Flowers have been blooming for at least 130 million years, and most people ignore them. How many times have you trampled over a bed of innocent buttercups? Probably a whole bunch of times. Admit it. Flowers wilted into the backdrop of our lives, just like mailboxes, houses, stores, signs, and every other mundane detail that’s taking up space.
I decided to remedy that problem, by photographing wildflowers. Which one? Well…all of them.
I gave this project some water and it sprouted into a fool’s errand. Damn things kept on blooming and I couldn’t keep up with Mother Nature. My body absorbed enough ultraviolet radiation to make Bruce Banner blush, however, that’s besides the point.
Let’s get a few things straight, compadre.
- Photograph wildflowers/plants (invasive, native, non-native)
- Hybrid flowers not included (flowers specifically created to exhibit certain colors, for example.)
- Leafs and buds may be photographed (for identification purposes)
Potted plants were not allowed to be documented. Each plant must have been plugged into Planet Earth, even if it was same species that happened to reside inside a comfy pot. Don’t ask. Rules are rules.
Project Objective: Gain a broader understanding of wild plants, through firsthand experience, while documenting all species. This article is an accumulation of my current experience.
This article is not for the faint of heart. If you’re expecting less than 1000 words, leave now. Navigate the mouse cursor toward the right hand corner of your internet browser, then click on the little ‘x’. You’re falling toward the event horizon, and once you’re in…you’re in. Got it? Good. And one more thing—I recommend reading this article on a real computer.
Brief History Lesson: since the beginning of time, humans selectively bred plants We love to create colorful abominations that would otherwise not exist in this universe. Hybrid flowers thrive inside a gardening catalog —their colors extract money from wallets.
Many common fruits and vegetables are selectively bred, to get rid of nasty traits and retain desirable traits. Wild plants are smaller, bitter, and probably full of seeds. Would you buy a banana…if half the weight consisted of seeds? Exactly.
Or how ’bout this: Have you ever scarfed down an apple and wondered how it tasted so damn good? Blame selective breeding.
Wild plants, or if you prefer to be disrespectful, “weeds”, are different than cultivated plants. The wild version of popular fruits (or vegetables) have undesirable properties, but in the context of living in a natural environment, being full of seeds ain’t so bad.
Before we venture deeper into the woods, let’s examine a few more details.
In order to properly document wildflowers, I adhered to a certain standard. Have you ever seen a rogues gallery of hard-boiled criminals? Each lovely portrait was composed the same way, because the overall process was efficient at identifying ne’er-do-wells.
If each mugshot was photographed under different lighting conditions (or a different environment) then subtle details might not be visible. I applied that same philosophy to plants.
- Remove unnecessary details (use clear backgrounds)
- Minimal processing (contrast/brightness/saturation)
- Wildflower interaction (move selected specimens to a controlled area)
I designated a specific location to conduct most of the documentation process. Below is a photograph of the location—Wildflower Studio. The rock served as a natural reflector, clear(ish) backdrop, and a platform to rest objects of interest.
I didn’t bend over and stuff a lens in the flower’s face. I picked certain specimens and moved them to a controlled location. Don’t worry—there was plenty to go around.
Truth be told: I made a shit-ton of mistakes during this project. It’s not easy identifying plants, and I’m still learning or making corrections. Do your own research.
Disclaimer: I’m not a trained naturalist, scientist, specialist, biologist, botanist, or even a boy scout. Continue at your own risk.
Lenses/camera used during wildflower documentation process: Canon compact macro 50mm, Canon USM macro 100mm, Canon D70. Reversed-coupled macro photography utilized for close-up images.
Location: New England (Connecticut)
Listen up—flowers are pretty but they’re deceptive. Subtle differences separate harmless plants from homicidal plants. Many dangerous species appear harmless, however, common varieties inflict nightmarish amounts of pain, or they cause disfigurement. Forever.
Wild parsnip, for example, looks like an unassuming yellow wimp. But if you brush against that yellow wimp, then go suntanning, dark magic unfolds. Wild parsnip oozes photosensitive sap (furanocoumarin), and when sunshine touches that devilish substance, something bad happens.
A diabolical reaction scorches soft tissue, causing puke-inducing burns, blisters and boils. Other plants have that lovely ability, too, just in case you’re not yet scared shitless. If you’re inclined to see what kind of damage a yellow wimp can do, take a quick gander at this article (graphic imagery).
