The video is the short version of this article with a slide show of the best of this year’s orchids at the end.
It’s not for nothing that Western Australia is referred to as the “Wildflower State”. There are over 13,000 species of plant to be found, with new discoveries added every year. If we narrow it down to my particular area of interest – orchids – there are 394 species of terrestrial orchids in the South West Corner of the state. Some of these species are so specialised that are confined to very small areas and found nowhere else. Some species will not bloom unless there has been a bush fire the summer before, others if the winter rains are delayed or are insufficient will not put a show on either. This means that no two years are the same. An example of this is my favourite spot near where I live is prolific with the number of orchid species found there. When I first went I was simply amazed by the number of fringed mantis and white spider orchids that were flowering. Over the ensuing ten years I’ve seen such a display of those species since. This year there was a carpet of purple and pink enamels like I’ve never seen before. So this not knowing quite what you are going to find adds to the whole experience. On a few occasions I may be lucky enough to be able to access the flowers by car and a short walk, but most of the time I end up walking through the bush for anything up to four hours.
I approach photographing orchids as I would shooting a person’s portrait – using off camera flash and reflectors to fill shadows, separate from the background, bring out the shape and textures. Too many botanic studies show indistinct photos where the subject does not fill the frame and the background is intrusive. To that end I use a macro lens of around 100 -120mm (35mm equivalent). It’s not because I’m necessarily shooting at a 1:1 ratio, it’s just because I’ve found there are very few zoom lens that focus close enough and have a fast aperture to allow control of depth of field.I used to use a Canon DSLR with a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 IS L lens and carry around a Manfrotto 143 Magic Arm Kit to support the lights. I made a video about using that setup some 7 years ago and that can be seen just below. Since making that video I added a full frame 6d, the Canon macro lens, and extra light and a set of TTL wireless flash triggers and consequently found myself schlepping 10-12Kg of kit into the bush on longer and longer forays. Something had to give – and my back did! So fast forward 7 years and I’m now using an Olympus OMD EM1 mk ii with Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I’ve not given anything up in terms of image quality with this change because I’m generally working at a base ISO of 200 with lighting which means all the usual objections to m4/3 about excessive noise and poor dynamic range have been taken out of the equation. The Olympus 60mm f2.8 is easily the optical equal of Canon’s EF 100mm f2.8 IS macro L lens at less than 1/2 the price and about 1/3 of the weight. The Manfrotto Magic Arm got binned as it was very heavy at 2.7 Kg and replaced with a Manfrotto Table Top Tripod Kit 209, 492 Long which weighs 454g. As far as lighting goes I’m using a Metz 64AF – 1 and an Olympus FL-600R flash with small soft box, snoot and honeycomb grid. The only thing that I have given up is radio TTL triggers for the flash, I’m using a TTL flash sync cable at the moment. I prefer to use the Metz unit when doing a lot of high speed sync work as it is the more powerful of the two. This may change in the New Year, it may not.
Other things in the bag include an 80cm 5 in 1 reflector – I only use the white reflector as the silver is too strong, the gold too garish. Some times I use the diffuser over a plant to cut down on ambient light levels. A Vittorinox CyberTool L is there. It has a good selection of small screwdriver bits that can most screws on a camera body, a set of pliers, wood saw, metal saw and file and a host of other doodads. I once re-assembled my Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar with it while in on holiday in Beijing. Water – this can be in a 1L bottle for shorter expeditions or a 3L water bladder for longer ones. Extra clothing if needed, sunscreen and insect repellent to avoid nasty encounters. Batteries for camera and flash. Wallet of memory cards. That’s it. The whole process is very simple.
Tomorrow here in Western Australia is the first day of spring. I don’t think Mother Nature got the memo as the bush around York sprung into life a couple of weeks ago. Flowers are bursting into bloom and the birds are in a frenzy of nest building and dancing around trying to attract mates. This means that I have also sprung into action trying to document as much of thais activity as possible. The cameras are working over time.
I’ve not had access to a proper studio since I left TAFE (college) where I abused, I mean used the excellent facilities. Now working from home I have to make do with whatever is around the house and a few well-chosen bits of photo kit. In the above pic I’m doing a product shot of back pack in the sitting room. I don’t have a white infinity curve on a product table so I use a small Ikea coffee table covered in a white shower curtain and a white double sheet as the background. I want the backpack on a white fore ground and against a white background. Experience has taught me that if a light the background with a flash gun (speed light to our American readers) and over expose by 1 stop it will show as pure white. The subject is lit by two flash guns in brolly boxes arranged at 45º to each other. The camera sits on a tripod and the flashes are triggered wirelessly using a Phottix Odin transmitter. Unlike a lot of photographers I shoot using TTL control and use flash exposure compensation on each flash to control the lighting ratio which in this case is 2:1 or the key light (the black brolly) is set to be twice as powerful as the fill light. All very simple really.
