Playing With Plants
Well, in the first video we're going to start looking at how I play with selective focus.
Shall we run it?
I say we run it.
Many people know me as a wildlife photographer, but they may not know that privately I have a passion for plants. I've worked with plants in wild places all over the world, but I also grow them at home where I live in Santa Cruz, California. I'm lucky because not far from my home there's a world-class botanical garden. The Arboretum at the University of California in Santa Cruz has an amazing array of plants from Mediterranean regions. Places like New Zealand and South Africa and Australia. I'm gonna teach you how I photograph plants. I'm gonna show you a number of different methods, techniques and tools, and show you how I apply them to these exotic plants here, but I'm also going to explain how you can apply the same principles no matter where you are and where you live. You can apply them in your own backyard, in a local city park, or even at you...
r own kitchen table with a bouquet of flowers that you buy at a shop around the corner. So let's go play with plants. This is an amazing spot. Look what's peeking around the corner here. I can't even begin to describe the complexities of their biology, but we're here to take pictures of them.
They look like fireworks.
Yeah, they look like fireworks, look, explosions of color, and we've got three different kinds here. We've got the yellow ones, we've got the orange ones, and then in the background there's ones that look a little spikier, and they give us a really good opportunity to apply selective focus, so that's what we're gonna teach right now. So let's just put down our gear, and let's take some mental pictures. Before I bring my camera out I just want to get a sense of what I have in front of me, and I just want to come up with an idea for an image before I bring out the camera. Did you hear what I just said? Let's take a mental picture first. I think that's really important. As soon as a photographer puts a camera in front of his or her nose you begin to get a little myopic because depending on where you stand to what kind of lens you have on your camera it's gonna shape the way you look at your subject. I prefer to snoop around a little bit first, and I go into a discourse with my subject. What is it I'm seeing, and what is it that really appeals to me? Once I've done that then I'm ready to pick one lens or the other, so please take a mental picture first before you begin to take actual pictures.
Frans, talking a little bit about mental pictures how much pre-visualization are you doing before you go out on a shoot like this?
Well, depends, if I'm in a hurry, of course, it's maybe just a few seconds. Other times I may have read about a subject, and I have all these ideas in my head when I go on location. Then, of course, you have to be flexible enough that you can wipe off those ideas, and replace them with things that you actually see in front of you, but I think it's really important for any photographer any time to go into an internal dialogue, and that is what I do during the workshops as well. You'll hear me say that quite a bit. I ask students what is it you're seeing? What is it that really appeals to you in this particular situation? Depending on the answers they give me you'll come up with different technical solutions. Photography in my opinion is a mind game. It's not about all this stuff on the table here. It's about what is in here and what happens here.
Great, thank you.
Let's run the rest of the video. Many people think of macro photography as something that requires real precision and multiple strobes to show every little detail. We're gonna practice that later on, but right now I just want to show you how you can use a telephoto lens to apply a selective focus, and to capitalize on the color and on the shapes. So we're gonna keep our apertures wide open, and get a longer lens. When you focus on a subject your background will be thrown out of focus. What I would like you to start looking for is one flower that you can put in focus, but I want you to look as well for a foreground that you shoot through as you focus on your subject. Then at the same time we want to be looking for a background that is complimentary to the foreground. So, for instance, if you would like to take a picture of this flower as your subject you want to start searching for a sight line where you can maybe put this one in the foreground, and then you look for some other flowers like these orange ones that are sticking out above the rest, and you make that your background. Can you see in your mind's eye how that could be put together? The closer you come to this one in the foreground the blurrier it is, and it will become a very nice wash of color. You're not even gonna see any of the textures anymore. Focus goes in the middle and that becomes your background.
These are perfect.
Let's do it. It's still early morning. The sun is rising over there. Can we stop the video here for a sec. We're not gonna pause here for very long, but I like this backpack. It opens like a butterfly like a set of butterfly wings, and it's very easy to operate in situations outdoors. Let's carry on. But it's not hitting the plants just yet, so we have maybe half an hour of really nice soft morning light. Once the sun comes out it's gonna become a different game, but we'll worry about that later.
Frans, which lens would you recommend on this?
You have a 100 to 400, right?