Poison ivy, perhaps the most infamous noxious plant, is not easy to identify. Poison ivy has many defining characteristics, which means it would be asinine to simply rely on leaf morphology, because the exact shape isn’t constant.
So, before you go skipping in the forest, remember this:
Leaves of three, let it be
If you encounter a plant that has 3 leaves, don’t let it touch you…unless you’re willing to pay the potential price.
Practical Tips & Tricks
- Wear pants/elevated boots/gloves (when physically interacting with plants)
- Keep arms covered or wear multiple layers
- Don’t touch eyes or face
- Wash everything
- Trust nothing
Still afraid of getting burned by parsley? Don’t shed a single tear! Sacrifice $14.99 and get yourself a Grill Glove. Problem solved.
When exploring an arid environment, ‘shade hop’. Look before you walk. Find all the shade in a particular area, then plan your route. Don’t march across the scorched badlands, like you’re a Terminator, because you’ll find out that you’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger…the hard way. Hasta la vista, baby.
You’ll encounter a variety of hazards: ticks, snakes, scorpions, mosquitoes, hippos, bot flies, tornadoes, ultraviolet radiation, psychopaths, lightning, allergic reactions, rashes, diseases, and everything else that loves to make life a living hell.
The most common monster you’ll likely encounter is a dog (insert your favorite vicious breed here). Think about all the people who own at least three canine, and then multiply that number by a few hundred million…that’s a whole lot of pups! Some pups despise leashes. And you. Because you’re just minding your own beeswax, and Cujo can’t fathom that concept. Accidentally trespass onto a piss-soaked field, well…that’s how hikers become dog chow.
** If you order an unpleasant meal at a prairie buffet, it’s on you, my hungry friend. You’ve been warned. Don’t nibble on wildflowers or plants. **
Alright, this article is becoming a long hike. Take a breather while watching this quick video.
Flowers are colorful. Everybody knows that. But why do colors attract certain kinds of wildlife? Why do animals give a damn about color? Colors are purposeful—not just pretty. Hummingbirds dig the color red, so it’s no surprise that specific types of honeysuckle are red, as are artificial hummingbird feeders. But…why? Pollination, that’s why. Flowers manipulate animals to do their dirty work, by offering delicious presents, such as nectar.
Question of the year: would dandelions be more or less successful, if the flowers were a different color? Think about it.
There are still mysteries surrounding the topic of colors. Some arthropods (bees, for example) perceive ultraviolet radiation, so that most likely explains why some flowers appear to be colorful, at least to our eyes.
Let’s not forget about that sweet aroma. Certain smells attract, you guessed it, certain kinds of pollinators.
Besides color—plants have other recognizable features.
Many wild plants intimidate, invade and are unpleasant…three character flaws that most people don’t tolerate. Wildflowers can’t sit on their roots all day and hope that someone picks them up from the garden pound, just because they look cute. Natural plants have to live in the real world, competing for territory, resources and sunlight.
To increase their chance of survival, wild plants developed specialized tactics. Some plants grow tall. Some plants have thorns. Some plants taste like dog shit. Smarter plants cut to the chase and stockpile poison.
Speaking of poison: In 399 BC, a trial ordered Socrates to have a meeting with the Grim Reaper, and to make sure he was on time for that deadly appointment, Socrates gulped a mug full of tasty hemlock, giving him a one way ticket to the nether world.
Bored? Conduct this science experiment: snap a dandelion in half and watch as a disgusting substance accumulates along the rim of the stem. Dandelions (and other plants) secrete bitter-tasting latex which discourages gluttonous animals from gorging on the entire plant.
We take advantage of these properties, when it suits our best interest, of course.
Fall down and get a booboo? Purchase bandages at the local apothecary. Problem solved.
If you tripped over a curb during the 1800s, a careless mistake like that could cost your life. But that doesn’t mean medicine wasn’t available, if you bumped your delicate noggin.
Once upon a time, Homo sapiens used plants to treat wounds or illness. Most medicinal herbs aren’t rare—some of them are probably loitering on your property or along the roadside.
Red clover, found in many parts of the world, was used to “cure” many ailments. The laundry list of miracles is long enough to impress deities. Got a sore throat? Sip red clover tea. Got a blood infection? Red clover has your back. Got the sniffles? Red clover clears that up, too. Grim Reaper knockin’ on your door? Give that creep a red clover bouquet and you’ll live forever.
The effectiveness of medicinal herbs is debatable, but let’s not forget that most modern medicine is still derived from plants.
Wild plants have more uses than just fixing booboos.