…and boy did it pour down. It rained so hard that the drops actually bounced.
I was in a rebellious frame of mind this week. I had downed tools on my latest book project as it turned out I’d received no royalty payments for two years. Not unusual I’m afraid, publishers are notoriously tight at best and blatant rip off merchants at worst. My father was not a politically correct man and one of his favourite jokes was:
“How do get a drink out of a Scotsman?
Stick two fingers down his throat!”
Well it wouldn’t work with my publisher. They are just impervious. The accountant usually has a number of excuses as to why he has not made any payments. The usual one is that his father had just died. Not a word of bullshit he had his father die four times over a six month period. Well the statements have been coming in, but no payments had hit my bank account for two years. So as William Shakespeare had King Lear say “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle” .
I was right royally hacked off and emailed them to say I’m not finishing the current book until I’ve been paid and then I felt the need to go out and do something for me instead of working. So I went to Wireless Hill to photograph orchids in the pouring rain. Make that torrential rain. I’d have stayed drier if I’d have jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. Anyway despite all that I got four photos I was happy with.
The old Canon EOS6d with 100mm f2.8L Macro IS lens performed admirably in the wet and I’m always astounded by the quality of the files it produces, Many would argue that it is not a professional camera due to it having a very basic AF system, poor dynamic range, not properly weather sealed and only having one card slot, but man alive if you can’t produce professional quality work with it then you really need to get some help.
* Today’s musical reference is the song “The Sky Is Crying” written and originally performed by Elmore James in 1959. It was an impromptu song inspired by a downpour of rain. Since then it has become a blues staple with a plethora of artists recording it over the years. My favourite version is still the Elmore James one, but I also like the version by Stevie Ray Vaughan. The video I’ve embedded below features and all star line up of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and BB King.
As me Uncle Ted would have said it’s been “reeet parky” hereabouts. Or to translate it to English it’s been freezing. It has been very hard to leave a nice warm bed in the mornings. Anyways yesterday I made the effort to go up to Mount Ronan Nature Reserve and take a look to see what’s out. Wasn’t a bad haul.
I had the chance to nip down to Margaret River for the day while my partner, Helen, was playing croquet in Bunbury. Most people when they think of Margaret River think about wine or surfing but there is more to the area than that. It is a beautiful part of the world with forests and beaches that are home to some very spectacular flora and fauna. I was looking for orchids, but as I had the dog with me I wanted to tire her out before so she would be more settled while I was on the hunt. I don’t know whether you, my dear readers are fans of so-called cosy crime TV such as Morse, Lewes, Midsummer Murder, or Endeavour, but when you watch those it is always the dog walker that finds the body. To be more precise it is the dog who finds the body. Well we were just walking along a track when Frida – the dog – took off like a rocket into the undergrowth and after much thrashing around emerged holding a large femur. As far as she was concerned she had found treasure and after a couple of minutes later thundered back into the bush and reappeared with another. At this stage I was wondering whether she had found a body and whether I should have a look, but I decided to have a look to see what sort of bones they were. Now whenever Frida gets a bone she becomes very possessive and develops a level of distrust befitting a paranoid schizophrenic. Fortunately she hands over the bone nicely as she obviously feels that she a great big pile of the things and again dives into the bush to return with the skull. Definitely not human, much to my relief, it was a western grey kangaroo which had obviously been hit by a car and managed to drag itself to these bushes to die. My overseas readers may not realise this but ‘roos are a bit like rabbits, if they get dazzled by car headlights they will just sit in the road rather than take off. Unlike rabbits they make more of a mess of your car.
Thankfully after all that excitement we managed to find what we were looking for which were leafless and hare orchids.
I’ve written about going to York Golf Course to photograph flowers, particularly orchids, before and today I’m going to do so again. This time was a little different. Firstly I was looking for pink everlasting daisies (Helipterum roseum) and secondly I went on a Saturday just after lunch instead of early on a weekday morning. It was a bad idea – a very bad idea. It was like something out of the movie Saving Private Ryan. The golf course was full. Here in the Wheatbelt when we say something was overcrowded it means there were three people, so to see roughly thirty people in one place was sensory over load – where had they all come from? To cap it all it was just after lunch the club bar been open and it seemed like everyone had been imbibing freely. Up to this point I thought it was the done thing to shout “Four” upon teeing off. Well at the York Club the word began with F and had four letters but it certainly wasn’t “Four” It was reminiscent of the opening scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral.