I suggest you start with that. My toolkit for this section is a Nikon D800 camera, a 70 to 200 F28 telephoto lens, and I'm adding a tele-extender to it of 1. extension that gives me more reach. It turns the lens into a 100 to 300 millimeter lens. My settings are ISO 800. I'm putting the lens into manual focus. Turning on the VR reduction, auto white balance. Now I'm ready to play with plants. Before we go to work let's sync our cameras. Let's take a look at our ISO setting. I'll do an initial reading of the light at ISO I can expose at 1/250th of a second at F4, which is enough to use the camera handheld, but I'm still gonna stabilize it with a tripod if I need to, so maybe I'll go a little bit higher. Maybe I'll start off at 1,000 ISO, that gives me a little bit more of a margin. What do you have?
ISO with up to 800.
Yeah, 800 or 1,000. You've got a longer lens with that 400, so let's start at 1,000. Let's check the white balance as well. I always put mine in auto white balance because the camera is so good in recognizing different shades of light, and you're shooting raw files.
Okay, I do, too, and that way we can change things after the fact very easily. I put my meter in matrix metering mode. That means your Canon camera you have an equivalent mode, right?
Yeah, so those are the basic settings. I'm not bracketing. I'm going into single shooting mode, quality is in raw, so I think we're all set. Before we get ... Most of our cameras have very complicated menus. I'm gonna try and simplify the main tools for you. The three most important settings that I would like you to be aware of are your ISO. One of the amazing breakthroughs in modern digital cameras is the increased sensitivity that we have. In the days of film I was stuck with an ISO of 50 or 100, and you could push film to 200 ISO and that was it. These days we can apply an ISO of up to 100, if you use one of Nikon's flagship cameras, so look at your ISO as an enabler. It makes everything a lot easier, and you could hear me talk to Doug and say, let's crank the ISO up to 1, in the beginning of the morning. I'm a bit liberal when it comes to that. Some photographers say, well, you can't raise the ISO beyond 400, otherwise, you start seeing digital noise. Not with my cameras, and even if you see a little bit digital noise I'd rather get the picture than not get a picture and be pure, so the ISO is your best friend. Then your shutter speed is your safety net. You have to apply a shutter speed that is at least the equivalent of the focal length of your lens, so if you have a 200 millimeter lens, and you're shooting handheld I'd try to keep the shutter speed faster than 200 of a second. Give yourself a little bit of a safety margin if you're not quite steady and bump it to 400 of a second. So those are two technical settings, but the main creative control is your aperture, and we're gonna be hearing a lot about that in the course today because where you put your aperture whether you put it in the widest open setting, or whether you close it all the way down that has a tremendous impact on how your image looks. Is it it full of detail or is it full of color? Those are the three main ingredients. Those are the three main decisions you need to make in the field. Wide balance you can deal with after the fact if you shoot raw files, so let's carry on with the video. By tripod I would like you to get loose in the shoulders. Let's look for a subject, and then only when we need to do we apply a tripod. We can look around from this angle, but it's probably good to look from the other side as well. Let's go to the other side. Let's check it out. See here the orange flowers are mixed with the yellow ones. It makes for a very interesting mix, and you see the first light is hitting the ones over there.
We may want to take your tripod down to avoid that it's shown in the pictures. Let's see what we can find as a combination of specific flowers, and softness in the foreground and the background. Have you done anything like this before?
I've done a little bit not much.
See that's not bad, but I'm seeing too many flowers in focus. I'd like you to search for one, and make that prominent and more than that I would like you to look through a veil of other flowers while you focus on that one in the center. So that means coming a little bit closer to one or two like these here. You're just using them as a screen, if you will. I'm taking my lens of autofocus. We're so used to applying autofocus all the time, but the lens doesn't know what we're looking for, so in autofocus I can just kind of very subtly change the focal point until I see in the lens something that is a nice combination of smooth foreground, and a specific subject. Do you want to try it?
Can you, why don't you sit here, and I'll see if I can help you find a sight line. How about you, Kate, you want to come out here as well? There's no poison oak nothing to worry about. Did you follow what I was telling Doug? Oh, you're way ahead of us. You're way ahead of us.
Is your aperture wide open?
That's the key and this 300-28 renders your out of focus area is in this beautiful manner, so you're gonna do really well. (clicking) I gave Kate my 300-28, and had a hard time getting it back from her at the end of the day. It's not really designed to be a macro lens, but it is very effective as you can see, so let's carry on.