If you saddled up in the Wild West, you had to be tougher than dirt. When Mother Nature came callin’, desperate desperadoes reached for a roll of Cowboy Toilet Paper—all natural, softer than Charmin, and best of all—it’s free. If you’re an outlaw on the run and gotta belly full of beans and black coffee, regular ol’ paper ain’t enough, partner. Heehaw.
Cowboy Toilet Paper, also called by it’s more proper name, common mullein, has a long history of being useful.
A piece of cowboy toilet paper
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, right? Desperate times call for desperate measures, especially during these uncertain times, because instead of a diverse selection of toiletry products, you’re more likely to find a tumbleweed rollin’ down aisle 8…and that’s if someone didn’t wipe their ass with it.
Nature is a giant warehouse full of goodies, but we forgot how to fill our cart with products. Civilized folk eat pharmaceuticals—not plants. When an entire civilization is spoon-fed sugary bits of technology, who needs to sip red clover tea?
People believe flowers are weak and delicate, in fact, some of the cruelest insults were inspired by flowers. Perhaps flowers are weak and delicate, however, they’re also strong and determined. After all—step on a flower—it rises the next day. Sever a flower from the rest of its body and it grows more roots. Flowers leave it all on the line, and that’s the true embodiment of strength. So, the next time someone calls you a pansy, smile and say, “thank you very much”.
Congratulations! You reached the end of the article. We learned a little about wildflowers, colors, medicinal herbs, Socrates, natural toilet paper…even poison. But the hike isn’t over. Continue down the tail and see what else the woods has to offer. I’ll meet you there.
What’s your favorite flower? Have a story you’d like to share? Express yourself in the comment section, and if you notice a critical error, please let me know. Thanks.
Send questions or comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonus content: Feel free to stop reading. You reached the end of the article. I wrote a quick guide on flower photography—based on my experience while creating this article. Read it. Don’t read it. Your choice.
Do you want to try this out for yourself? I’ll share a few tidbits. Depending on your own ideas, gear selection, and philosophies, certain techniques may not be applicable.
This flower photography guide was designed to be used with macro lenses (100mm is ideal).
All eight sections contain technical information, advice, or thought processes.
Wildflower Photography Guide
Simplify images by removing unnecessary details. Physically position flowers behind a natural backdrop, or put a piece of paper behind the subject. Natural backdrops include: sky, shadows, roads, rocks, walls, and other objects that provide a reflective surface. “Natural”, in this context, means anything that can be improvised as a backdrop.
Anything is a potential backdrop—scour the planet for objects that provide a diffused hue or texture, like a rusted sewer cap, for example. Some objects are highly reflective or don’t have much texture, so use that to your advantage, too.
Distance matters. If the backdrop is faraway, while focusing closely on the subject, the backdrop becomes diffused or soft (depending on the specific f/stop).
Imagine you’re standing above a rusted sewer cap—bright sunshine falls from a clear blue sky. With a flower in one hand, and a camera in the other, hold your subject in front of the rusted sewer cap and then take the shot. The rusted sewer cap, depending on the aperture or f/stop, provides a diffused, dark or textured backdrop.
Keep this in mind: noise is more apparent in the shadows or dark areas of an image. If ISO is high, experiment using a lighter backdrop, because noise will be less apparent.
Anything can be used as a backdrop, and the overall process doesn’t change: hold your subject in front of the backdrop and then take the shot. Use different aperture, ISO, and exposure settings, and don’t forget to experiment with distance.
- Handheld Exposure length: no longer than 1/250 seconds. 1/400 seconds is ideal (100mm macro lenses).
- Use selective focus
- Set macro focusing distance (numbers labeled on the barrel)
Some backdrops provide better contrast for bright flowers, while other backdrops are better suited for dark flowers. Personally, I used electrical generators, steel, grass, shade, yes…even a rusted sewer cap. When using a macro lens, anything can be used as a clear(ish) backdrop. Ignite your imagination.
If the exposure length is longer than 1/250 seconds, vibration or camera shake may be recorded, especially if you’re operating the camera with one hand.
You think you seen it all? Drag your jaded eyes across the dirt.
You’ll notice tiny threads of reality—a tiny flower down here…a strange plant over there…investigate everything—even if it don’t look too pretty. Never trust your first glance.
Before photographing wildflowers, search the area for other specimens. Overtime, rain and natural elements damage petals or other recognizable features. Depending on the context, consider documenting a pristine subject, if you can find one.
