Rainy Day in the Studio

It’s very wet and windy here and has been for a few days. So no chance of close-up photography in the garden. (Although, if I feel up to getting rather wet, I may go out in search of drip-covered spider’s webs later.)

For now, I have opted to stay warm and dry indoors. But what to photograph? Luckily, I don’t even need to go outside to pick some flowers. That’s because I tend to gather up odd bits of dried plant material and other natural bits and pieces that catch my interest, like these dried bougainvillea bracts.

I am fascinated by the structure of plants. There is such a variety of shapes and of ways that the parts of the plant are constructed. Looking at them from close-up allows you to see all the little details – sometimes much more than you would have expected from a passing glance.

Photographing these bougainvillea heads under studio lights gives the lace-like veins of the bracts a clarity and crispness. The strong light enhances the translucent bracts and also helps them to stand out against their plain white background.

These are very simple photographs to take but the results please me. It shows how worthwhile it is to gather up things like these – nature’s tiny creations – and to take a close look at them. Next, I really ought to go and photograph the flowers that are still on the bougainvillea plant. Luckily, that’s in the nice dry conservatory!

Dried bracts of bouganvillea flower

Purple Passion(flower)

These passionflower photographs are the result of an afternoon spent playing with a stem of the plant in my studio.

I photographed the flower and leaves to show their translucence. This makes the tiny veins in the petals and leaves stand out and gives a very crisp, sharp look to the photograph.

The colour changes a bit too. When seen under normal lighting (i.e. lit from the front or above), this passionflower is a soft pinky-purple. Here, though, the light from behind has bleached out the petal colours considerably and you can see more pink and red tones rather than the normal purple.

My setup for photographing flowers against a white background is fairly straightforward. I use a mini ‘shooting table’. Basically this is a sheet of translucent perspex on a metal frame. It’s bent into an ‘L’ shape (seen side-on). That gives both a background and a base for the photograph.

Because the shooting-table is translucent, you can shine studio lights through it. This gives a bright white background.

If you set the light levels so that there is a lot of light coming from behind the flower (in comparison to the light coming from the front), then you’ll get the maximum amount of detail in the veins of the petals.

To light the flowers from the front, I usually use two large studio flashes (strobes). One of these is fitted with a large, square softbox, which gives a very soft and even light. But the size of the softbox is more than a little awkward in my very small studio space!

The other light is fitted with a white (translucent) shoot-through brolly. The light from this is not as soft as that from the softbox, so it introduces a bit more shadow. This gives a bit more depth and modelling to the photograph.

If I want to have stronger shadows and a more dramatic feel to the image, I’ll use just the light with the brolly and leave out the light with the softbox. A reflector opposite the light is enough to put just a little light into the shadows.

By the way, if anyone knows the name of this particular passionflower, then please tell me! I’ve been wondering about it because it was labelled ‘Amethyst’, but Amethyst usually has a ring of purple filaments, instead of the white that this flower has. I’m intrigued and would love to know the correct name!

Passionflower ‘Amethyst’ or something else?

Tricky Manoeuvres: Hellebore Photography

I’ve been waiting for a chance to take photographs of these hellebores for a while. At last the weather has become calmer. The wind has died down again and there have even been a few dry spells.

It felt good to get back outside into the garden with my camera and I was relieved to see that the rough weather hadn’t harmed the flowers.

But actually getting into a good position to photograph them was going to be a bit tricky. At the best of times it can be awkward to get close enough to low-growing plants, especially when the ground has become too much of a swampy mess to kneel on. Hellebores make it even more difficult by insisting on hanging their beautiful little heads down. You have to practically get to worm’s eye-level if you want to see them.

Luckily for me, there was a stack of bags of compost nearby and I was able to drag one over and lie down on it to get my photographs. Having one elbow firmly wedged against a big plant pot helped to make sure that I didn’t take a nose-dive into the mud.

All this makes me realise that I may have to change the arrangement of some of the garden borders. Far too many of the smaller plants are positioned quite far into the border, so that you really need to get right into the border to photograph them. Without standing on the other plants. Or getting jabbed by something prickly. Or even sitting down unexpectedly in the mud! Hmm, this may need a bit of thought…

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Late Winter Colour: Primulas

By the time you’re reading this, the garden here will probably be under attack from gale force winds and heavy rain as storm Ciara passes through.

