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.
Well Beloved Significant Other (BSO) Helen Amyes had a stonker of a year on the croquet front and was invited to attend the Croquetwest 2018-9 trophy presentation. Yours truly was tagging along as the +1 with aim of taking just a couple of photos for her clubs Facebook page. The inevitable happened. Turn up with a camera, couple of lenses and a flash and suddenly you are the “official” photographer and taking the photos for the press and social media. As I’ve said before grip and grin is not my favourite form of photography. There wasn’t a lot of wriggle room for an alternative approach this time so it was pretty basic event photography. At least it was helped along in the form of a jolly jape where fake awards were interspersed with the real ones. Even the recipients were left wondering what they’d actually just won.
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.
… with flowers. Definitely not Julie Andrews and the ghastly singing Von Trapps.
When people think about Australian biodiversity and nature hot spots they automatically think of the rainforests of North Queensland, Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory or Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park in Tasmania. If prodded a little bit Western Australians might mention the Stirling Ranges National Park. But what if I were to tell you that there is a very significant region of biodiversity, a landscape that is still in its pristine state (i.e. has never been cleared) that is less than two hours drive from Perth? That it contains more than 1400 species of flowering plant, 24 of which are unique and not found anywhere else, there are 78 different species of bird, and there are ancient Aboriginal artefacts. So where is this place? Wongan Hills.
The name Wongan Hills comes from the Nyoongar Wongan Katta which means talking or whispering hills. The range of hills, which are about 10 north-west of the townsite are the largest single area of natural vegetation remaining in the northern wheatbelt. It is spring when everything happens – there is a truly spectacular display of wildflowers. I focus on native orchids and it is absolutely gobsmacking the number of different species and the sheer quantity of them. In the space of a morning’s walk around we found ten different species and they were totally new to me. Below are the fruits of that trip.
As you might have gathered from my last post I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Wave Rock itself. Besides watching tourists I spent my time looking for orchids. I had seen on my Facebook feed someone had found some dark banded greenhoods at the base of the rock so I spent ages walking along the vegetation looking for a small green and brown plant amongst a sea of other small green and brown plants. Amazingly I found a patch of half a dozen under a clump of sedge. I did my usual thing of lying down to photograph them. So there I am my torso in amongst the sedge and my legs out on the path quietly photographing flowers.
After a little while of me lying completely flat trying to get the best possible viewpoint a woman walks along the path and finds my prostrate form. Perhaps being a fan of the “cosy crime” genre she thinks she has found a body, or at best someone who has collapsed sick while sightseeing. So she kneels down to touch me – I suppose to check whether I’m alive or not. I say “Hullo” and she jumps out of her skin and looks like she could keel over with a heart attack. I quickly explain that I’m fine really, and it’s very kind of her to be so concerned, but I’m just photographing some flowers. From the look she gave me I think she would have rather found a dead body than a mad man lying in the mud taking photos.
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!
*todays musical reference is of course Irish band Thin Lizzie’s hit “The Boys Are Back In Town”.
Thin Lizzie were a hard rock band from Dublin which formed in 1969, the song was a hit for them in 1976. The band had a floating line up with Phil Lynott and Brian Downey forming the nucleus. Their distinctive sound was in part due to the twin lead guitars, a technique pioneered by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd. At various times the band included some of the best guitarists the UK had ever seen, Gary Moore and Snowy White being two of them. But for most people the band was all about Lynott who played bass and was the lead singer. He once famously likened himself to a pint of Guinness – tall, dark, handsome and from Dublin. Lynott also wrote or co-wrote virtually all the band’s music.
The “Strobist” phenomena burst onto the photographic scene some ten years ago and thanks to the efforts of David Hobby and the timely release of reliable affordable radio controlled flash triggers a whole movement was born. What was exciting was that Hobby advocated a lean and mean approach to lighting using affordable and portable speedlites. In an era of auto everything Hobby also broke the mould by showing people how easy it was to use manual flash. Joe McNally shooting Nikon and Syl Arena using Canon quickly jumped on the band waggon extolling the virtues of off camera flash using the TTL systems of Canikon.
The other day I had the sudden realisation that I would need a new photo for the promotion of current exhibition as the one I had been using was out of date – I have considerably more hair on my head and less hair on my chin now. My preferred photographer is Liv Stockley but she is currently somewhere in Africa and unavailable for the job. So I would have to shoot this myself aided by my partner Helen. Using the Olympus OMD EM10 with the fantastic Olympus m.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 was a no brainer – bags of resolution, fantastic image quality and it allowed Helen to take the shot by controlling the camera via wi-fi using an iPad. Lighting was the conundrum. It would have to be flash, but how to control it? I wanted the key light in a big brolly box, but this would mean I would lose the TTL flash capability as Olympus use a line of sight light transmission system for their wireless flash. Once the slave flash is enveloped by a large light modifier it can’t pick up the signal from the master, so I would have to use a radio trigger. There are no reliable easily available radio controlled TTL triggers for the m4/3 system so it would have to be manual all the way and the excellent Hahnel Captur fit the bill perfectly. They are available from good camera stores, I got mine from Digital Camera Warehouse, and they have a good warranty. Why take a punt with cheap no name “poverty wizards” from dodgy Chinese Ebay sellers when you can get an excellent product locally? So that’s the triggering taken care of. To work out the exposure I used my trusty Minolta Auto Meter Ⅴ F. Sadly no longer made by Minolta as Sony took them over and canned the flash meter product line, but it is now made by Kenko. Yes it is old school and some may argue that in the digital era not needed, but I like working this way. In this scenario there is no need for TTL flash as the lighting and subject to camera distance remain constant.
Equipment sorted the styling of the photo was the next consideration. The portrait would be a classic head and shoulders, but I wanted something clean and contemporary. Initially I thought about using the classic Rembrandt lighting style. It’s the studio portraitist’s bread and butter lighting, but it is a little bit staid. So I decided to go with broad lighting. One Metz Mecablitz 64AF-1 Flash in a brolly box was the key and a large reflector provided the fill. To provide a bit of separation from the background a Metz 44 AF-1 (now superseded by the 44 AF-2) fitted with a Hohnl Speed Grid. Simple and effective.
So while the “Strobist” phenomena has largely gone out of fashion, the principles and skills are very useful and every photographer should have some grasp of the basics.