And here’s another thing: don’t stick your hand into places where it don’t belong. Why? Because that’s where rats and snakes hangout. Before you stick your hand into a strange place, knock first and see if you’re intruding inside a vermin’s apartment. You’ll thank me later.
When hunting for wildflowers or plants, slow down.
Massacre a lot of time, and don’t proceed until you photographed everything in the area. If you end up walking in circles, you’re doing something right. If your neighbors think you have some kind of disorder, congratulations! You’re doing something right.
Some wild plants are not apparent—even after staring at the same damn trail for two solid months. After awhile, we become blind. Not literally, of course. Common objects blend into the tapestry of our reality and we stop paying attention to the same old threads. Seeing is not enough. Open your eyes.
How many things do you see and not even realize it? Think about it. Life is not a cheap coloring book, filled between the lines by our preconceived notions or expectations.
There’s a mystery hiding somewhere in the ordinary. Find it.
- Locate disturbed areas or trails
- Search along rural roadsides
- Locate areas that are mowed or moderately landscaped
If there’s a lot of competition in the local area, certain kinds of plants can’t thrive. Specific species of plants grow near the edge of trails, roadsides, or disturbed areas (chicory root, for example). When driving in a rural area, pay attention to wild plants growing along the roadside.
Don’t forget to investigate shaded areas, as well as sunlit lawns or fields. Some wild plants prefer filtered sunlight.
Now is the time to pay attention to photographic composition.
Don’t just place a wildflower in the center of the frame, like some lazy bastard, and call it a day. Let’s face the cold hard facts—you lost a few points, just because you chose to photograph flowers. Compose an eyesore and you’ll solidify the notion that people shouldn’t photograph flowers.
This is a high-risk, no-reward endeavor.
- Make sure petals don’t clip against the frame
- Give flowers room to breathe
- Don’t cram flowers inside the frame (if it don’t fit, it don’t fit)
Listen. I’m not some know-it-all-asshole, who’s barking needless orders. I’m still making mistakes and still paying the price. The principles of proper composition are undeniable. If anyone says otherwise, well…they’re still making mistakes.
Find unusual perspectives or unique ways to light the subject. But don’t sacrifice the composition, just because you think the image looks cooler than Vanilla Ice, because nothing is cooler than Vanilla Ice. Remember that or write it down. Pronto.
Mother Nature has been on a schedule for at least 4.5 billion years. Don’t feel like sweating up a storm? Too bad. Suffer. Can’t breathe because it’s too hot? Too bad. Suffer. Notice a pattern?
Flowers don’t last forever. Here one day and gone the next. If you want to “see it all”, never let your foot off the gas pedal. One excuse leads to another. One month leads to another. One season leads to another. One years leads to another. You wake up one day and realize all the flowers have wilted. Don’t save anything for tomorrow.
This is the most important section. If you can’t commit, don’t bother trying. Stay home and watch Cops. This ain’t for you.
Processing should be minimal, to preserve natural characteristics of the plant or wildflower. Don’t thoughtlessly increase color saturation or sharpness too much—artifacts become apparent.
Also, too much color saturation changes how the subject originally appeared, however, depending on lighting conditions, increased saturation makes the subject appear more natural (instead of faded or dull).
Take a quick gander at the image below this sentence. The photograph is over-saturated. Not much. But enough to make the flower seem artificial. Yup, the flower was yellow, but it wasn’t that yellow…if you know what I mean. With great saturation comes great responsibility. Remember that.
Increasing contrast levels, to purposely darken the background, is usually inadvisable. I broke this rule many times but, for the most part, don’t heavily rely on manipulating contrast.
With that being said, if the background is relatively dark, increasing contrast won’t negatively impact the overall image.
Macro lenses : Canon Compact Macro 50mm/Canon USM Macro 100mm
Camera: Canon D70 (or any DSLR)
A camera that takes images, and video, is a versatile tool, so consider using a camera that has both options.
100mm macro lenses get the most flower for your buck. A Canon Compact 50mm macro lens costs about $179.99, however, the 100mm macro lens, costs about $600, but it’s a true macro lens (1:1 ratio). It would be a crying shame to buy a 50mm macro lens, only to be pissed off by its inability to get a closer view. I’m no math wiz but I’m pretty sure buying both macro lenses costs more than purchasing a single 100mm macro lens. Think about it.
Consuming this content is like sipping on a fine glass of lemonade: sugary, tangy and just the right amount of sourness. If you enjoyed the taste of this article, toss a few coins into the lemonade jar.