Do you mind, Frans, I'm gonna run out with a question if you don't mind. This is from Jay Groman. You use the Nikkor 70 to 200-28. Would there be much of a difference with the F4 in lieu of the 28?
The 70 to 200 F28 compared with the F4?
The F4, yeah.
Well, you get a little bit less blurring in the background than you do with the F because the wider the opening the smoother the background, and the foreground becomes. That is why that 300 28 and I have it here is such a nice lens to apply to plant photography. Here by comparison is the 70 to 200-28. So you see the lens opening is not quite as wide. Note, too, that for this section we're not using macro lenses at all. We're just using regular telephoto lenses. I'll come back to the difference between both of them a little bit later. Let's go with the rest of the video. Oh, yes, yeah, look at that. So we've got a beautiful veil of orange and yellow on the right-hand side, and then one flower in the upper right corner. Can we stop the video one more time? This is just a minor point, but you see that LCD screen protector in the back of Kate's camera is a cheap piece of plastic, and it really compromises the way you can look at your images. I get a higher quality piece of plastic that makes it much easier to see the quality of your images. When you have a $2,000 camera spend another $20 extra on getting a high quality piece of plastic at the back. Let's carry on with the video.
More in the background.
Sure, you can get closer here. This is a dead bush don't worry if you walk through it. I'm gonna come in this way, and I'm gonna climb a little higher, and I'm just nibbling at the plants. Sometimes it works better if you move yourself instead of trying to refocus. It's still early in the morning, so in that shady part of the meadow the grass is green, but it's also a little bluish. Early morning light can be a little bit cool, so look what I've got here, Doug. Can you see this? You have the green of the meadows a little bit blue, and that's a very nice contrast with the warm colors of the flowers, so keep that in mind as well when you look for color combinations. It's all about the lights and the colors. I think I see something here that works for me. There's one sticking up. (clicking) Can I see? Oh, yes. Oh, that's gorgeous, but what is this here? That is a stem that is at the very edge of the frame. I would try to get that out of your composition, and there's another stem right here that is also a little bit too specific and one here, so the eye candy is right in here, and it's right in here. Was this at your fullest extension at 400?
It's 400, yeah.
Okay, so let's take a look at a couple of other frames that you've done. Yeah, it's a little bit too close. I would like you to do more with the background, and that's a little bit too dark in here. It's a little bit too specific, so this is where we want to be, okay? Multiple flower heads but most of them out of focus, okay? (clicking) I'm still at 500 F4, which is a safe setting when doing this handheld. I really don't want to get burdened by my tripod because that just slows me down. (clicking) Kate, you're very quiet, you happy?
I'm very happy. Can you hear me smiling?
Can you hear me smiling? (clicking)
What I like about this approach to photographing plants is that I don't think about it too much. Every frame is different than the previous one. Instead of being really deliberate about it, which is what happens when you put your camera on a tripod, we're just acting like butterflies. We're nibbling at one plant and we move onto the next one. You can hopefully see how different this is from the specific way to photograph plants. When you put your camera on the tripod, and you apply a macro lens everything becomes very precise, and governed by very detailed decisions. This is free and easy, especially, early in the morning when you head out I like that feeling. I don't want to feel burdened when I'm interacting with plants and with flowers. It seems a contradiction when you are dealing with a subject that is so full of joy potentially, and you burden yourself down, so I really wanted to show Doug and Kate how easy it is to do that, and you could see Doug was kind of just easing his way into it a bit. His first images were pretty specific, but then as the morning progressed he was becoming loser and loser. Of course, Kate did the same thing. Let's carry on with the video. (clicking) Now I've got a really interesting line there. I've got flowers out of focus on top and in the bottom, and there's just this one little hole in the center that I can shoot through, and then there's another little window on the left. You can see that my frames are becoming more and more abstract. I started off doing things that were pretty conventional, and my breakthrough moment was that in this case I had flowers at the very top of the frame, and flowers at the bottom of the frame, and I keep coming back to the central notion how important it is that you replace thinking about your subject with your thinking in terms of sight lines. It's all about foreground, subject and background. That's the holy trinity. Let's roll it. Can I share this with you, Kate?
Yes, please. Yes.
