One of the challenges of nature and wildlife photography is learning how to move beyond the obvious in your artwork. This applies whether you are photographing brown bears in Alaska or flowers in your backyard. How do we move beyond the cliché and the trite? Can we create something different from the imagery we have all seen ten thousand times before?
As everyone begins to dive into the Spring Photo Contest in earnest, I want to take the opportunity to address this because being able to think and see outside of the box may mean the difference between you getting a few likes on Facebook and winning a $1,000 tripod.
Working with smaller subjects around your house or neighborhood is actually the ideal scenario for learning to see and think creatively with your photography. Flowers and insects, for example, are usually quite accommodating to you exploring different angles and perspectives and compositions. Bears are different, of course. But the same principles still apply. And learning to think and see differently with subjects that you can easily work around will ultimately translate into you being able to see the possibilities when it comes to bigger subjects later on.
In many ways, photography is the art of seeing. And the creative process behind photography, is the art of seeing the possibilities.
More often than not, this is the single biggest thing that separates the world’s best photographers from everyone else.
And this is why I say that understanding the technical side of photography isn’t the end goal, it’s just the entry fee that allows you to begin playing the game.
It’s probably safe to assume that the first photograph you “see” when approaching a subject is not actually the best photograph that can be made in the situation. You have to learn to “work” a subject. You have to move around, change angles, perspective, get close, back up, change lenses, consider flashes. Each one of these things dramatically changes the photographs that are being created. As you do this, you begin to learn and understand what you like, what you don’t like, and how subtle and not so subtle changes affect everything. And the more you do this, the more you learn to work a subject, the easier it becomes for you to recognize possibilities and think creatively in the field with the next subject you encounter.
To emphasize all of this, and to hopefully help spark a little creative thinking for everyone as they are seeking that winning photograph for the photo competition, I went out into the woods behind my house and created a series of photographs of one single subject to show you how this process often unfolds. And I think, if you pay attention, this will also help to reveal how the creative processes works for me personally.
The species on display here Carolina Jasmine, Gelsemium sempervirens.
The word sempervirens, by the way, happens to find its way into the binomial name (Scientific / Latin name) for a lot of different species. Coast redwoods, for instance, are named Sequoia sempervirens. And the word is simply Latin for “always alive” or, as we more commonly think of it, “ever green.”
This little species of vine is one of the first flowers we see on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks (aside from daffodils which are actually a non-native species from Eurasia). Though we generally consider the plant toxic with the annoying side effect of death, the Carolina Algonquians had a grocery list of medicinal uses for this plant. Most often the plant was used as an antispasmodic and for slowing the heart rate. Today, science backs up the use of this plant’s alkaloids for reducing blood pressure, treating migraines, and there is even really interesting research being done on its ability to retard the growth of tumors. But proper dosage and preparation mean the difference between medicine and deadly poison with this flower. So, you’re probably better off just photographing it!
These days, the two bodies you can most often find living side by side in my bag are the Nikon D5 and the Nikon Z6 mirrorless. Both cameras serve different purposes for me. Both are really good at certain things, and not so great for others. Add them together, for me as a Nikon shooter, they become the perfect pair of tools for my style of photography.
I am going to always opt for the mirrorless camera in situations like this for three primary reasons:
- Mirrorless is lighter and thus lends itself to being easier to work with as I visually explore and fine tune compositional adjustments in situations like this.
- Thanks to the EVF (electronic viewfinder), I am able to guarantee critical focus every time with the use of Focus Peaking – where the camera places a colored outline around everything that is in focus. Macro photography is almost always simpler in manual focus, and focus peaking means you nail your manual focus every single time.
- Given that I will be moving around the flower working various angles as I try to find a composition I like, the light will be changing dramatically every step of the way. Again, thanks to the EVF of the mirrorless, I can have a live histogram running inside of my viewfinder so that way I know EXACTLY what is happening with my exposure at all times instead of having to check light meters and pull away from the camera to check the histogram on the back.
None of this is to say you can’t create all of these photographs I am going to show you with a DSLR. It’s just that certain features associated with mirrorless cameras with their Electronic Viewfinders makes it simpler.