During this sort of gardener-unfriendly weather, I’m very happy to be able to stay inside, working in the comfort of my tiny studio space. So I am always on the lookout for flowers that lend themselves to indoor photography. For this, primulas are very obliging.

Primulas are easily available at this time of year in a great variety of colours and markings. They don’t cost much to buy and the flowers, once picked for the studio, last well in water.

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To be able to photograph such short-stemmed flowers, I have a collection of very small containers that act as mini vases. The top photo has a square recycled-glass bottle that is only 2 inches high – just the right size for very small flowers. The container in the other photos is probably an old eye-wash glass and it’s wide enough for several flowers.

Other useful ‘vases’ for short-stemmed flowers include vintage ink bottles, candle and tealight holders and shot glasses. It’s been fun shopping for these in junk shops and vintage stalls – you never know what you’ll find that will help to make a good photograph.

Now that the primulas have been photographed, I must decide where to plant them. They somehow look a bit formal and perhaps too showy for most areas of the back garden (which is now developing a more ‘natural’ look), so they’ll probably be planted in the front garden. Sadly, it seems that these highly-bred primulas are not useful to bees so I won’t be buying many of them. (Instead I could buy the yellow-flowered Primula vulgaris, which is native to the UK and is a good plant for bees, butterflies and moths.)

I hope you enjoy this little bit of cheery colour!

Primulas-4557

Indoor Photography: Flowers with Studio Flash

During the winter I’m glad to be able to photograph plants indoors. It feels good to be able to stay warm and dry! And life is much easier when there’s no need to worry about the flower you’re trying to photograph waving around in the wind.

More importantly, taking photos indoors means that there is plenty of light available to me. I have a very small studio space set up in the house, complete with flash lighting, which allows me to be busy taking photographs at any time of day.

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I wanted the light to catch all the little crinkles and curled edges on the petals of the flower.

The photographs here were taken with a very simple setup. The white background is created using a small ‘light table’, which is basically a piece of translucent white plastic which is curved into an ‘L’ shape on a metal support. This gives a base and background that is lit with flash strobes both from behind and from below. These are adjusted to give an evenly lit bright white background to the photo.

The flower itself is lit with a flash fired through a white translucent brolly and a reflector at the side to provide a little bit of light to soften shadows. I like using this particular arrangement because it gives a slightly ‘harder’ light than the softbox that I’ve used for previous photos on this blog. This helps to bring out the shapes within the flower and gives a feeling of depth.

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The shadows help to give a sense of the shape of this cyclamen.

Having the flash pretty much to one side of the flower means that shadows can form in the ripples on the petals. If you look at the photograph below, you can see that there is a slight shine to the area at the centre of the flower, on the left side. This shows where the light is coming from. (More or less at a 45 degree angle, slightly higher than the flower and only just in front of it.)

If there wasn’t a reflector (a silver-coloured disc) at the right side, that side would be in shadow. The reflector is just enough to lighten heavy shadows without removing the shadows entirely, so you’re able to see the flowing shapes of the petals.

Digital photography has made using studio lighting far easier than it was with film cameras. (For years I used film, and I tended to stick with safe setups that I new would work.) Experimenting is easy when you can see the results straight away and you can soon find what happens when you move the lights around.

So when the weather’s turned miserable, I’m quite happy to be indoors, so long as I can find something to photograph…

Cyclamen-4259
The petals seem to swirl around this little flower, almost as if they’re floating.

Natural Sparkle

Because it’s almost Christmas, I thought I’d post some slightly sparkly frost photographs. They go to show that nature can be festive when she likes!

Last Christmas, I woke up to a frosty morning and was able to get outside and spend a bit of time taking photographs of a softly shimmering world.

This year we had a cold period much earlier in the month and I took these photographs then. I don’t think I’ll be outside taking photos this year because the forecast is not promising any frost or snow. (I’ll have a lazy morning inside!)

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Fennel seed head

Seed heads are among the most promising of garden subjects to photograph when they are decorated with ice crystals. For this reason, I don’t cut plants back at the end of autumn. (And, more importantly, really, it gives a better habitat for wildlife and a supply of seeds as food for birds.)