So this is what I'm hoping that you can find as well. So just a few little windows between the flowers and the foreground, and then I'm reaching for the background, okay? Do you have anything like that yet? Oh, yes, you've got them more densely stacked, but that works, this ...
I couldn't get it to quite work right for me.
That closeup, yeah, we can practice with that later on when we get a little bit more technical, but, yes, this looks really nice. That is also interesting, but it's a bit specific, and this is where you're putting the lens to good use, and you're still wide open, right?
Yeah, that looks nice, look at that. Carry on.
I want to keep going on the other side first.
Yeah-yeah, you want to go back to the other side?
I think I do.
Sure, oh, look at that, see that one? That one orange one that is catching the first morning sun. That is a good one. (clicking) Because that one is a bit more brightly lit I'm apply my exposure compensation. I'm closing down by about a third of a stop to avoid that it blows out. See the one I'm talking about, Doug? Yeah, that one over there, yeah. (clicking) Look at all these layers we've got. We've got multiple layers of flowers, and then there's a bush here that gives us a light green background, and then a darker green background, and here's another bush that is receiving the first sunlight, so from that one spot we have all these different options of combining foregrounds with subjects, and with backgrounds in different ways. That's why we linger there pretty much for an hour and a half. Let's roll the rest. (clicking) All right. Let's see what other angles there are. We haven't look at these yet, right? What happens if we use them as a foreground? Oh, that's interesting, too. (clicking)
These are awesome.
These are really cool.
Yeah. It's still the same basic idea shooting through a foreground with plants that are out of focus, and just subtly adjusting the focal point until there's one plant in focus somewhere in the middle, maybe a few of them. The mind's eye is always looking for something specific, so we have to satisfy that need. When people look at our pictures we have to give them that resting point in our composition, but what we're actually doing is we're luring them into a scene where the real eye candy is provided by the color. (clicking) The camera, of course, doesn't know that. The camera is just following our vision, and that's why we can't put the lens in auto focus. Only we can determine what the best solution is. So I'm just micro maneuvering the lens back and forth and I can demonstrate that if you want to see this a little bit more closely. So I'm just kind of adjusting the focus back and forth a bit like this and just kind of very subtle adjustments make a big difference in the composition. It's all about the proportions between what is in focus and what is out of focus. Okay, yeah, right, yeah, that's a good one, but let's see if you can get a little bit closer to the foreground. Use the foreground more as a veil. I'll show you the way I've got it here.
Yeah, I zoom in a little bit closer.
Zoom in a little bit more and then let use the foreground as a veil.
Find multiple flower heads and then you're kind of you're speckling them throughout your composition. I mean, you're doing the same thing here. I just want you to get a little bit closer in, okay? Oh, gorgeous. (clicking) Video one more time. You noticed that my camera only goes off one frame at a time. There really is no need to rattle multiple frames off continuously. The subjects are there they're not gonna wander off. Be really discrete with the way you capture your frames, and it becomes more the way of a zen archer interacting, intersecting with his subject. This is a very different way to photograph than many of us are used to putting lenses in auto focus, cameras in high speed frame rate where you're replacing thinking and acting with letting the camera take over. This is very deliberate in a different way. I'm checking my settings. I can lower my ISO a little bit. I started off with a setting of 1, because there wasn't much light when we arrived here, but now I can lower it to 800. I can still maintain a shutter speed of 500. I don't have to resort to a tripod. That would just slow me down. (clicking) I'm gonna double-check to make sure that I'm doing things right so I'm gonna get my loupe out. This loupe allows me to check what I'm doing. When there's a lot of ambient light you really need it to screen out the sun from the image. This looks very nice now I can magnify it a little bit to make sure that I'm sharp. Oh, yes, that works. This is a loupe made by a company called Hoodman. I used to carry around pieces of cardboard that were shaped just like this until this company made that device and it's a godsend. It goes with me everywhere because if you don't have a loupe you can't really critically examine your images on the back of your camera, so it screens out all the ambient light, and it enables you to look at the image critically. You might have also noticed that I've got a big eyepiece on the back of my camera that also helps me to screen out ambient light when I'm actually composing frames. This is what it looks like if you want to take a closer look at it. One other detail you might have noticed no camera straps. When you want to be free and easy you want to liberate yourself from excess equipment so camera strap goes off. When I'm handholding I don't need it. I'm in the zone. I really like that. So look at that everything flows upward. I like that you're framing this vertically. See, these flowers have an orientation that emphasizes all the lines going up, and you've captured it really well look at that. Kind of you've got soft foreground here. The stem you've used really well. It helps frame that one flower that is in focus, and because you have these two flowers going to the upper right that really draws you into the distance, and you've got that blue-green in the background. Look how much the stems are picking up the blue from the morning sky.
