How to Shoot a Pistil
By David G. Leach, North Madison, Ohio
The budding hobbyist who wants to photograph rhododendrons, or the veteran fancier who is a budding photographer, has an initial choice to make in the purchase of the camera which will determine how flexible his picture taking can be, and how versatile the results. The Brownie in the attic won't do. One of those newfangled contraptions with a lens on the front will be needed.
There are two basic types of 35 millimeter cameras on the market: the range-finder, in which the focus is found by superimposing one image on another; and the single lens reflex, in which the photographer will record exactly what he sees on a ground glass screen, including the all-important depth of sharp focus in his field of view.
The single lens reflex is far easier to use, and it is preferred for its versatility by nearly all nature photographers. There are many more lenses of varying focal lengths and cost available, and accessories which equip it for anything from photography-through-the-microscope to the ultra-telescopic.
Prominent among minimum-cost single lens reflex cameras with any pretension to quality is the Practica Nova 113, which lists at $99.95 and, because photographic equipment is heavily discounted in big city camera stores, actually sells at about $60, with inbuilt exposure meter, an f2.8 lens and a carrying case. At intermediate lens openings it will produce slides as good as those from a camera costing eight or ten times more. The classic Exakta, the original single lens reflex camera, offers a substantial increase in features to meet a greater range of conditions, and many accessories. In its latest version, the model VX IIB, it is available from large discount camera stores for about $90, with an f2 lens and carrying case. An integral exposure meter can be had at extra cost or a separate meter can be used.
The finest single lens reflex cameras are probably the Nikon FTN and the new Nikkormat FTN, ranging in price from about $220 to $300 at the big New York and Chicago stores. The exposure meters on these cameras "read" 60% of the total light from a small area in the center of the scene to be photographed, so that the subject will be correctly exposed regardless of darker or lighter areas surrounding it. These cameras are superb optical systems, popular with professional photographers.
A lens with a focal length of 48 to 55 millimeters will be the best. Lens extenders, which increase the image size two or three times, and extension tubes or a bellows device are available as accessories for $20 to $25 to produce ultra-close-ups of single flowers, for photographs of the tiny trusses of such rhododendrons as the Lapponicums, and so on. A single flower a half-inch across will fill the entire screen upon projection. None of these devices approaches the speed and convenience of use Macro-Kilar lens, which cost $150. It can be focused from infinity to as close as two inches to the subject.
A 28 millimeter wide-angle lens is useful for photographing rhododendrons in the landscape, where the photographer can not stand far enough way to encompass all of his subject with a standard intermediate lens.
The best color film for rhododendron photography is probably Ektachrome X. There is no ideal film, so there are naturally differences of opinion, but professional nature photographers are now using more of this film than any other.
Having acquired the camera equipment and the film, the novice must then grasp the essentials of four easy subjects to produce superior photographs: shutter speed; lens opening the diameter of the aperture through which the light passes to expose the film; lighting; and composition.
The diameter of the lens opening is measured in f. stops, ranging, usually, from f2 or f2.8 through f4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 to f22. Each higher f. stop admits just half as much reflected light from the subject as the preceding. The selection of the right f. stop, either manually, using a separate meter, or automatically on the more expensive camera, determines whether the film will be correctly exposed. Equally important, it determines the depth of sharp focus in the field of view. A wide-open f2 setting gives only a shallow depth of sharp focus from the near to the far field in view. At the other extreme, a setting of f22 gives the maximum near to far sharpness.
The shutter speed should usually be determined by the lens opening that is chosen. The amount of reflected light from the subject which releases the film depends on both of these two factors. Obviously, if twice as much light is admitted for each lower f. stop, the shutter speed can be doubled for each step in the declining sequence of lens openings. For example, if the light meter shows that a lens opening of f8 and a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second will give the correct exposure, the next larger lens opening of f5.6 admits double the amount of light, so the shutter speed can be increased to 1/100th of a second; the same amount of light will reach the film, and the exposure will still be correct. In general, the lens opening should first be chosen which will give the desired depth of focus from near to far. The fastest shutter speed that can be used with such a lens opening, as indicated by the exposure meter, will usually give the best results.
