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Gold Country, Cosumnes River Canyon

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 8 April 2010 in Plant & Nature and Portfolio.

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.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Dulcie from Danville, CA, United States

Again, I say, California Poppies, along with daffodils, are among the hardest images to photograph well. You've done it again with this image. Very very lovely and effective !

8 Apr 2010 5:54am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Wow... these Californian Poppies are really beautiful ! Perfect colors, perfect DOF, perfect composition... do I have to say more ?

8 Apr 2010 10:15am

Florence from Paris, France

You're a talented gold finder then ! Excellent ! Like little suns spreading their warm rays.

8 Apr 2010 10:23am

Michelle from Elverson, United States

Beautiful gold light and tones.

8 Apr 2010 12:18pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland


8 Apr 2010 12:52pm

Scott F. Schilling from San Martin, United States

Very nice colors and focus point!

8 Apr 2010 1:55pm

Barbara from Oakland, United States

Gary, lovely shot! How frustrating for someone to come all the way across the country and find snow when he was looking for poppies! I am glad that you helped save the day!

8 Apr 2010 2:56pm

@Barbara: Photography is all about being flexible and rolling with the punches, isn't it? I'm sure you remember in Death Valley two of my three sunset locations were closed due to snow and we ended up having fantastic sunset shoots.

Elora from Genoa, Italy

Fantastic! I saw your video, as always, lovely shots :)

8 Apr 2010 4:19pm

Juan Pablo Verdesoto from Quito, Ecuador

great composition nice capture, I love flowers

8 Apr 2010 4:28pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

Always a lesson in possibilities with the variables ... this is wonderful!

8 Apr 2010 11:27pm

Steve from Camdenton, United States

Very nice powerful, but soft, lighting! This shot is great!

9 Apr 2010 1:01am

Sandy Weston from United States

This photo makes me feel like I can reach right in a pick it out. Lovely glowing colors.

9 Apr 2010 1:29am

@Sandy Weston: Thanks, Sandy. Of course in California they'll arrest you if you pick a poppy, so we just have to settle for photos. I'm glad you like it. :)

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

this is beautiful! wonderful golden colour tone and great focus and composition!

9 Apr 2010 2:25am

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

Great work Gary. I like the texture of the petals behind the stamens. Thanks for the tutorial.

9 Apr 2010 2:29am

@Julie Brown: Thanks, Julie. It's funny but this simple image caused quite a ruckus on my Facebook page.

Julie from United States

Beautiful colors and focus!

9 Apr 2010 3:10pm

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

I always learn so much from your posts! I love the texture of the poppy petals here so much, and also the way the center is accentuated by your choice of DOF. Beautiful work, as always!

10 Apr 2010 1:07am

Jeannie from United States

I am putting this one on my "wish list." It's GORGEOUS.

10 Apr 2010 1:53am

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

wow! spectacular! the colour is splendid

10 Apr 2010 3:43am

@Magda: Thanks, Magda--it's good to hear from you.

Michael from Chester, United Kingdom

Beautiful photographic study.

10 Apr 2010 10:05pm

Self-Indulgence from Chicagoland, United States

So now I am grinning big because I am going backward through your gallery, telling you that you need flowers and the next image is this. It is spectacular. You are one of the best floral photographers I've seen.. your ability to integrate the background so smoothly amazes me.

14 Apr 2010 3:46am

Mike from California, United States

I really like the depth of color tones captured here.

14 Apr 2010 9:25pm

Marie from FRESNES, France

superbes couleurs chaudes.

19 Apr 2010 6:45pm

Ansie from Paarl, South Africa

Another outstanding poppy photo!

30 Apr 2010 6:13am