I’ve given up trying to predict California’s wildflower bloom. There are a lot of theories about the conditions that cause a great wildflower bloom: wet winter, early rain, late rain, warm spring, wet spring, and so on. For each condition correlation you can cite, I can cite an exception. So now I just cross my fingers and wait to see what spring delivers.
Well, it turns out this is a great year for wildflowers in California. Death Valley is winding down its “super bloom,” the best since 2005, my Facebook feed is suddenly saturated with California wildflower images, and it seems like every day I’m hearing about another don’t-miss poppy location.
While Death Valley’s bloom was dominated by yellow, daisy-like desert gold, with a few other varieties and colors sprinkled in, for most of California it’s the poppy that takes center stage each spring. The highlight of Sunday my drive from Phoenix to Sacramento (I know, not a lot of competition for highlights on this route) was top-to-bottom orange hillsides flanking the usually maligned Grapevine (if you’ve lived in California, you know what the Grapevine is; if you haven’t, just ask a Californian. But be prepared to endure a lengthy “that time my car broke down” story).
My close-focus technique
There are many ways to photograph poppies, ranging from wide panoramas that highlight poppies’ propensity to dominate vast expanses of the landscape, to tight macro views that emphasize their elegant curves and translucent gold and orange. Likewise, there are depth decisions to be made with each poppy composition, from complete front-to-back sharpness to a single, minuscule point of sharpness.
While I’ll employ whatever approach I think best serves the scene, my poppy images tend toward close focus and limited depth of field captures that use a paper-thin sharpness range to blur all but the most essential aspect(s) of my scene. With this approach, I can highlight my subject, blur away distractions, and create a complementary background of color and shape.
I start by identifying a flower or flowers that I can isolate from the surroundings. Finding the right background is as essential finding the right subject—without my subject and background working in unison, the image will almost certainly fail. What’s the right background? Other flowers, sparking water, deep shade (that I can turn dark green or black)—use your imagination, and experiment.
Given my desire for minimal depth of field, my lens choice is usually a function of the background’s distance from my subject—there’s an inverse correlation between focal length and depth of field, so the farther away the background, generally the longer the focal length I choose. Since a narrow depth of field is my goal, I usually start wide open (my lens’s widest aperture). To focus closer than the lens permits and further reduce the depth of field, I sometimes add one or more extention tubes.
With my subject, background, lens, and f-stop determined, I set up my tripod as close to the subject as I can focus and get to work. Because of the amount of review and refine I do, a tripod is an essential part of my approach—I can’t imagine doing close focus photography without one. With each click I scrutinize the result for adjustments, large or small—when I’m ready for the next click, having the scene I just reviewed waiting there for me on my tripod allows me to apply my refinements without having to recreate the image as I would if I had been hand-holding.
In the world of close focus photography, the scene looks completely different to the camera than it does to the eye, even more than most other types of photography. So I usually don’t identify my ultimate composition, focal length, and f-stop until I’ve worked the scene awhile. When I get the composition the way I want it, I usually run through a series of f-stops to give me a variety of subject sharpness and background blur effects to choose between when I review my images later on my large monitor.
At the kind of magnification I normally use for these close focus images, even the slightest breeze can introduce motion blur that ruins an image. I’ve become so comfortable shooting at high ISO with my Sony a7RII that my default close-focus ISO for shade or overcast is now 800. If there’s a breeze, I’ll go all the way to ISO 6400—sometimes higher. Whatever your camera’s high ISO capability, it’s very helpful to familiarize yourself with your ISO comfort zone for your camera.
Because your eyes see a close-focus scene so differently than the camera sees it, your close-focus photography will improve with experience. When you start, some of your best images may be accidents, blurred background effects that you didn’t anticipate. But soon you’ll come to learn what to look for, and how to achieve it.
Now go enjoy spring!
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