Routinely, a minimum shutter speed of 1/150th of a second should be used for hand-held shots. Under poor lighting conditions it may be necessary to drop to 1/50 or even 1/25 of a second, but any wind-blown movement of the rhododendron truss, or tremor of the hand, may blur the picture. Ideally, a tripod should be used, which then frees the photographer from any concern about shutter speed; if necessary, a time exposure of 1/2 second or more can be used to obtain the desired depth of focus in combination with a razor sharp image providing the subject stays still.
"Lighting" means only the direction from which the light falls on the subject. Having chosen the truss, or group of trusses, or the complete plant which is to be photographed, an alert observation of the subject from every angle will reveal an amazing difference in the images it presents. In most cases backlighting, with the flowers between the camera and the sun, (Fig. 5) will be much the more dramatic and such lighting will usually best satisfy one of the three criteria for judging photographs: maximum impact or interest. Punch. Such lighting projects a sense of texture and often of translucence. The play of light through the corolla creates a pellucid range of color intensities which is interesting, from the deepest hue at the sides and bottom to a scintillating brilliance at the top. The subtleties are in striking contrast to the theatrical thrusts: the shadows are bold; the highlights are sparkling. To my mind, back-lit photographs of trusses or small groups of them are much the most successful in capturing the charisma of a rhododendron. This is especially true of red-flowered sorts.
Fig. 5. R. 'Crest', showing back lighting
Cecil Smith photo.
Fig. 6. R. 'Beauty of Littleworth',
showing front lighting.
P. H. Brydon photo
Fig. 7. R.'Calstocker',
showing side lighting
Cecil Smith photo
Sidelight, in which the sun shines upon the subject from left or right, is often effective, particularly for pink rhododendrons. (Fig. 7) It produces somewhat the same appealing range of tints from highlight to shadow as does backlighting, but in a lower key. In any case, the emotional temperature of pink is more subdued; it is inherently suited to a more restrained treatment. Mauve and other pastel hues are usually flattered by such lighting.
Front lighting, in which the sun is behind the photographer's back is rarely desirable. It produces an insipid, flat effect, lacking the highlight and shadow which lend animation to good photographs. Very dark colored rhododendrons, such as 'Purple Splendour', or those with corollas which are completely opaque, photograph well with front lighting, but even then the results will be better if the day is hazy or somewhat overcast. Bright sunlight is likely to produce a stark effect. When the photographer wishes to emphasize the whiteness of pure white rhododendrons, front lighting in full sun is probably the best. (Fig. 6) If it is possible to maneuver so that the immediate background is in shadow, the result will be all the more striking. The picture will be exposed for the white flowers, which will call for relatively little light admission; the shadows require quite a lot. The result will be glistening white flowers standing out crisply against an underexposed background so dark as to be almost black.
Red rhododendrons will be more intense in color and will appear to be more vibrant if they are photographed in the early morning or very late afternoon, when the light becomes redder as the sun begins to lower toward the horizon. Kodak films tend to be deficient in recording blue, and to emphasize yellow. Ektachrome X will give a more accurate rendering than Kodachrome II, but the latter is better for blue.
It is important to remember to take the meter reading at a distance which is about equal to the width of the subject. If a single truss is to be photographed, the exposure meter or the camera with inbuilt meter; should be held about five inches away to accurately measure the light reflected from it. The picture should be taken with the settings indicated at that position, not at the reading taken from the photographing position. Innumerable pictures are over- or under-exposed, particularly those made with cameras which have integral exposure meters, because the readings have been taken too far from the subject so that the light measuring cell responds to brighter or darker surrounding areas instead of to the light reflected from the flowers. The rule is simple: take the reading at a distance about equal to the width of the truss, or group of trusses, or the complete plant to be photographed.
Rainy day pictures often convey an appealing impression of freshness and spontaneity, but pale mauve, for example, and yellow-and-pink blends, as well as pastel orange; usually photograph entirely different on rainy and on sunny days. To minimize excessive blueness (except when photographing blue flowers) a skylight filter should always be used both on rainy and on overcast days, and when the subject is in the shade.
Composition, the final of the four concepts, is so abstract as to be almost in the realm of metaphysics. Painters have sought for centuries to arrange the elements of their designs so that they are integrated into a whole which is visually satisfying and complete. There are certain points of departure which will usually hold as guidelines.
There should be but one dominant center of interest, whether it be a single truss, a group of trusses or a specimen plant in bloom. If two or more subjects of approximately equal prominence are filmed, there will be a war for attention among them which can not be resolved.