It went something like this. “Swish” went the sound of the club as the golfer made his swing, followed by a sharp “thwack”, followed almost immediately by a loud “F**k” as the ball was sliced into the rough. Unfortunately I was, along with the pink everlastings, in the rough. The late Spike Milligan once described an artillery barrage as being like Chinese water torture except with solids in his autobiography “Rommel?” “Gunner Who?”. Well the balls didn’t explode on impact, but they certainly had the effect of making me hit the deck and take cover. The only time I’ve moved faster was when the Rugby club president declared an open bar (my excuse being that I was an impoverished student at the time). After thirty minutes of cowering in the dirt wishing there was an air raid shelter nearby I decided to call it quits and I beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of the car. I did manage to get the two pictures of Everlastings shown on this page.
As I made my tactical withdrawal I hit the cover of some bushes where I found a small clump of green spider orchids (aka Fringed Mantis Orchid, Caladenia falcata) so I quickly stopped to grab a couple of photos.
All I can say is was a very traumatic experience. Every time I hear someone hitting a ball I develop a nervous twitch.
Clicking on a photo will take you through to my online gallery.
The other weekend I went on a road trip looking for the elusive, and some would say near mythical, Cleopatra Needles orchid (Thelymitra apiculata). After much searching I gave up and headed home after taking the above photos.
*Another rather obvious musical reference. It is of course U2’s song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” which was taken off of the album “The Joshua Tree”. The album used Irish folk and American roots music (in this case Gospel) to contrast American foreign policy with its wide open spaces. It was lauded by Rolling Stone magazine as one of rock’s greatest and along with the subsequent tour launched U2 as a stadium and arena band. It was also a turning point in another way in that many felt that the band and in particular Bono were pretentious and bombastic.
Yesterday I decided to go on a little road trip to Babakin in search of the winter spider orchid. You’ve got to be mad to do a round trip of 320Km in the hope of finding one very small flower. It was a good day for it, the weather was cloudy and overcast, perfect for this type of photography, and I had nothing else scheduled. So packed my camera gear into the car, made sure the mobile was loaded with music and set off to the teeming Wheatbelt metropolis of Babakin. Now Babakin is in the local government area of Bruce Rock, which according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics covers an area of 2,727 square kilometres (1,053 sq mi) and has a population as of 2015 of 939 people. Babakin itself has a population of 25 – it is safe to assume that the local canine population out numbers the people – so there’s not a lot out there except wheat fields.
The drive was great, a lot of it on dirt track so plenty of red dust, and the time and distance just flew by thanks to the music. The shuffle play threw up some golden oldies – the best being Crazy On You by American group Heart. Put that one on full-bore. I wasn’t exactly head banging but lets say that the bouncing around of the car wasn’t entirely due to the road surface. Oh that took me back to the Chichester RocSoc at the New Park Road Community Centre.
Now these days we rely an awful lot on technology, I’m no exception, I was using my mobile phone for music and navigation. As I got close to my destination the phone just cut out – no more navigation, no more music. No mobile network coverage could explain the first but not the later. I switch to my TomTom SatNav and that packed up – couldn’t get a signal. OOOOeeeeeerrrrrr! Luckily I was nearly there. When I got to the nature reserve I did what I normally do and that is switch on my handheld GPS and mark the position of the car. These reserves have no facilities of any kind, not even paths or tracks, so I do this so I can just wander around in the bush and then when I’ve had enough I just follow the GPS to get me back. So off I walk. After an hour and a half I eventually find a single tiny specimen and proceed to photograph it. I use off camera flash fired by radio triggers to light my pictures of orchids. I set everything up as usual took a shot and noticed the flash didn’t go off. Tried again – nothing. Checked everything was firmly in place – nothing. Changed the batteries in the transmitter and receiver – still nothing. Bugger! Had a rummage around in my camera bag and found an old TTL cable so that got me out of the fix. Eventually I packed up and started walking to the car. I looked at the GPS screen and saw that it was blank. Bugger! I replaced the batteries – nothing. Another set of batteries and still NOTHING!!! Buggeration with bloody great knobs! A rising tide of panic starts to wash over me. Wash? No it was more like a tsunami. After a little pep talk I heard a truck go past. Now remember how I said earlier that this was a sparsely populated area? Yes? Well I can tell you I have never been so glad to hear a truck. I walked off in that direction battling through the scrub and eventually hit the road about 300 metres from the car. Phew!
The drive home was quiet – no phone, no SatNav, no music. When I got there after an hour and a half I carried everything into my office and started my usual post shoot ritual of zeroing all the camera settings, downloading the images and checking batteries prior to packing everything away. I almost jumped out of my skin when my phone beeped and started to play music. I checked the SatNav and it was picking up a signal, as was the handheld GPS. I tentatively got the flash triggers out and checked them and they were working just fine. WEIRD! Perhaps there’s just something about Babakin.
I can’t go without putting a YouTube video up for Heart’s Crazy On You. It’s a cracking track and this time I’ll put up a live recording from 1978 and from 2013 so you can see how the band has fared over time. All I can say is that Anne and Nancy Wilson can still strut their stuff in their sixties. Respect!