses in smaller venues, as well, so you may not have to travel to a larger botanic garden to photograph orchids.
Orchids are one of the most beloved of flowers but they are also one of the most challenging flowers to photograph. Why are orchids so difficult? Exhibits can be crowded and pathways narrow, making it hard to photograph. Tripods may not be allowed in exhibit areas. Lighting in exhibits can range from bright, contrasty light in greenhouse areas to darker, dimly lit inner exhibit spaces. Orchids are often arranged in close proximity to each other or grow in clusters, making it hard to isolate one orchid from others and to eliminate distracting backgrounds.
The following are some tips to make your orchid expedition a fun and positive experience:
Call the garden you are visiting to find out times and days that tend to be less crowded. I have found that arriving when the exhibit opens and going early in the week to be less crowded, but each garden’s attendance patterns may vary. Weekends are generally the most crowded. Find out if reserved/timed tickets are needed to enter the exhibit and, if so, reserve tickets ahead. Ask the garden or check their website to find out their tripod/monopod policy. Most special exhibits like orchid shows do not allow tripod use because it blocks paths and interferes with other visitors’ enjoyment. Check to see if the garden offers special photographers’ hours. Chicago Botanic Garden, for example, offers 1 1/2 hours on Tuesday mornings before the exhibit opens to the public for photographers to use tripods or monopods, but a limited number of reserved tickets are available.
What lenses are best for orchid photography? A macro lens will allow you get in close and capture the interesting details of the orchids. A longer focal length macro lens or zoom lens, such as a 180mm macro or a 70-200mm zoom, will help you to photograph orchids that are set back from the paths or in higher areas of the exhibit. The longer focal lengths, with their added compression, will help blur background distractions – a great bonus. Keep in mind that if you are not able to use a tripod, a lens with image stabilization will help in handholding. If you love Lensbaby lenses, orchids are wonderful subjects for the creative effects of these lenses. The ethereal glow of the Velvet 56mm or the Velvet 85mm lenses and the selective focus and beautiful blur of some of the other Lensbaby lenses create beautiful orchid portraits and help blur some of the background distractions. My Lensbaby Velvet 85mm is one of my favorite lenses for orchid photography.
How to Compose
It might be challenging to find a good composition for orchids. Take your time and experiment. Look for pleasing groupings of orchids, ones that are more isolated from others and have darker foliage and backgrounds that are set back and will blur easily. Move around with your camera to find the best background. Sometimes positioning yourself just a fraction of an inch in a different direction can make all the difference in eliminating distractions or harsh spots of light. Keep in mind that your backgrounds are just as important as the flower itself. A distracting background will draw the eye away from your subject. If you can’t completely control the background in camera, you may choose to darken your background in post processing as I did in the first image above of the Epidendrum hybrid. In orchid exhibits you will not be allowed to place black fabric or boards behind the orchids to create a clean background. Save that technique for shooting orchids at home.
Carry a small diffuser to use in stronger light. A 12-inch diffuser is a perfect size for folding into your pocket and not getting in the way of other visitors. It is also lightweight and easy to balance if you are handholding your camera. A diffuser or accompanying reflector will also serve to bounce light into the darker inner recesses of more complex orchids. The area of the orchid where you are leading the eye needs to have the best light and be the sharpest. Reflecting light into a flower can be difficult without the use of a tripod. You can always add some exposure selectively in post processing to help to draw the eye.
Depth of Field & Aperture
What apertures are best with orchids? I use the whole range depending on what I want to convey about the orchid. I love using selective focus and a shallow depth of field to draw the eye to a ruffle, curved line or a detail within the orchid. This is often when I reach for my Lensbaby lenses to create a more ethereal, softer image of the orchid.
When capturing a group of orchids, find an aperture that will get the essential elements in focus but create a nice blurred background.
Close-ups of orchids require much higher apertures if you want to get everything in focus. Many orchids are complex and have great depth and interesting details to capture. How do you successfully do that if you can’t use a tripod in the exhibit? This is where I might employ the use of flash, in particular a macro ring light attached to the front of my 100mm macro, to get a sharp, well-lit image while handholding my camera. This is the only time I use any kind of flash in my flower photography. My personal preference is to use natural light, but without a tripod and in areas where the light is minimal, the the macro ring light allows me to get images I could not get otherwise. Learning to use a macro ring light or flash with flowers requires of bit of experimentation and practice. Sometimes I like the result, sometimes I don’t. My ultimate goal is to make it look so natural that you don’t know I’ve used flash. That may require experimenting with powering the flash exposure up or down to get the most natural-looking effect. The flash will also serve to darken your background – a great bonus for those complicated and distracting backgrounds in exhibits. Notice how the macro light completely darkens the background of the two images below.
As with any photography, practice, patience, experimentation and a willingness to make mistakes to learn are all components of success. Orchid photography is not easy but with some success you will join the many who adore these exotic and fascinating flowers.