As one of life’s perennially contrary creatures, I have never tended to espouse novelty of any sort simply for the sake of it: usually the opposite. When classmates were listening to the Beatles, I was into the Pretty Things, Them…and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (still am, in fact!) an embryonic member of the awkward squad and now a fully paid up veteran!
The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
We are all victims of our pre-programming and I know that a formal scientific background makes me want to see sharply delineated details in plants and insects, for example, and not view them as ‘objects’ to manipulate or distort. The wonder of the structure speaks for itself, if you like and through that I can get a fuller picture of how it all works and fits into the scheme of things. However, I long ago moved away from pure science, have far wider interests and know that there was much more to life. For many years I have been learning, sometimes in spite of myself to embrace other techniques…pushing against my personal barriers. It does not do to become static and complacent.
The inescapable fact is that I spent so much time pondering ways of squeezing maximum definition from lenses that I initially had an almost physical ‘revulsion’ to seeing the widespread use of out-of-focus images of plants labelled as ‘art’. The problem was that I knew those praising them (and those taking them) were seldom in control of their craft and that, in many cases, the results were a consequence of accident and not design. The latter might be called art: the former not.
Adriatic lizard orchid (Himantoglossum adriaticum)
When I dismiss something there is a nagging voice inside that says “take another look; it could be just you and your prejudices – come on fight against them”. Thus, I have embraced soft focus of backgrounds as a standard technique, less so the foreground with shallow depth but will use it to make a point when I can discern something to retain in sharp focus. Others handle this sort of thing much better than I can and I admire and like the work of two photographers in particular: Sue Bishop and Sandra Bartocha who reveal other aspects of plants through their innate sense of art.
So, now for the confession: whereas I initially liked the white background material Niall and Clay were producing – I did not think that it would do a great deal for me. Several thousand images later, I am hooked (with line and sinker) because the technique has led me to look anew at subjects with which I felt I was completely familiar.
Natural backgrounds had always been my preference whether soft when I used tele-macro lenses or detailed when the rectangular fisheye is on the prowl. I had an aversion to cut-outs on white because I had seen so much poor quality material that looked as if someone’s four year old (with round-tipped safety scissors) had been let loose in the office. Many books with picked plants placed on a white/off white background, though commercially very successful were not in the spirit of the way I think of plant photography. There is a sterility about them.
I persisted, in part, because I admire my two fellow bloggers, but also because I have always been passionate about natural history illustration and have spent time and money seeking out books with hand coloured plates. I love drawing and am competent with pen and ink for line drawings – a decent ‘copier’ – but have always felt that if I had the gift of an old friend Mike Clark who shares my passion for Kenfig in South Wales I would hardly bother to pick up a camera. His drawings are exquisite.
Wild gladiolus (Gladiolus segetum) – a first stacking experiment
Wild orchids are a case in point: I discovered my first bee orchid at 10 years of age and a passion for these plants has ruled job choice, places to live and so on. I have written books on them, hundreds of articles and done a lot of conservation work. So may of them are old friends and yet, with the element of translucency that an illuminated white background conveys I am looking anew and in awe at what is revealed.
There is always, in any work I do, from cookery to shaping wood, a need to experiment – it has always been thus and it will end with the last breath I take. So, I have been working on a few things that others might like to try, too.
Part of it involves that old immutable passion for depth of field and sharpness and I have been doing a great deal of image stacking over the past couple of years – much more recently with the need to get new material for a book. I have put up some Pixiq posts on this and there are several spreads in the new book, Digital Close-up Photography Q &A which is currently being printed in China.
The bottom banner is not my choice – such things make me cringe, but that is marketing for you. Some books published on this subject area include the word ‘Digital’ as no more than a kind of verbal candy floss something to sell copies. There is nothing new to add to books already published (and copied) that were film based. This book really is about the way your digital camera can revolutionise close-up work of all sorts with a lot of new material that you will not find elsewhere…though I have no doubt that, from my past experiences it will be plagiarised. The book should be available by October of 2011.
Below – a few shots to show the experiments underway
I have attached four shots of the same orchid – the violet limodore (Limodorum abortivum) a saprophytic species that has incredible, almost ‘tropical’ flowers when you get up close. It also has very stout, robust stems that counter any tendency to movement in a breeze – an important choice with image stacks.
In this post I have put a selection of images some of which have been obtained with image stacks. It is not quick-fix work and not the easiest of techniques for field use. Through the course of many experiments I have found that the most important thing is to ensure that, between images, there is a little subject movement as possible. Yes, the major programs (Helicon Focus and Zerene) can resize and register BUT the more closely you get this factor right in the image stack the better the final result.
I have used the MYN white background approach with image stacking. The set up involves a Nikon D300 set on manual using 1/250th second and an aperture of f/8 with a Nikon R1C1 and a third flash gun a Nikon SB900 that is set on manual (1/8th power) used to illuminate the panel. The stacking program used is Helicon Focus with the camera controlled from a MacPro laptop using another program Helicon Remote and around 25 images per stack – many more than I did when I first started and adjusted the lens manually – the program drives the stepper motor in the AF mechanism.
To cut down any chance of movement I have been using a windshield made from envelope stiffening plastic. I cannot yet see it as a technique I shall be using extensively when single shots at f/22 work well and are quicker to do…though that might be one of those cases of ‘famous last words’
To my eyes the images have a strong graphic quality – even moreso than single image shots. Every single plane is in sharp focus and, after all, no plant illustrator ever painted a detail as if it was out of focus. These are experiments and I would be interested to hear what people think.