Small, wild and protected.
Those three attributes make up the challenge. Orchids are mostly beautiful flowers, worth being photographed, but ...
All wild orchids are protected species. That means you can't collect them and take them to the studio to workout their best images. At least here in Portugal it is stricly forbiden to collect wild orchid specimens and they can't be found everywhere, most of them are to be found only in natural reserves and parks. Around here all wild orchids are in flower from January to May, some species only a couple of weeks.
Being small means you have to photograph very close to the ground and you cannot easily play with depth of field to isolate the flower/plant.
The usual results are documental photographies, nice and good enough for field work on biology, but generaly of very small comercial value.
Last year and this year I've been out there photographing orchids with backgrounds made of some sheets of paper, cardboard, several shades of grey, black and white. This is what I was abble to get.
And I would like to share some experiencies and some hints ...
Black paper is not at all black under direct sun light, many times it's less than 50% grey!! Didn't like the results I got using this "black" background. To get real black (or at least close to it) you need some kind of box so that your black paper/card is shaded from the sun direct light. But that would mean not so simple gear and some distance between flower and background.
And then you'd also be getting all kind of grass and herbs in your shot. Not what I wanted in the first place, a real hard (or impossible) isolation job at photoshop.
Grey I think is ok only for very colourful flowers. Otherwise it takes too much contrast from the image and ... well I also don't like it.
White backgrounds turned out to be my choice.
If alone I usually use two sheets of white paper stuck together forming an 'L', sometimes glued to cardboard for consistency. One of the sheets I place right at the root of the plant and the other part of the 'L' works as a reflector to fill in the shadows. This is specially important for strong sun.
If I have a friend with me I usually ask him/her to hold the paper sheets on the best possible position.
Mostly always the white is not completly white either, but with darker or colourful flowers it is a straightforward job cleaning it up with photoshop.
"Whiter" flowers might be a problem because, isolated on white, they will loose edge definition.
Here, the "not completly white", might be an advantage since your white petals can now stand out against some shade of grey. For this effect I prefer to use loose sheets of paper. Not glued to cardboard they will never be completly flat. Usually they will curve gently from the ground at the root of the plant and create a natural grey gradient, lighter below and darker above. And that, I think, is much better than an homogeneous grey background.
Small imperfections on the paper are not that important, they will be out of the focus plane and not be noticed or easy to spot out. But if you background paper has marked wrinkles on it ... get another, or it will break out your natural smooth gradient.
Other general tips ...
- tripods are good, but, for me, only if don't have wind. This is macro, sometimes almost micro photography and a little wind is enough to take your flower out of focus if not out of the screen alltogether. Tripods generaly don't let you adjust fast enough for this situation.
- flashes ... I like to use a set of two flash units for bugs, but for flowers I found that the DOF is just too big using flashes. Selective focus is much more important in flowers. Besides, even with two flash units it's dificult to avoid strong shadows.
For last, my preferred way of finishing the isolation is by using curves, selecting the "show clipping" option and moving the edge of the histogram until most of the background is burned out but nothing of the flower is removed. What is left is usually "brushed" out in white on a separated layer. If overdone I just need to erase that little bit.
Here is my Collection of Wild Orchids
This is my first blog article, let's see how it rolls out! :)
Hope you find it useful.