Now, when one approaches a pretty little flower cluster like this in the woods, the normal reaction would be to most likely reach for a 105mm macro lens, find a distant background, good frontal lighting, and create a simple portrait of the species.
I’m not going to do that, however.
Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with this. It’s just that the point of this article is to show you how important it is to think creatively. So, if the obvious thing to do is what I spelled out above, then I am going to start out be scratching that off the mental list entirely here.
Instead, I decided to reach for a very non-traditional lens: a manual focus Loawa 15mm macro lens.
A 15mm is an extreme wide-angle lens. Add to this the lens’ ability to focus at 4.7mm (yes, that’s millimeters!!!!), and you have a tool that can make the smallest of things larger than life while also including the surrounding environment. Do you see where I’m going with this?
I love this lens. I love the look and effect created by it. It’s sharp enough for any and all applications I have ever thought of using it for. And I can do things with this lens that is just not possible with any other.
Let me step back here for a moment and emphasize this last sentence about doing things with this lens I can’t do with any other.
When it comes to art, when it comes to visual storytelling, tools that carry such attributes always catch my attention. If there is something unique about a lens or a piece of equipment that allows me to tell a visual story that is not possible without it, I will probably buy that and add it to one of my camera bags. I’m always looking for new and creative ways of revealing the beauty of the life around me.
As I began to visually explore the situation, I quickly realized that frontal and even side lighting here were the most boring and mundane compositions I could make. Not only was the light flat and unattractive in this particular situation, the background was terribly distracting. Technically, the live oaks in the background were perfectly lit. But this competed with the flowers themselves in the composition.
By backlighting the flowers, I quickly found a series of photographs I liked. And in the process, I immediately saw the opportunity to add a sun star to the composition.
When I first approached these flowers, I was not thinking about extreme wide angle closeups, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about including a sun star. But, as I visually explored the possibilities, it became evident that this would be very easy to do here and could potentially add that creative pop I was looking for.
When creating sun stars, you simply need a medium or wide-angle lens and an f/stop of f/16 or f/22. Sun stars are easiest to create when the sun is right on the edge of something – sort of peaking around if you will. But really this has more to do with cutting light enough for you to see the so-called star – which is really just the aperture blades inside of your lens. The other thing you have to remember, is that since you are pointing a lens at the sun now, you will have to reduce your exposure down considerably to define the points of the star. This is where the live histogram comes in handy.
The photograph wasn’t all that bad. I had a sun star. I had back lighting through the pedals of the flowers which created an interesting look and feel. And the extreme wide-angle macro really allowed me to make the flowers larger than life. However, by having to under expose the photograph so much to compensate for the sun being in the composition, the flowers were very muted.
Upon seeing this, I knew it was time to break out a flash.
Anytime I am working with wide angle macro and I need / want to use flash, I reach for the KX-800 Twin Flash. This is one of the strangest pieces of equipment I own. It looks like an alien, or some crazy insect on top of my camera. But as strange, and as “plasticky” as this thing is, the two long articulating arms with flashes on their ends, is exactly what I need to get the light into the angles I need when working at such extremely close distances.
I don’t always use both flash heads on KX-800. However, in this instance, I knew I wanted one flash to produce a slightly angled light to create shadows (read: texture and dimension), and the other flash to slightly fill in some of those shadows at the same time.
With the crazy twin flash set in place, I was then able to go about creating compositions where I had both a nicely lite cluster of flowers, AND a sun star.
You will notice that the background becomes quite dark in the whole process. It’s not black. But it is very dark. Personally, I like my backgrounds a little darker than my subjects. It helps things pop. But in this situation, the dark background was more a byproduct of exposing for the sun star, thus turning the trees and vegetation that the sun was behind into silhouettes.
I experimented with a number of different compositions using the two flashes in conjunction with the Laowa 15mm macro. And as you can see from one of these images, the extremely close minimum focusing distance really allows you to get right on top of your subject, making it larger than life.
As much as I love the 15mm macro lens and the unique look to the photographs I create with it, those images often take on a little bit of surrealism. Things don’t really look like this, of course. The effect is very cool in many ways, but it can seem almost sensational or hyperbolic for me – though I realize these words may make zero sense to you when I apply them to a photograph.