It is almost never a good idea to put the subject in the center of the picture. Such placement gives a stolid, static effect. In photographing a specimen plant, it should be placed, usually, a third of the distance from one side and a third of the distance from the bottom of the picture. If possible, the portion of the picture remaining, on the horizontal axis, should place the plant in its setting, or suggest it. It is often possible to put the rhododendron in a dominant side position and to photograph an attractive part of the garden beyond it in a subsidiary perspective.
A group of rhododendrons in bloom will be more interesting and a sense of depth will be suggested if the plants can be framed between tree trunks, for example, or perhaps sighted through an opening in a curtain of foliage. The camera can often be positioned so that one or several flower trusses three or four feet in front of the lens can be placed in a corner of the picture with the landscaped plants in bloom beyond, and a gratifying sense of the eye entering into the picture results. This usually requires an exceptional depth of focus, with a small lens opening, and consequently a shutter speed so slow that a hand-held camera will not produce a sharp picture. A tripod is the answer. Any of these stratagems will relieve the dull flatness of plane which is characteristic of a group of sizeable objects a uniform distance from the camera.
A medium shot, with perhaps five or seven trusses, is probably the hardest to photograph in an interesting manner. Dispersed globs of color, without pattern or organization, on a field of green foliage, do not make much of an aesthetic contribution. If a viewer can grasp a picture at a glance, it is apt to be trite and unrewarding. If it holds his analytical interest and attention, it is almost certainly a successful photograph.
By circling a sizeable rhododendron it is frequently- possible to find an opportunity to take an upward shot of a group of trusses against a blue sky. This is such an obvious solution that it is almost a photographic cliché, but it is still a lot better than pointing the camera at the middle of a specimen plant and recording flower trusses in random array. With a tripod, which allows great depth of focus and a slow shutter speed, it is possible to place one truss in a dominant foreground position and move the camera until others in the background are in a pleasing arrangement which enhances the composition, somewhat in the manner of a chorus supporting the soloist. A group of flower trusses challenges the imagination and ingenuity of the photographer. The solutions are limited only by the extent of the impulse to progress from a snapshot toward a graphic recording which reflects a creative approach on the part of the photographer.
The single flower truss is the easiest of all to picture in an interesting manner, but even in this permissive age it is better not to photograph the naked limb. At least a mini-skirt of foliage should be shown. For a terminal flower cluster on an upright branch, the camera should nearly always be held vertically; the flowers would normally be about a third of the distance from the top; and some leaves at the bottom of the stem will give variety in color, shape and texture.
This is the departure point. Now the photographer rings in variations on the theme. Interesting echoes of the subject, out of focus in the background, can reinforce the impact of the color, form and structure of the truss, isolated and seen more intimately than ever it is likely to be viewed by the casual eye among many others on the plant. In the manner of the Renaissance painters, the single truss can be positioned to one side and the background can suggest a long perspective somehow related to the subject. Again, the challenge is to the photographer to devise fresh new means of creating a stimulating setting for a familiar subjects.
One of the alternatives is to isolate the subject by selective focus from any background or foreground which does not intentionally contribute to the picture. The eye unerringly- seeks a sharply defined object and rejects others which are blurred, so that the viewer concentrates on one center of interest. If a single truss is the photographic subject, for example, the f. stop, which determines the depth of sharp focus from near to far, should be low enough that there is no distracting background clearly- defined. Instead, the image of any confusing foreground or background should be blurred, so that the viewer's attention is riveted on the clearly defined subject. As the photographer varies the f. stops while viewing the image on the ground glass screen of the camera. he will shortly arrive at the point where only the subject is sharply delineated. Any irrelevant background will not be distracting because it is out of focus.
It is by no means necessary to photograph only a fully open truss. The most interesting and dramatic rhododendron picture I have ever seen was on a color calendar sent to his American friends by Robert Seleger, the Swiss landscape architect and rhododendron fancier. It shows in an extreme close-up, such as would be obtained with a Macro-Kilar lens, a single open flower, and behind the unopened buds of the truss forming a framing triangle in a deeper tint.
Flower photography is, perhaps, at its best when an effort is made to catch on film a beautiful, imaginative image in the mind's eye, but the snap-shutter with an Instamatic may be just as pleased and proud of his forthright results. In either case it is surely the most important means of communication among rhododendron growers at all seasons and at any distance.