I think this is your best frame so far.
Good, thank you.
Yeah, yeah. We started off this morning practicing how I play with plants using the simplest of tools. A telephoto lens with an extender that turns the 70 to 200 lens into a 300 millimeter lens, and I keep the aperture wide open because that renders the foreground into a beautiful wash of color. I'm looking through the lens to find one flower that I can make the specific focal point. (clicking) But it's really just the way of luring people into an image that's all about the color. The beautiful yellows and the oranges that I mix by just kind of subtly adjusting my focal point. (clicking) That's all there is to it. I can do it handheld because my shutter speed is high enough. I've got my ISO at 800. I've got a shutter speed of 500 of a second. That's enough to keep the picture sharp, but if I want a little bit more stability I put it on a monopod. Much easier to maneuver with a monopod around these bushes then having to worry about a tripod, so back to playing with plants for one more time.
All right, looks good. You want to give us a little bit of a wrap sort of the big picture on what we learned here.
Yes. Once again it's about simplifying your toolkit to the point that you're not burdened by it, but that enables you to focus on the subject in front of you. That's why I inspired Doug and Kate to do away with their tripods to just adopt one lens for an hour. Leave the rest in the camera bag, and just nibble at these gorgeous flowers. Now the flowers that we were looking at in this video are very exotic, but you can find similar subject matter no matter where you are. If you're in Holland there's fields of tulips. If you're in Asia you can go to a spring meadow. The point is that no matter how complicated, or how simple your subject is this is a different way to play with plants than the one that most photographers feel obliged to apply.
Great, Frans, we have a handful of questions from the Internet, and, of course, folks here feel free to raise your hand, and grab a mic and ask questions as well, but Wendy Thorson had this great question that a lot of people have been voting on, and it's what do you look for when you're talking about lines and shapes that you see in the subject?
I look for the complimentary quality between a foreground and a subject and a background, and with this playing with focus approach I'm not looking so much for lines I'm looking for washes of color.
Great, and this is from another one of our students. I'm wondering about balance, for example, four to six flowers in the shot would you ideally want the center objects in focus, or on the side of the objects?
We've seen several examples. We see many examples in this video that show that you can find a balance between your foreground, and your subject and your background. Sometimes there's flowers in the center of it, but it needs to be balanced by other parts of the composition that are more on the edges of the frame. I wish I could show you some specifics again. It becomes a little bit theoretical to answer it in an academic manner. Yeah?
Do you use any post processing when you're looking at these flowers like the followup question to the one from the audience on the Internet was a lot of flowers seem to be slightly out of focus or slightly in focus I was thinking that you could use Photoshop and masking to blur the ones that you sort of didn't want to be totally halfway one way or the other?
Yes, you can do a lot of things in Photoshop, but I prefer to play with them in the field. What's the point if you can't have fun in the field you're turning it into a laborious exercise behind your computer. Unless you have to produce the images for an assignment I would say give it up and try it again instead of trying to recreate something in your computer. Having said that, of course, Adobe's products are fantastic for improving your images. I shoot in raw mode. I convert the files to DNG when I import them, and that gives me a digital negative that I can elaborate on, and then I adjust the color and the contrast, and we're going to hear a little bit more about that in the course of today.
Frans, speaking of Photoshop, and using different techniques Jenn B. would like to know I'm interested to learn about getting entire subjects in focus using a macro lens. Do you have to stack images, or can you do this in the camera? Also, are there tricks to ensuring focus is sharp using manual focus?
That's quite a few questions wrapped into one. Let's see if we can separate the answers.
Let's start with the stacking.
