Spring, up close and personal

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, the saying goes. In that same vein, what one would think of as a weed could be considered a wildflower by others. When you travel into the rural parts of the city and county, wild plants can be seen alongside the roads and freeways as well as orchard floors and fallow fields. Those same plants found in undeveloped and unattended lots in the city are considered weeds to be mowed down.

Spring is here, and with it the area becomes awash in the color of rebirth and renewal. Dormant plants have blossomed anew both domestic and wild. Getting overall pictures of colorful fields is fine, and there’s a tendency for most people to photograph the entire plant from stem to bloom, but getting in close as you can is the key to shooting wildflowers. A lot of them aren’t very big (a California poppy is among the bigger blossoms); many are only about the size of a fingertip. Most lenses that come with the camera can allow you to get within a foot or two, but getting in tight usually requires some close-up equipment. For really extreme close-ups, one can use a bellows attachment between camera and lens, but they’re usually pretty pricey.

Macro lenses allow close focusing up to a few inches from the front of the lens and allow you to get a 1:2 to 1:1 reproduction, meaning your subject will be half or fully life-sized in the frame. They usually run in the 50mm to 100mm focal length and in a world where a single lens can cost thousands of dollars, a macro is relatively inexpensive, in the $200 to $500 range. Extension tubes, which run around $100 to $150, used in conjunction with a macro can get you even closer. The downside is that there is certain amount of light loss in the transition, and you have to adjust your exposure accordingly.

There are close-up filters ($50 to $100 depending on diameter) you can get that screw right in front of your camera’s lens. In my experience, they’re cheap. And, while they can get you in fairly close, there’s also a certain loss in sharpness. Another inexpensive route is a reversing ring ($15 to $20) that allows you turn your lens around (yes, turn it around) and attach it to the camera backward. As odd as this sounds, it can get you nearly macro lens close, but you lose the ability to autofocus and set your aperture (exposure is solely controlled through using your shutter speeds) and, as with the close-up filter, this technique isn’t as sharp as a macro (if you go this route you can just hold the lens backward to the camera body with your hands with nearly the same effectiveness and save yourself even more money).

A technique in using a macro lens (or any of the other close-up equipment) is to turn off the autofocus, rack the lens to its minimum focus point and move yourself and the camera in and out until what you want is sharp. Also getting in close will magnify camera shake so you have to be extra careful to hold the camera steady. Use a relatively high shutter speed (1/250th of a second or higher) and/or use a tripod. The fast shutter will mean using a wide aperture opening and the shallow depth of field that goes along with it. That’s OK. Having just a narrow band that sharp can help lead the viewer’s eye to an important part of the composition.

A high shutter speed can not only reduce camera shake by help stop the motion of your subject as well. Also, try to avoid shooting on a windy day. Trying to keep up with a swaying wildflower is a lesson in frustration and futility. Try finding a less windy spot or even picking the flower and taking it to a sheltered area. If all else fails, go back on a calm day. Though the blossoms themselves are colorful, don’t overlook the stems and leaves and perhaps some insects or animals crawling on or around them which can be interesting too.

When I was a kid, my mom, brother and a few friends had extremely bad hay fever. They would sneeze, sniff and carry big wads of tissue with them the whole spring. I, on the other hand, could roll in freshly mowed grass and run through blossoming orchards with nary a sniffle. Now, much to my chagrin, I am the poster child for the allergy season. As soon as things start blooming, I become a coughing, sneezing machine and have a greater appreciation of what my family and friends went through all those years ago. But I still like to head out to shoot the season in all its glory.

So, for some, springtime can mean allergies and misery; while for others it can be a time of reawakening color and beauty. For me it’s both.

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