Spring unfolding – Focus Point

– Posted in: Garden Photography

It’s wildflower season !  Grab you camera (and tripod), some sturdy shoes, sunblock , a bottle of water, and go study what is unfolding in nature.  The miracles become all the more fantastic by examining the wonder in the details.

A macro lens is essential for studying nature close up.  It will allow close focusing so you can fill your frame with the flower, leaf, or bug; and with a dedicated macro lens, as opposed to a point and shoot with macro capability, you can get some very special photos.

For these photos of  the Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum) I used my 100mm macro lens.  I love this lens.  Being a short telephoto, it not only allows you to get a close photo from a foot away instead of inches away, you can pick focus points that will allow blurring of the foreground or background.

Or, in the case of the next photo, you can isolate a detail within a plant.  I will say this once – use a tripod whenever you can.  Not only is it really hard to hold the camera steady when using a telephoto macro and, your composition will be much stronger as you decide where to focus and wait for the wind to keep thing still.  Do these fronds look like elephant trunks, or what ?!

When I arrived at Tilden Park above Berkeley, and the native plant garden which is the East Bay Regional Parks Botanic Garden, the first wildflower I found was the Mission Bells Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria lanceolata) growing next to the Sword fern, with Heuchas in the foreground.

A snap shot is a boring view.  Actually it may be boring for a lesson on focal points, but for a lesson in how to combine native plants of different sizes in a garden, this is  a pretty informative photograph. But anyway, do note the relative closeness of the two plants.

To create an interesting shot of the Lily I got down close and a bit under the flower (using the tripod.  OK, I said this twice) so I could see the anthers within, and composed a shot that reveals the two plants.  Using the 100mm macro with a fairly wide aperture (f:5.6) I could let the background focus go soft.

Mission Bells, Chocolate Lily Fritillaria lanceolata

Now to get some really cool shots of the lily and fern together, I go on the other side of the fern.  (Did you remember to note their relative position in that photo above?) Now shooting through the fern I can isolate the entire flower stalk of the fritillary.  For the purpose of this lesson, the first frame is with a lot of depth of field, f:22 on my lens.

Fritillary with lots of depth of field

But having that lawn area in fairly sharp focus, because of the good depth of field, the lily does not really stand out.  Here is where a shallow depth of field (f:5.6) will really help accent the focus point of the photograph.

I didn’t change the focus point itself, only the aperture.  Now let’s see what happens if I do change the focus point, next, to see the fern frond unfolding.  The tripod is in exactly the same position, though I did swivel the camera just a bit to help my composition.  The fern as focus point stands out because the macro lens isolated the details and the aperture kept the rest of the photo in soft focus.

So when we talk about the focus point of a macro photograph there are two camera controls we need to understand.  Choose a focus point within the frame that  creates a strong composition, putting your most important details in sharp focus.  Then choose an aperture that controls how much depth of field you want surrounding the focus point.

I really like it when you can look through a soft area to a sharp point and have the background blur.  If done well, the soft foreground will help you frame the photo and draw attention to the main subject, giving the sense of a more intimate view.  A classic way to get inside the garden.

Using telephoto lenses and controlling the depth of field for landscape views, rather than macros, is one more lesson in garden photography that I will be teaching in a class at the East Bay Regional Parks Botanic Garden the week-end of April 28-29.  And eventually, all will be part of my e-book.

Poplars and dogwood

Populus tremuloides and Cornus sericea

White bark poplars behind red twig dogwood.  I do love the native plants of California.  You should love the natives of your State.  Go see them now.  Bring your tripod . . .


Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic.com, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at www.photobotanic.com. https://photobotanic.com
Saxon Holt

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Benjamin Vogt April 8, 2012, 9:07 pm

Look forward to that book. Wish I could take your workshop. Just been experimenting with apertures on macros–fun times, especially with the insects coming out now.

With insects you need some really close lenses. Check out this very cool macro photo group on Facebook that has wonderful insect photos: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Macro-Photography/110294015679756 – Saxon

Town Mouse April 8, 2012, 10:02 pm

Thanks Saxon, I needed to hear that. Out for a hike yesterday, and saw the most amazing flowers, the greenest of ferns – and only had my little point and shoot. And of course that won’t even let me get close to photos like that, no matter how much I fiddle with it afterwards. So, next week, maybe.