There are several seed heads that I particularly want to stay intact until the frost arrives – agapanthus, fennel, allium and daucus (wild carrot) – because they have the most interesting structures and look at their best when frosted.

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Allium seed head

The arrival of frost is one of the times I most enjoy garden photography. With luck, there will be a moment when the sun comes out. Then the frost will glitter and shine, making the garden come alive with exciting new images to photograph. Plants that may have looked quite ordinary before (like the hydrangea below) suddenly acquire a radiance  that makes them irresistible to me and my camera.

I wish you a joyful Christmas, full of fun and sparkle!

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Climbing hydrangea

Frost-Magic

The frost has been back again, giving us some chilly but sparkling mornings. I’ve been grateful to see it because we’ve reached the stage of the year when there are few flowers or plants left to photograph.

Stalking around the garden, camera in hand, I’m usually on the lookout for images that are only made possible because of the frost: veins on a leaf picked out in white, petal edges encrusted as if they’ve been dipped in sugar, or tiny crystals of ice building up on frozen plant surfaces.

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Tiny, frozen winter jasmine flowers with ice crystals building up on them.

The shady areas of the garden retain the most frost, and that shade can give a slightly blue tint to the white, which creates an even colder appearance. The lack of light makes it hard to get much depth of field in the photographs, even at fairly high ISO values. (I could use my tripod, but it’s much too cold to stand around for long and my feet feel warmer if I keep moving around.)

As the sunlight gradually starts to seep into the garden, I look for places where the frost has begun to sparkle in the sun. There won’t be much time before the frost begins to disappear as it warms up. This means I have to work quickly to capture the images that have attracted my eye.

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This climbing hydrangea is in one of the coldest parts of the garden, shaded by the fence and a tree.

Eventually I’m either too cold to stay out any longer or the frost has started to melt and drip off the wet plants. So it’s time to head indoors, first wrapping my camera in a large plastic bag to protect it from getting covered in condensation in the warmer air. (Outside, it’s all to easy to let the viewfinder get steamed up by my own breath – a frustrating interruption to taking the photographs!)

Once indoors, it’s time for a well-earned mug of coffee and a chance to get warm again while looking to see what new photographs I have. Frosty mornings can be productive and very satisfying!

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The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Frozen Flowers

On Monday we had the first frost of the year. Up until then, the weather had been mild and wet, so it felt as if it had come suddenly. There were still a few flowers in the garden, lasting much later than you might expect. And, of course, they were caught by the frost.

As you may imagine, this meant that I had a busy morning padding about the frozen garden with camera in hand.

Now that the plants are beginning to die back for winter, there’s not much left to photograph, so the intricate effects of frost give an opportunity that’s too good to miss. I took as many photographs as I could before the sun melted it all away. (And there will be more in later posts…)

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A passionflower bud, caught by the frost.

The echinacea flower (PowWow White) was frozen through, and this has enhanced the green tinge to the ends of the petals. The emerging flowers start off pale green, with a vivid green cone, gradually maturing to a white flower with a golden-yellow cone.

This colour-change makes for more photographic potential. The plant is a new addition to the garden and I’m looking forward to following its progress with my camera during the next year.

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Frosted penstemon ‘Raven’ – hope it can cope with the cold!

The passionflower is ‘Constance Elliot’, which I wrote about here. It was planted just last year and has flowered well during the late summer. The bud seems to have escaped any serious damage from the frost and the plant’s leaves are still firm and healthy-looking, so I reckon it hasn’t come to any harm. Even so, as it gets colder, I’ll protect the base of the plant with either mulch or frost-fleece.

If the winter gets really cold, I may also put fleece around the penstemons. I’ve lost a few of these in cold winters, but some varieties have gone on for years – especially ‘Garnet’, which seems to be hardier than most. (Pictured is ‘Raven’, which came through last year’s fairly mild winter easily. I hope it turns out to be thoroughly hardy too.)

The rose below is a tough old girl who doesn’t let anything bother her…’Zephirine Drouhin’, a rose that is both delightfully scented and thornless. This is probably my favourite plant in the whole garden. I’m glad that she doesn’t mind the frost!

