Carol Wolfe Photography

Composing Photos

My Photography
Composing Photos
Cats and Critters
UP Michigan
Smoky Mountains
South Carolina
Western US
Jersey Shore
Woodland Spring
Woodland Spring 2
Trees, Shrubs, and Vines
Ferns, Mosses, and Mushrooms
Woodland Fall

On this page, I will share a few ideas on how approach nature photography, particularly with an emphasis on wildflowers. If you happened to attend any of my presentations at the Annual Wildflower Pilgrimage in Gatlinburg, then some of these slides will be familiar. This page may get off slow start, but (over time) this will give you some idea of what I do and how I do it.

Composing Wildflower Photos
There are lots of books and other websites that talk about nature photography. And there is lots of good advice. On this page, I will simply mention a few of the main ideas of things I consider when getting a photograph.

What Catches My Eye?
   As I walk through the woods, I keep my eyes open for all kinds of possible subjects. On this page, I will talk mostly about wildflowers.
   Sometimes I have a specific idea and I set out intentionally to get a certain type of shot. But most of the time, I'll simply be walking along a trail and see something beautiful, and then I feel inspired.
   This shot of Rue Anemone (right) was such a case. The clump was beautiful. I wanted to photograph it. I started by capturing the image of the clump, then I closed in tighter. Still I was not happy with certain aspects of the image, like the way one flower seems to just hang there on the edge of the frame. So I shifted to a vertical framing, and this one did the trick for me. I wanted to show not just the beauty of the flower, but also wanted to show the general structure.--the "three plus one" arrangment of the flowers, with the single top flower rising above the others, and three more flowers forming a whorl just below it.
   This yellow trillium (below) was a challenge at first. I decided to be creative and go for a more artistic shot, rather than the type of shot you might find in a field guide. I intentionally cut out the leaves, and zoomed right in on the flower. The first attempt included some brown leaf litter in the background. Though it was ok, I knew I could do better. I shifted the position of the tripod, carefully, to avoid crushing any other plans. By shifting my perspective just a little, I went from an acceptable shot to a shot I liked a lot.

What Catches My Eye?

This is

This Sequence Shows Several Ways of Framing the Shot
Depth of Field  

Intensity and Quality of Light
Depending on the time of day, direct sunlight can make a photograph beautiful by bringing out detail and depth, or it can add too much contrast, shadows, and distractions. Though I prefer to use the sunlight, as is, sometimes I find it helpful to use a diffuser and/or reflector. I will discuss these tools below.

Using a Diffuser
A diffuser helps soften harsh sunlight. Sometimes it makes the image a little to "flat" but usually it helps reduce distracting contrast that can occur when a shot is taken in full sun.

Sunny Versus Cloudy Day

Above are two shots of the same patch of large white trillium. The top left shot shows the flowers on a sunny day. Notice the specks of sunlight throughout the frame. This can be distracting. The bottom right shot shows the same basic patch of flowers the following day when the sky was mostly covered in clouds. The clouds produce a more even light, which helps simplify the shot.

The Diffuser Softens the Light

When used in full sun, notice how the diffuser (above) creates a partial shadow, allowing some light to pass through. As a result, harsh shadows are softened and contrast is reduced.

Using a Reflector
A reflector adds a little light to a subject that is a bit too dark or flat. Sometimes on a sunny day, I use a reflector with a diffuser. The diffuser softens the light and removes harsh shadows, but the reflector adds a little side-light on the subject, and also some warmth. At other times, I use a reflector to brighten the darker areas (like tha shadows) of a shot.

Diffuser Versus Diffuser/Reflector

On this sunny day, little bit of warm reflected light can really bring out the texture and details of the spring beauty flower in the partial shade of a diffuser (above left) as compared to the same shot diffused but without the reflector.

Full Sun Versus Diffuser/Reflector

Full sunlight (above left) can be rather harsh, especially for a flower with white petals. Yet diffused light can be flat. A good combination is shown here (above on the right) where I diffused the sunlight and added a reflector.