In any case, as much as I loved the effect that I was able to create here, I wanted to go beyond this.
I really like the Carolina Jasmine. It’s a small, and delicate flower. It’s not an “extreme” species, if you will. And so I wanted to create something a bit more elegant to compliment my perception of the species.
So, back to the camera bag.
This time, I broke out the 105mm macro. You know, the lens I said I didn’t want to use because it seemed too obvious of a choice.
The cliché nature of photographing with this lens, however, had nothing to do with the lens itself. What I had perceived to be cliché was only the photograph I immediately saw in my head.
Remember, lenses are tools for achieving your artistic vision.
We are limited only by the depths of our own imagination and creativity. As I worked this subject, my imagination expanded as I saw new and interesting concepts roll across the silver screen of my mind’s eye.
I tossed the twin flash and the 15mm back into the camera bag. I attached the Nikon 105 macro to my Z6 and then opened up a duffle bag full of stuff that looks more at home on a fashion shoot than in the woods.
Wanting that “elegant” look I had in my mind meant that I needed soft and elegant lighting to work with. And that meant one thing: a 24-inch softbox.
Personally, I love the 24” Westcott Rapidbox. Other photographers have their favorites. This is mine. It’s very fast to assemble. Folds up and packs small. And it all fits into my world very easy whether I am in the forest behind my house or the rainforest of Panama.
To make things easier, I pulled a light stand out of the duffle as well. Given that it’s a flower I am photographing, I don’t need to handhold the softbox and the camera at the same time. The flower isn’t moving on me. It’s not going anywhere. Thus, a cheap light stand (I buy cheap ones because of what I subject them to) was the obvious accessory here.
Attaching a flash to the bracket of the softbox, I then attached the whole setup to the stand and situated it next to the flower.
The photograph in my head was one with a black background. I didn’t want anything competing with the flower. I wanted to balance shadows with kisses of light on certain parts of the flower and vine to showcase its shape and colors and curves.
To do this, with the flash still off, I reduced my exposure by 4 full stops to kill all ambient light. I took a test photograph and confirmed everything was totally black – or damn near – and called it perfect.
Next, I dialed in a manual flash setting on the flash trigger I had now set up on the hotshoe of my camera.
The trigger, or commander, communicates with the flash remotely. Some do this optically and need line of site. I prefer radio transmission because it allows me complete creative control over how and where I set up flashes by not being limited to line of site.
Stepping back now, I realized that I liked the little figure S shape of the vine above the flower cluster. Studying the situation for a moment, it dawned on me that a photograph of this sort would be significantly stronger if I left a bit of the vine in the composition. This helps to give a sense of scale and delicacy to the flowers themselves, but the vine also lends a nice artistic touch to the overall composition – adding an interesting shape and a splash of red to offset the yellow and green.
The result, to me, was beautiful. But I am very biased when it comes to this sort of chiaroscuro lighting.
After creating a series of images like this, experimenting with slightly different angles and thus changing the way in which the flowers revealed themselves from the shadows, I felt like I had exhausted this look.
The sun was getting very low by this point. I had been at the whole process for nearly 2 hours by now. I was getting ready to pack up my equipment and hike back to the house when the sun dropped between a little gap in the vegetation near the horizon and new visions began dancing around in my head.
I repositioned the 24 inch soft box, and set myself up behind the flower again like I had originally. This time, however, I was using the 105mm macro which compresses perspective rather than stretching it like the 15mm macro.
I made exactly one photograph.
I would have liked to have made 2 or 3 or 20. But, the sun dropped below the little gap and was gone for good.
Art is subjective.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Maybe you prefer the wide angle look of the first photographs. Maybe you love the dark and elegant photos towards the end. Neither of these concepts are right or wrong. They are just creative ideas I had while photographing the same flower.
This is how you advance your photography. You work your subject. You experiment. You visually explore various options. And you never settle for the obvious.
Hopefully this helps everyone as they continue photographing close to home during the shelter in place and quarantines. Just get outside. And once there, think about at least peaking at what lies on the other side of the box you have created for yourself and your photography.
There is a big world of possibilities and whole new ways of seeing and telling stories with photographs if only you are willing to look.
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