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Journal American Rhododendron Society

Current Editor:
Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 53, Number 1
Winter 1999

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A Better Image: A Guide to Photographing Rhododendrons
Eleanor Philp
Fort Bragg, California

 When I pick up my camera to photograph for the day, I feel certain that this time I will get "a better image." The equipment I decide to use at any given time depends on my plans for that day. I have five children, each a favorite in a way different from the others. The same applies to my cameras. For me there is not just one camera, or one lens, that would be right for all jobs, any more than there would be one child I favored above others.

Equipment
Know your equipment. This ranks at the top of my list of rules. Take time to study your camera, including the lenses and accessories. When you become familiar with these pieces, they treat you like an old friend, doing their best for you.

R. dalhousiae var. rhabdotum, 
dripping with pollen, was photographed at F16 to keep the whole subject in focus. It was 
shot with a no. 105 macro lends and a no. PK13 extension tube.
R. dalhousiae var. rhabdotum, dripping with pollen,
was photographed at F16 to keep the whole subject in
focus. It was shot with a no. 105 macro lends and a
no. PK13 extension tube.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

Composition rules
Composition rules are not hard and fast but rather guidelines which can often be successfully stretched. Know the rules and consider them carefully when looking through your viewfinder. Think of using other choices before releasing the shutter. Composition means the arrangement of all elements in a picture, including shapes, colors, and shades. In the end you must learn to trust your own eyes and judgment. Learning the techniques of photography is much easier than training yourself to see good photographs. Composing well takes time and practice.

Lighting
When used with thought and care, lighting adds dimension to your photos. I prefer sun on my subject if doing close-ups. For garden scenes I like diffused light. It spreads evenly, giving a softening of texture not found under bright light. If the sun shines too brightly, the sunny areas look too light, and shady areas too dark. If using subdued lighting, the whole scene comes together with better balance.

Natural light
The sun at a 45 degree angle provides the most versatile light. Front light, sidelight, or backlight are available simply by changing where you place your camera. When doing close-ups in my own garden, I find I need to consider conditions other than just light. The sun doesn't rise over the trees until mid-morning, and by early afternoon the wind starts rising. To use sun for close-ups, I must work within the fairly short time span of late morning. Getting the garden scenes is much better then too. The early daylight, with no wind, provides ideal time for this type of photography. You need to work within the conditions available to you when you do your own work.

The rough leaf surface of R. 
edgeworthii was photographed with front lighting.
The rough leaf surface of R. edgeworthii
was photographed with front lighting.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

FRONT LIGHTING. Front lighting works well for showing all the details on the surface of your subject.

SIDE LIGHTING. This is an excellent light, whenever possible, that adds depth and drama, bringing out texture. It is the most useful type of light when texture is important.
BACK LIGHTING. Back lighting is the most dramatic light of all when used for showing hair on flowers, leaves, and insects.

Flash attachments
As stated earlier, I prefer natural light but it isn't always possible. A flash attached to the front of your camera provides a quick and easy way to get light but can give an unnatural flat appearance. A bracket attached to your camera, holding two or more lights, gives better results but adds weight and may need constant adjusting.

The thick indumentum of a bud of 
R. falconeri ssp. eximium was photographed in bright sun with a no.105 macro lens and no. 
PK13 extension tube.
The thick indumentum of a bud of R. falconeri ssp. eximium
was photographed in bright sun with a no.105 macro
lens and no. PK13 extension tube.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

Close-ups
MACRO LENSES. Macro lenses close focus and give you a flat field photograph. Using a standard lens can distort the edges if you get too close to your subject. A macro lens does not make a close-up or any photo look different. It does, however, keep everything in focus right to the edges. For extreme close-ups of flowers or other subjects, this is important.

DIOPTERS. Diopters make a good inexpensive tool for close-ups. These rings fit onto any lens on your camera. They come in different strengths, measured in diopters such as +1, +2, and +3. The greater the number, the greater the magnification. While it is possible to add several diopters to one lens, when you add another lens to your camera you lose some optic quality.