The point and shoots do have the capacity to do wide angle macro which the fancy cameras can’t do. It’s a mater of optics and the lens of the small camera being so close to the capture chip. But for isolating the image, nothing compares to a real macro lens. – Saxon

Donna April 8, 2012, 10:42 pm

Thanks for another fine post, Saxon. I love taking macros and will use your tips. I do have a macro lens and have been having much trouble using it. I am far better with the 18-135mm zoom. My next post has my trials with the 60mm lens and boy is this a hard one to use, even with a tripod and shutter release. I probably should have rented it before buying it.

I presume you mean a 60mm macro ? It is hard with that lens to get close enough to really fill the frame. – Saxon

Cathy April 9, 2012, 6:45 am

Saxon, yet another wonderful lesson, full of technique AND inspiration! A macro lens is sitting very prominently on my … Wish List.

I did get a really nice tripod last year after reading one of your posts and it is amazing how much of a difference it makes in picture quality. I would not have believed it could be so critical, especially when photoing things that aren’t moving (much), like a butterfly on a bloom. I had to really use it to appreciate it. Now it’s like another appendage.

You are undoubtedly psychic, or at least prescient…. your post today echoes what I spent much of this weekend doing…. trying to get as many close-up photos as I could with my 55 mm lens and telephoto while whining loudly that I REALLY need a macro lens and a new (second) camera body so that I don’t have to keep switching lenses out.

The points you shared, while hard to extrapolate to my current limitations given the lenses that I have, are exceedingly useful and I want to run out again this morning and shoot some more shots of the same blooms and plants I photo’d yesterday being mindful of the guidelines you gave.

I was photographing the newly sprouted peonies much the same way you were photographing ferns (although without as much success LOL) — their beauty even at this stage is astounding.

Coincidentally, a friend just opened a new shop and he has a lot of electronics and photography equipment so my “Wish” may become a reality this spring! He and my husband spent a lot of time talking camera prices, sources, etc. I’m crossing my fingers!

Thanks again for some great technical advice. Can’t wait to try it out!

What an enthusiastic comment! The tripod makes a night and day difference for the serious photographer. You are dangerously close to becoming a photo nerd. – Saxon

Karen Chapman April 9, 2012, 9:53 am

I just have the Canon G10 so don’t have the option of a separate lens. I can at least apply your lessons about lighting and composition though.

Karen – I have a G10 as well and love that you can do wide angle macro. I have used that feature for a number of posts 12-18 months ago. Sllows cretive expression you can’t get with the “normal” macro lens. – Saxon

Judy April 9, 2012, 10:35 am

The unfolding ferns remind me of octopus arms intertwining…beautiful….

Octopus arms, or maybe a bunch of worms entangled in a worm bin. – Saxon

Jean Marsh April 9, 2012, 10:55 am

I learn so much from these lessons. I went to the nursery a few weeks ago after reading your blog on photographing succulents in bright sunlight. I had exactly that situation in front of me, remembered your advise and wow – a really good and interesting photo was the result. Thank you for generously sharing your knowledge, it is so appreciated!

Jean – Very cool you even remembered the lesson, and were able to put it into practice. Well done. I’m gonna have to set up a share site for all my students … – Saxon

John Rusk April 9, 2012, 1:03 pm

Loved your article. I’ve past it along on Twitter and Facebook as well as by email to some of my friends. Hope to meet you on April 28 and 29.

Thanks John – I’m confident we will fill the classes. – Saxon

Madeline Salmon April 9, 2012, 5:48 pm

I love flower photography. I am just starting a vegetable garden and invite you to follow my blog, Gardening Upstream.

Thanks for stopping by Madeline. Some of the same lessons about flower photos can work on veggies too. – Saxon

Gaz@AlternativeEden April 10, 2012, 4:11 am

Great tips. I love macro plant photography, and really must invest in a better camera for taking our photos.

A tip I mentioned once before for those who have no macro but only need photos for blog, is to simply crop in real tight on a photo that is tack sharp. – Saxon

Carol Cichorski April 11, 2012, 1:42 pm

I want a macro lens! My son gave me his very old Canon EOS-1, and I have so much to learn. A macro lens is defiitely on my list.

You can probably find a used lens for that old camera fairly cheap. Go do it ! – Saxon

Andrea April 13, 2012, 3:34 am

I am a fan especially of your teaching style here in your blogsite. I don’t have a macro lens but hopelessly longing to get one in the future. I have only the kit lenses of Olympus E620, 12-42mm and 40-150mm. I find my telephoto really disappointing as handheld, but a tripod is always not easy to carry anywhere! We will wait for your book!

Andrea – Stop your hopelessly longing and treat yourself to a macro. It needn’t be an expensive one. If you are not happy with your telephoto try using a higher ISO setting on the camera which will give you a faster shutter speed and sharper images. – Saxon

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