On Monday and Tuesday of this week I'd scheduled a two-day private workshop to show a photographer from Kentucky our California poppies. But with a cold rain falling and more on the way, I suggested we detour to Yosemite. I chose to take Highway 49 through the Gold Country, and while the entire route was decorated with a vivid variety of wildflowers and redbud, the wind and rain made photographing poppies impossible (poppies need sunlight and close tight in rain and wind). Nevertheless we braved rain and hail a couple of times to photograph scenes that were simply to beautiful to pass up, and consoled ourselves with the knowledge that tomorrow's drive home would be more productive. Yosemite Valley beneath swirling clouds and 6 inches of fresh snow was indeed worth the trip, but more on that in a future post.
Tuesday's drive home featured sunshine and blue skies. After stopping a couple of times to photograph redbud in the Merced River Canyon, and a little later a nice roadside display of small poppies and lupine, I made a beeline for my favorite poppy location near the Cosumnes River further north. There we found poppies galore, amidst a colorful mix of other wildflowers and photographed the rest of the afternoon serenaded by the music of the surging river.
Despite the beauty of the scene, there were problems to deal with. Bright sunshine created shadows and highlights far beyond our camera's ability to record, and a stiff breeze made composition and focus difficult. Working in our favor was the fact that poppies make great full-light subjects if you understand the issues. Knowing that the histogram of a sunlit poppy is very deceptive--the luminosity histogram can record entirely in the "safe" zone while the RGB histogram reveals a completely blown red channel--I metered on the brightest part of the poppy and slightly underexposed to hold the full range of color (but I still monitored my RGB histogram). Not only does this save the color, it allows the brilliant poppies to stand out against the background shadows.
When photographing extremely close wildflowers, the background is often a distraction. Trying to get enough depth of field to have an entire flower in focus only exacerbates the problem, so I usually opt to minimize my depth of field and focus on the part of the flower I want to emphasize, carefully selecting a background that will blur to complementary color and shape. In this case I put an extension tube on my 100mm macro and dialed to f2.8.
Shooting wide open in bright sunlight has the added advantage of allowing a shutter speed that will stop even the most violent wind motion. But getting my subjects to stay still long enough to compose and focus is an exercise in frustration. A tripod is a huge help, as I can set up my basic composition and wait for the inevitable lull in the breeze to refine and focus. Once I'm confident I have everything right I fire quickly and examine in my LCD. If it's not quite right I make my adjustments and shoot again. In the case of this flower I also experimented with different f-stops--even with a small aperture the extension tube significantly limited my depth of field--to see how a little more definition in the background worked. It wasn't until I looked at the images on my large monitor at home that I decided I liked the wide open shots best.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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