Early AM Sun Versus Diffuser

As with the bloodroot flowers shown above, sometimes I let the sun shine on the subject, especially if it's early morning or late afternoon. At those times, the sun is low in the sky and not too harsh. Sunlight of this type can add a level of depth and detail that would be lost if the light were diffused by either clouds or a diffuser.

Using a Diffuser on this Orchid

As shown with these orchid photos, full sunlight can add a lot of contrast (left), and as a result it can be distracting. By using a diffuser to soften the light (right), the shadows are less pronounced and the shape and texture of the plant can be seen more easily. Look carefully at the shadow across the large leaf. But beware. At times, however, the diffuser can flatten an image and make it less appealing, so if that appears to be the case, I might add some soft warm light with my reflector (see below).

Depth of Field

As shown with phacelia above, the diffuser softens the light and removes obvious shadows. The decision on whether to use a diffuser depends in part on the intent of the shot.


Diffused Sunlight Versus Diffuser/Reflector

This primarily green photo shows the bud of a trillium. The top left shot shows the sunlight coming in from the top. It was a hazy day, so the light was not too severe, however, I didn't like the glare on the leaves and it seemed that some side-lighting would be nice because the bud itself appeared flat. So I held my silver/gold reflector somewhat low and to the left, and tilted it until the reflected sunlight shined on the side of the bud. This added warmth (from the golden color of the reflector) and depth, and really made the bud stand out.

Warm Light of Sunrise

The quality of light can make the difference between a good photo and a great photo. Sunrise and sunset are two of the best times to do photography. During mid day, diffusers and reflectors can help with some subjects, but clearly diffusers would be useless with something as large as this mud formation in the Badlands!

Depth of Field  
   I don't want to get too technical on this page, but I do want to show what a different the F-stop can make in affecting the depth of field. Depth of field refers to how much "depth" of the image can actually be in focus at any one time. A larger number (f=22 or 32) means a smaller aperture, and a greater depth of field, as compared to a smaller number (f-5.6 or 8).
   In the old days, I always shot at f-22 whenever possible. I wanted to show EVERYTHING in the frame as close as I could to the way the eye would actually view the shot in the field. Sometimes it is helpful to include a lot of depth and other times it is not. 
   I typically use a small aperature when I need to include a lot of detail, especially when I am doing a closeup shot of an intricate flower. See Phacelia below. Under a given set of conditions, a small aperture means a longer exposure, so I have to use a tripod, for sure, and also need a day without too much wind.
  Sometimes, I open up the aperature pretty wide for the sake of reducing the depth of field. If I can get the subject in focus with a wide aperture, then I might do it, especially if I want to throw the background out of focus. See May Apple below.

Changing Aperture on Phacelia

This is an extremely closeup shot of a complex flower about the size of a dime. As a result, I suggest using a narrow aperture of f-22 or f-32 for the sake of maximizing the depth of field. In this shot, the background is not an issue. More important is simply whether the details of the flower can be seen, and whether they are in focus. Clearly, a tripod is essential to hold the camera steady for 1/3 to 1/2 second. Also, I had to wait for a lull in the wind.

Depth of Field

Changing Aperture on May Apple

At f-11 (wider aperture) the background gets thrown out of focus to some degree, leading to a less complicated and distracting image, as compared to f-22 (narrow aperture). Since it was easy to get the entire sprout in focus using either aperture, I would suggest using f-11 in this case to simplify the image and bring out the subject against its background.

As shown to the left, I typically I focus on the closest part of a flower, but that depends on the shot. There are a few exceptions to the rule. For example, if some portion of the petals on the ege of the frame are closer than the stamen, I might not bother to try and get them into focus too.

THE FOLLOWING SECTION IS STILL UNDER CONSTRUCTION. (It's basically a repeat of the Cats and Critters page, with some changes...) PLEASE COME BACK SOON.

Also check for more of my photography.