R. groenlandicum was photographed in 
bright sun, with the sun to the left of the photographer. A no. 105 macro lens and no. PK13 
extension tube were used.
R. groenlandicum was photographed in bright sun, with the sun
to the left of the photographer. A no. 105 macro lens and
no. PK13 extension tube were used.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

Tripod
Using a tripod improves almost any photograph, especially close-up photography. With your camera mounted on a tripod, carefully check the viewfinder to ensure that you are getting what you want, because what you see is what you're going to get. Remember that when you magnify anything on film you also magnify camera vibrations and subject movement. Use a tripod heavy enough to stop any movement in the wind, but light enough for you to carry. Use your tripod to crop your picture before you release the shutter. You can slowly adjust the camera, mounted on the tripod, to ensure you get exactly what you want.

The red calyx of R. ciliatum was 
photographed at F8-30.
The red calyx of R. ciliatum was photographed at F8-30.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

The Eye of the Camera
HOW THE CAMERA SEES. The camera sees objects differently than the human eye. Our eyes mentally correct distortions while the camera does not. Avoid a background that is distracting, or the wrong color. You may not notice while you concentrate on the main subject, but the camera sees and remembers all. Become accustomed to looking at everything in your viewfinder.

BRACKETING. While you and your camera become better acquainted, you will learn more that is essential by bracketing. This teaches you firsthand about the difference in the various ways your camera responds to you with the settings you control. I speak more to the 35mm users than to those using "point and shoot" cameras. The latter are pre-set, most of them having only a few variations available. If using a 35mm, you will want to familiarize yourselves with what is available on these cameras. To learn for yourself, bracketing is almost essential. To do this, keep careful records of the aperture setting and shutter speed. When you get the pictures back you can then compare and see for yourself the differences these settings make. With practice and understanding of your camera, you need no longer keep these records but will automatically know what to do.

POLARIZING SCREEN. Of the various filtering screens on the market this is the one I always carry with me and use the most. For starters, it can make a blue sky stand out much better. Another good purpose is for photographing flowers that are showing too much sun reflection. The color shows up as it does to the eye, with the reflection making the true color look "washed out." This is especially true of dark red and the green of leaves.

Rhododendron 'Noyo Chief 
photographed with a polarizing screen.
Rhododendron 'Noyo Chief photographed with a polarizing screen.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

DEPTH OF FIELD. Depth of field refers to the distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in focus in a picture. Apertures refer to the f-numbers. In turn, this represents the lens opening on your camera. One way to remember apertures is the simple fact that the larger the f-stop, the more distance will be in focus. If you use f-2, only a small part will be in focus, while if you use f-22 everything in the viewfinder will be in focus. Using this feature enables isolating what you want to show up best in the shot.

SHUTTER SPEED. To photograph a moving subject, choose a faster speed than if capturing a flower with your camera on a tripod when there is no wind blowing. Use a high-speed film for dim light and possibly a medium or slow speed film for bright light. Also consider the need to stop action or obtain great depth of field. Depending on how much you want in focus, you need to balance the f-stop (aperture) with the shutter speed.

This landscape shot of the Philp garden 
was photographed at F8-15.
This landscape shot of the Philp garden
was photographed at F8-15.
Photo by Eleanor Philp

In Conclusion
In conclusion, as important as anything said here, I urge you to enjoy! Photography is a hobby that enhances your enjoyment whenever you use it. It continues to give pleasure as you go over your pictures in years to come. You share it with friends and family. Memories flood back as you remember details otherwise forgotten. It teaches you to look with a closer eye, seeing more of what surrounds you. It provides something that can't be done with most hobbies: if the results don't satisfy you, learn from the error and destroy the evidence. Have fun!

Eleanor Philp, a member of the Noyo Chapter, frequently gives talks on photography at ARS conferences and conventions. This article is based on her talk at the recent ARS Western Regional Conference in Florence.


Volume 53, Number 1
Winter 1999

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