I took what I call my first proper shot of an orchid back in 2008. Back then my technique was very simple – handheld with a macro lens. The problem was that it was often very difficult to isolate the flower from the background while having sufficient depth of field and a low ISO. For every successful photo there were hundreds of duds.
After about a year of trial and error (mostly error) I decided to photograph the orchids in the same way I would take a portrait of a person. Get down at “eye” level, use an off axis flash to provide the key light and have the natural light as my fill light at -1 to -2 stops. This was a huge improvement, but I still wasn’t getting the clarity and sharpness in the images I desired.
The next evolution was to mount the camera on a tripod and then mount the flash to one of the tripod legs via a “magic arm”. This allowed greater choice in the positioning of the flash and allowed me to use different flash modifiers such as soft boxes, grids and snoots. The arrival of affordable and reliable wireless flash triggers meant I could use multiple speedlights for more sophisticated lighting. This came a tremendous cost. I have a chronically bad back and all that kit was heavy, the tripod and “magic arm weighed just under 6Kg. Then there was the futzing about setting everything up, taking the shot, breaking it all down, walking to the next subject and then repeating it all again. Suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. Something had to give and it was my back.
In 2013 I bought an Olympus EP-2 mainly for travel and street photography. It was a revelation – small size, In Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS), and excellent flash implementation. It quickly became my orchid camera of choice. I could chuck out the tripod and become more mobile. It wasn’t all beer and skittles though. The 12Mp sensor wasn’t the best in terms of high ISO performance and dynamic range, the lack of a viewfinder made usage in bright sunlight problematic (solved with the addition of the optional EVF) and the contrast based autofocus system was a bit on the temperamental side. But the positives were enough to keep me using it and when the EM10 came out with a built in EVF, a better IBIS system and an improved sensor then I knew that the system would be just about perfect for what I did. I could walk around in the bush for hours at a time without back pain which meant I could explore further afield. This freedom allowed me to experiment a lot more.
In 2021 I felt that I wanted more resolution than the 20Mp EM1 mk ii was giving me. So I tentatively dipped my toe into the world of full frame mirrorless and I went with a second hand Sony A7r2. The image files produced by the camera were absolutely gorgeous. Alongside my usual working method of using flash with macro lens I decided to experiment with environmental portraiture of orchids. For this I used a 35mm lens with a half size macro capability and the results were pleasing. The downsides were as follows. The rear LCD is hopeless in bright light and it has no touch control facility. The IBIS wasn’t as effective as that on my Olympus cameras and the sensor resolution emphasised very tiny camera shake. A tripod was the solution. The sensor is a dust magnet which means that changing lenses enables dust bunnies to proliferate. The answer was to have one camera with the 105mm macro and one camera with the 35mm. Arrrrrgh! I was back carrying a load of heavy equipment. So it was back to the Olympus kit.
I’m still trying to evolve a style which produces a nice clean portrait of an orchid. One of the great benefits of Olympus’s cameras and lenses is that it allows very long telephoto lenses to have an almost macro capability. The use of such long lenses allows you to throw backgrounds well out of focus by dint of their increased magnification which reduces depth of field. The problem is that that decreased DOF means that it is hard to get your subject rendered sharp whilst retaining all that loverly bokeh. The counter to this is focus stacking which involves taking a series of pictures of the subject while moving the focus point and then blending the images in post. Olympus has a very neat feature that allows you to do this automatically in camera which is fantastic. Unfortunately the function limits your flash usage by restricting your maximum flash sync speed to 1/50th second and you have to manually set the flash exposure. I tried doing this for a while and it was a right royal pain. So now I don’t use the flash and just make the exposure using ambient light. The lens I’m using is the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 with the the mc-14 1.4 x teleconverter. This gives me a 210mm f4 lens (420mm in full frame terms). Despite shooting wide open this invariably means shooting at a low shutter speed. So while the IBIS is fantastic on my EM1 mk ii using it with a long lens while focus bracketing wasn’t the best way to proceed. So it was back to a tripod. My aluminium Manfrotto 055 tripod is a good tripod but it is that heavy you could use it as a boat anchor. It was time to get a bit of fibre in my life – carbon fibre. So I bought a nice Sirui AM-254 carbon fibre tripod which weighs just a smidge over 1Kg. It doesn’t have a centre column and so a minimum working height of 7.8cm which means you can get down and close to the subject. The results have been excellent and now I feel that using both my normal macro lens and the telephoto zoom with converter I’m getting closer to what I have envisioned.
So this has been my journey of finding what works for me. I’ve discovered that learning how your equipment works is just as an important step in developing vision and style as is technique. Continual learning and experimentation will help you develop as an artist and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. A few times I’ve felt that I was going backwards, but it was worth persevering. I’ve still got a couple of things to sort out, but I feel now I’m on the right track.
The following shots were made this last week.
You must be logged in to post a comment.