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Rose ‘Zepherine Drouhin’, covered in frost now, but her flowers will perfume the air again next summer.

Passionflower Constance Elliot

Last year I wrote a post about passionflowers and said that I’d just planted the passionflower ‘Constance Elliot’ in the garden. I’m happy to tell you that it has come into flower for the first time. Hooray!

The flowers are smaller than those on the other two passionflowers I grow (‘caerulea’ and ‘Amethyst’) but that may be because the soil where it’s growing isn’t exactly wonderful. Luckily, passionflowers are drought-resistant, so the low rainfall here isn’t a problem.

The passionflower is now spreading itself comfortably around a vine-covered arbour and helps to create a shady sitting-place. (Very much needed this year!) The vine is in need of a good haircut, so it may be tricky to avoid cutting the passionflower by mistake. Passionflowers grow fast, but I want it to get well established so that it isn’t simply smothered by the grape-vine.

(And if you’re wondering, yes, we do get edible grapes growing in the garden here in Suffolk. But only just! They’d probably be sweeter if I knew how to prune and look after the vine properly – that’s a project for the near future.)

Passionflower Constance Elliot 2672
With its white petals and filaments, Constance Elliot is more subtle than Passiflora caerulea.

For the past week or two, I’ve been happily photographing the newly-emerging flowers. They don’t last long, so you need to be quick to catch a flower that’s still fresh. And, in this garden, you need to be especially fast to get to the flowers before slugs or snails can take greedy chomps out of them. (They sometimes eat my clematis flowers too – nothing more annoying than finding that the beautiful flower you wanted to photograph has suddenly got a big hole in it!)

The flowers photographed outside have a freshness and elegance, particularly where they have a background of lush green leaves. However, to get close to the detail of the flower, I picked one and brought it into my little studio.

The flower was set on a small ‘light-table’ that’s lit from below, with a soft light coming from above. This shows up the difference between the heavier sepals that provide the outer protection to the flower while it’s still in bud and the thinner, more translucent inner petals. You can see that there is quite a lot of green in the sepals – much more than you’d think when you see the flower growing outside.

Well, I’m going to go and take some more passionflower photos. And I’m hoping that ‘Constance Elliot’ will survive the next winter and provide more lovely flowers (and the opportunity for more photographs). You can see my earlier post about passionflowers here.

Passionflower Constance Elliot
Here you can see how translucent the inner petals are in comparison to the more solid outer sepals.

Elderflowers: Pink Fizz

Time moves fast in the garden. One moment a plant is in full flower and the next it’s covered in seedheads or berries.

This year especially, with so much new work to do in the garden, I’ve been finding it difficult to keep up with all of the plants and flowers that I want to photograph. Sometimes I leave a plant too long and then find that the flowers have gone over before I get near them with my camera.

A few days ago I realised that the flowers on our bronze elder were almost gone and I really didn’t want to have to wait a year to have another chance.

Having chosen one of the last few flowers, I decided to photograph it indoors. This was the easiest way to get a sharp image. It has been quite breezy here recently and it takes very little to make the elder’s long branches sway – so not much chance of being able to focus on the flowers!

Of course, I could have collected some of the flowers to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’. The flowers can even be fried in batter to make fritters. Or the flowers could be left to produce berries for making an elderberry syrup.

(The syrup really doesn’t appeal to me because the berries contain cyanide and other toxic substances. These are destroyed in cooking, but  I still wouldn’t fancy chancing it!)

Other parts of the elder tree also contain cyanide, which may be behind the superstitious belief that burning the wood is unlucky.

There are many old beliefs surrounding the elder tree. These are a strange, inconsistent mixture! One one hand, it was said that if you burned the wood, you would see the devil but on the other hand, having the elder planted near your house would keep the devil away.

In early times, the elder was thought to be a protection against witchcraft and evil spirits but by medieval times, it was reckoned to be both the wood used for Christ’s cross and the tree on which Judas hanged himself.

Well, there’s no confusion for me. I simply enjoy the pretty flowers while they last and the beautiful lace-like leaves and dark berries too.

Flowers of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'-2121
The tiny pink flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’ – and it will be pink!