Photographing Rhododendrons in Color
Ed Egan, Portland, OR
Photographing rhododendrons can be great fun no matter what camera you use. From a Kodak lnstamatic through 35 mm. to the larger format 2¾" × 2¼" or 4" × 5", all are capable of producing a pleasing picture of a rhododendron in bloom. The challenge is to reproduce the whole shrub or a single truss, and to do it in an artistically pleasing manner. Good color saturation, strong pure colors rather than weak washed out color, is the goal for the final print or slide.
Interesting close-ups of a single truss, or even an extreme close-up of a single floret (if properly lighted and correctly exposed) can be worth the effort spent.
Slightly overcast or diffused sunlight is better than clear, bright sun, as the shadows and highlights are not as contrasty. Without shadows the subject has no form, but the dead black shadows produced by too bright sunlight are also not desirable, as no detail can be seen in such shadows. Shadows that are semi-transparent, when some reflected light is filling in, are most pleasing and convey much more information about the flower form and detail.
The cameraman has some control over many of the variables, such as: light and shadow, color saturation, depth of field, and (to some degree) choice of background.
How then do we take advantage of all the variables that we can control? Of course, if the sun isn't shining at all, we can't do much to control it; but if the day is average, the normal haze will be sufficient to diffuse the harsh sun and produce shadows with some reflected light filling them.
The direction of the sun should be at approximately a right angle to the line between the camera and the subject; that is, the sun should not be directly behind your shoulder when you are facing the shrub or truss. Such lighting produces very flat pictures with very little contrast. Neither should the sun be directly in front of you as it is likely to shine in the camera lens and result in gross over-exposure and loss of detail. One exception is the use of carefully controlled back lighting to produce special effects, such as high-lighting the indumentum on a close-up of a leaf and truss. If the sun is neither directly in front or directly behind you, but rather off to the side, interesting shadows are produced which enhance the illusion of depth and form, giving three dimensional qualities to the picture. To see this effect most easily, walk around a bush and notice the change in form at the different angles of the sun.
To get a shot that is interesting and a little different, try shooting from a low angle with the blue sky as a background for the truss; and to add even more interest, use a little back lighting. But, be careful of the sun shining in your lens. Another branch of the same plant or some other foliage, or even your hand held in the right place, will mask the sun from your lens without losing the effect of back lighting on the truss.
For non-automatic cameras where focus and exposure can be manually adjusted, two things are important to keep in mind. Slight underexposure will produce richer, more fully saturated color. However, don't overdue it or the effect, though striking, will be unrealistic. Second, use your ratio of aperture to shutter speed to limit the depth of field; that is, the area of sharp focus, to only that part of the shrub or truss that is the main subject. By defocusing secondary trusses in the background, or other shrubs or branches that might be distracting, the primary subject is moved into the foreground of the picture. However, if you are working to get some special effect and require extremely great depth of field, use your tripod and time exposure so that you can use a very small aperture.