Yeah-yeah, so focused stacking is a very sophisticated technique to maximize your depth of field beyond what you're able to accomplish in a single frame, so you do that by creating different exposures, and adjusting the focus as you go along. It can be three frames, six frames, 10 frames. You can go up to 20 frames, and then after the fact using software you stitch them all together, and you arrive at a final image that is a composite that shows the same subject, ultra sharp from very close to very far. So that is especially useful if you're into documentary renditions of very complicated subjects no matter whether they're tiny insects or bigger flowers, but I don't personally do a whole lot of that.
Great, thanks, Frans. Equipment question here on the 300 millimeter. Is the 300 millimeter with the teleconverter does that turn it into a macro lens, or does the teleconverter make it seem like it's a macro lens, and what's the benefit of such long focal length?
That's a good question. I can explain a little bit more about that. So far this morning I was just using this lens, my 70 to 200, and Kate had this 300. Kate, would you like it back?
So that's very different from the conventional macro lenses which I have here, and we're gonna see more of that later on. The teleconverter extends the focal length of your lens. If you want to apply a regular lens, and get really close the better tool is to use extension tubes, which do not have any optics inside. Look at it this way. This is a set of three extension tubes. They're very cheap because there's no optics involved. This set cost me less than $100, and it can turn every lens into a macro lens. The narrowest tubes you can even apply to wide angle lenses, so you get a super wide angle perspective ultra close. The others you can add to a 300-28, or to a 70 to 200, or to any other lens. By applying extension tubes to a macro lens you can get even closer. In my opinion this is an indispensable part of anybody's macro kit.
Great, and, Frans, question from Arjun. What do you think about using an extension tube with a slower telephoto lens to reduce depth of field?
Using an extension tube with a slower lens, in other words, the aperture is not as wide open, and what was the rest of the question?
To create a smaller depth of field.
I don't use extension tubes to create a smaller depth of field. I use them to get closer to my subject no matter whether I'm applying it to a wide angle, or to a telephoto lens. Your depth of field is really controlled by your aperture, and that is separate from using extension tubes. There's no apertures involved in extension tubes.
Great, and, Frans, do you have your screen protector that you were talking about earlier with you? If so, could you talk a little bit about why you like that one.
Yes, thanks for that question, Jim. The comment I made earlier on about that cheap piece of plastic was not a comment about Kate's choice. It's what comes standard with the camera, and sorry, Nikon, but I can't believe why you give us these fantastic cameras, and then put a cheap piece of plastic on the back of it, but there's other companies that make up for that. The ones I use are made by a company called Vello that makes a lot of interesting gadgets. It just glues to the back of my LCD screen, and it protects the back of the camera, actually. Sometimes, when I bump the camera all it does is crack the screen, and then I replace it with another one.
Great, and anymore from the studio audience?
In the field are you using your histogram to help inform you on your exposure?
Yes, I do look at my histogram. We haven't talked about that in that first module because that was really meant to inspire us to look in a different way at plants, but, yes, the histogram is the key characteristic for analyzing whether your exposure is in the ballpark, so the fundamental rule is to expose towards the right because most of the information in any digital photograph is packed in the highlights, so you want to expose to the right without clipping the highlights, and then you can adjust the tonality after the fact in Photoshop or in Lightroom, and since we talked about that before I'll just say that in the old days before Adobe released its Lightroom product we spent a lot of time tweaking images in Photoshop. These days I hardly ever touch Photoshop myself anymore because I can do things so much more easily, and more quickly in Lightroom.
I think we have one last one.
Frans, is it fair to say that you don't use bracketing because you use the histogram?
That's a good question, Larry. It depends on the situation. What we were looking at this morning was a very forgiving situation. There wasn't a lot of contrast in that morning scene in the Arboretum. All the exposures were pretty smooth. They had a very nice tonality to it, and, also, the situation was pretty static. I could capture frames one at a time. In fast moving situations with a lot of contrast I will use bracketing as a way to ensure that I do get the best starting point for priming my images to the point that they can be seen by other people.
Frans, we have a question from Russ in Greece. Russ would like to know as the light here is changing all the time as the sun comes up can you tell us about whether you sometimes use a handheld light meter to get a perfect exposure? That leads us right into lighting, which we're gonna be talking about I know in our next segment.
Thanks for that question. Personally, I don't use a light meter in the field anymore because I trust the built-in light meters in my camera. The only time I use a light meter is in studio settings, or when I apply multiple strobes, and when I have to put strobes into manual mode. We're gonna see a little bit more about that later on in the course.