If you enjoy photographing flowers in the warmth of the greenhouses during these cold winter months, The Orchid Show, “Asia in Bloom,” at the Chicago Botanic Garden is the perfect place to be. Regenstein Hall, the galleries and greenhouses have all been transformed into a magical and elaborate display of 10,000 orchids with a beautiful Asian theme. The show opened February 10 and runs until March 25 and is open each day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tripods are only allowed in the exhibit during “Photographer’s Hours,” Thursdays, 8:15 - 9:45 a.m. (best to purchase tickets online as these special hours will sell out and are limited). Tickets are $10.00 for members/$12.00 for non-members. To order tickets online or find more information about the show, please visit the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website: https://www.chicagobotanic.org/orchid
100mm macro f4.5, handheld
For those of you who live in other parts of the country, many botanic gardens have wonderful orchid shows going on this time of year - Longwood Garden, New York Botanical Garden, Missouri Botanical Garden, to name a few. Some conservatories, like Chicago's Lincoln Park Conservatory, have a dedicated orchid room, open all year. Even if you don’t have a local orchid show or conservatory, find a greenhouse or florist that supplies orchids and go there to shoot. In the Chicago area, we have Orchids by Hausermann in Villa Park, my favorite place to shoot and buy orchids. My neighborhood florist, Hlavacek Florist, has a wonderful orchid collection and they work with Chicago Botanic Garden to set up a beautiful display within the Orchid Show. I’ve gotten some of my best orchid photographs in these places because I can often move the orchids or stage them since they are in pots. Get permission first and I always buy an orchid or two as my thanks for letting me shoot. As you can imagine, orchids are taking over my house!
Image in CBG exhibit, The Orchid Show 2015-2017, shot at Orchids by Hausermann, 100mm macro f/9, tripod
Orchid shot at Hlavacek Florist, 100mm macro, f/32, tripod
Orchids are complex and exotic flowers and, in my opinion, one of the hardest flowers to photograph. They are worth the effort, however, as they are one of the most beloved and beautiful flowers. One of my favorite things about orchids is the stories they elicit - orchids can have such wonderful human or animal-like characteristics.
'Graceful Ballerina' 100mm macro with macro ring light, f20, handheld
Experiment with a range of apertures to create different effects with orchids. When my goal is to create an image with every part in sharp focus, I move in close and use a small aperture, going as high as f22 - f32, depending on the depth of the flower. Sharp close-ups of orchids require these higher apertures to get everything in focus. Many orchids are complex and have great depth and interesting details to capture. Apertures this high require the use of a tripod to avoid camera shake with slow shutter speeds. If you worry about lens diffraction, the loss of sharpness that can happen when shooting in the higher apertures, use focus stacking if that is of interest to you. I personally don’t use focus stacking or worry about diffraction - a few simple steps in post processing can bring detail back to the image. Keep in mind that shooting in higher apertures will bring forth more detail in your background, too. This is often why I move in close to simplify and eliminate as much background as possible. As with all flower photography, paying attention to your backgrounds is just as important as the flower itself.
Image in CBG exhibit, The Orchid Show 2015-2017, 100mm macro f/22, tripod
180mm macro, f/32, tripod
My favorite way to shoot flowers of any kind is to use selective focus to produce a softer, dreamier image. Using a wider aperture will help blur the distractions of the background and bring only one flower or part of a flower in focus. There is enough light in many parts of the greenhouses to handhold your camera if using wider apertures. This is a great way to shoot when tripods are not allowed in the exhibit. I study the orchid carefully, looking for interesting details that catch my eye - a beautiful curve or a soft ruffle. Using selective focus to draw the eye is a powerful, creative and fun way to shoot. Decide what is most important to have in focus and experiment with a small range of apertures to see what effect is most pleasing.
100mm macro, f/6.3, handheld
100mm macro, f/4.5, handheld
100mm macro, f/6.3, handheld
70-200mm lens shot at 200mm, f4.5, handheld. The compression of longer focal length lenses helps blur backgrounds.
To achieve a softer look I always reach for my Lensbaby lenses, particularly the Velvet 56mm and Velvet 85mm to create a beautiful, ethereal portrait of the orchids. The Lensbaby Velvet will give me a beautiful blurred background, as well, and images are often perfect straight out of camera.
Lensbaby Velvet 85mm, f/4, handheld
Lensbaby Velvet 85mm f/4, tripod
Lensbaby Velvet 56mm, f/4, handheld
Lensbaby Composer Pro II with Sweet 35 Optic, f/4, handheld - another fun lens system to shoot orchids.
It may be challenging to find a good composition for an orchid or grouping of orchids. Many orchids grow in clusters or in close proximity to other orchids or plants, making it hard to isolate one orchid from others and eliminate distracting backgrounds. Take your time and experiment. Move around to find the best background. Look for darker foliage and backgrounds that might be further back. Sometimes positioning yourself just a fraction of an inch in a different direction can make all the difference in eliminating distracting elements and spots of light. If you can’t control your background, cloning out areas or darkening areas in post processing will help. I prefer to get as much right in camera as possible, but the reality of photographing orchids is that you may have to do a bit of post processing magic to improve your image and eliminate distracting elements.
100mm macro, f/13, handheld. Distracting background darkened in layer in Photoshop.
100mm macro, f/4, handheld. Foliage in a distance paired with a lower aperture created a beautiful blurred background.
Another trick I have found helpful in photographing orchids in exhibits is to use a macro ring light. I own the Yongnuo YN-14EX, which is compatible with my Canon camera. I consider myself a natural light photographer; I had never used or liked flash with flowers, so it was a big step for me to even give it a try. When shooting in dimly lit exhibit spaces where I can’t use a tripod, a macro ring light allows me to get sharp, well-lit images handheld. It also allows me to get in closer in a way I may not be able to do with a tripod in an exhibit. Sometimes I like the effect, sometimes I don’t, but it’s always in my bag to experiment with while shooting orchids. By powering up or powering down the flash I can control the amount of light in an effort to produce as natural-looking an image as possible. It is also helpful for illuminating the deeper centers of orchids and in darkening the backgrounds.
100mm macro with macro ring light, f/11, handheld. Note how the flash darkens the background.
100mm macro with macro ring light, f/5, handheld
Don’t forget to carry your diffuser and reflector. On a sunny day, the light in the greenhouses can be harsh and contrasty. The diffuser will soften the light and the reflector will bounce light into those inner recesses of the orchid. Remember, you always want the part of the orchid you are drawing the eye to to be well-illuminated.
100mm macro, f/11, handheld
Some of my orchid photographs that were on exhibit in the 2015-2017 Orchid Shows at CBG were captured with black backgrounds. For someone who prefers shooting with the backgrounds nature provides, this was a new way of shooting prompted by this commissioned project. It’s important to know that these were staged with potted orchids outside the exhibit. You are not allowed to use black backdrops or even slip a piece of black mat board behind the orchids in most orchid exhibits. Save that kind of shooting for home or a place that will allow you to move potted orchids.
100mm macro, f/32. Shot in my kitchen near window light. Orchid purchased at Orchids by Hausermann.
100mm macro, f/32. Shot at Orchids by Hausermann.
Give orchids a try and keep in mind that, as with anything, the more you practice and experiment, the better you will get. Have fun and enjoy the beauty of these exotic flowers!