I’m frequently asked how I produce my ethereal botanical and nature photography, so I thought I would do my best to explain some of my process and why I am drawn to shoot in this style. I’m a self-taught photographer so please forgive me if I can’t find the right vocabulary at times in this article. I’ve been drawn to using a soft and dreamy quality for my nature photography over the years in an attempt to convey the sense of peace and enhanced wellbeing that I feel when in the woods or meadows in the local countryside immersed in nature. In the stillness of focusing my lens on a flower or an insect, there is a feeling of communion that lifts me from the noisy human world of constant chatter and anxieties and envelops me in a language older than words.
I am far from alone in seeking solace in nature to help ease mental and physical health issues and like many others, the time I have spent immersed in the local landscape has given me the space, healing and perspective to deal with difficult times. Nature photography has developed from a method of recording species into a meditation practice for me. In meditation the practitioner seeks to dissolve the ego and its constant chatter and connect to a universal consciousness beyond the confines of the self. When focusing my lens upon a flower or insect, I experience that sense of losing the self and the feeling of separation between myself and the subject softens and blurs. Looking at the world through this lens of perception I see my encounters with nature as meetings with and not observations of, and the scientist in me gives way to the artist. This is why I am drawn to present my subjects in an ethereal way.
Shooting for soft focus and bokeh
Before I start to explain how I go about making my images, I should introduce my kit. I have an old Sony A58. It’s suffering a little from excessive use and love now and the rear screen and autofocus rarely work, so this limits how I can use my camera. I shoot nearly everything with a Tamron f2.8 90mm macro lens but do own a few old Helios and Minolta lenses which stop down to f1.4. I would love to experiment with other equipment and cameras as it is likely that better results may be achieved with better kit.
I take much of my photography in the middle of the day, a time that many photographers find the light to be harsh, but I like to let as much sunlight in as possible. Where the position of my subject will allow, I will always shoot into the light. And if it’s the middle of the day then I will very often be shooting from the ground looking directly upwards (this can be challenging when photographing butterflies. I will have the aperture as wide open as my lens will allow without blowing out the whites completely.
The burnt tip orchids above were growing on a slope, so I positioned myself under them and looked up, shooting through the foliage to produce the soft bokeh in the foreground. By using a selective focus and very shallow depth of field, I’m able to keep the subject in sharp focus and blur out the rest of the picture. I shoot in live view and never use the autofocus for portraits of flowers as part of the experience is the manual manipulation of what I can see through the viewfinder.
Shooting through foliage and into the sun also creates beautiful abstract botanical bokeh. I find using manual focus helps compose an image that maximises this effect. Firstly, pick out your subject from the tangle of the undergrowth and focus in on it. Then, sometimes shifting the angle of the lens or your position slightly, the bokeh in the image comes to life. As I use a macro, I tend to be about a yard or two from my subject whilst shooting in this way.
If it looks as though the whites in the image are going to blow out then waiting for the light to change, a cloud to pass by or adjusting my position slightly so I am shooting through different foliage can help to prevent this.
The image of greater stitchwort above was taken though grasses, which provide the soft bokeh at the front of the image. Shooting into the dappled light coming through the trees is what created the boken in this background. When taking images like this, I often rest the camera on the ground and pivot it up slightly. This is when your adjustable rear screen is your best friend, but as I’ve broken mine this is why if you bump into me in the woods, I will be wearing mud and twigs.
The softness in the poppy image above was created by shooting though a fallen petal that I had found on the ground. I often employ this technique to soften an image and the improvised natural filter also has the same tones that are in the subject.
A final note on shooting in nature, is to always leave the site as you found it. All my images are taken from footpaths. Many wild flowers are now in decline and some suffer negatively from the impacts of trampling and crushing. If shooting in an arable field, stick to the edges to avoid damaging crops which are someone’s livelihood. The headlands, margins and hedgerows are also where you are likely to find many interesting subjects.
The marbled white butterfly above is a common sight in the field margins here in Dorset, and shooting through a haze of ox eye daisies gave me the soft bokeh in the image above. With the small blue below, the very shallow depth of field separated the subject from the tangle of vegetation.
I have always been drawn to muted and cooler tones, and my work over the years reflects this. In part I think this is because I have visual stress and dyslexia and find it hard to look at bright colours, especially yellows and oranges. But I also think this colour pallet better expesses how my emotions are calmed and thoughts uncluttered when in communion with the subjects of my photography. I usually tone down the vibracy the yellows and oranges in any image and bring out the blues, greys and violets. I use Lightroom, Photoshop, Nik Analogue Pro and Camera Raw to post process my pictures. The panels I like to create of collections from walks or of single subjects are created in InDesign.
I will usually start editting any image in Lightroom. Below are a list of some of the adjustments I will usually make when shooting in the style outlined above. Of course this is a generalisation, but hopefully if you wee looking to create something similar it will be a help to you.
- Decreasing the vibrance significantly
- Decreasing highlights and the white levels
- Increasing the saturation of reds, oranges, cyan, blues and pinks
- Decrease the saturation of yellows and greens
- Decrease the luminance of cyan
- Applying split toning (usually with blues and browns)
- Sharpening with a mask of 70-90%
- Applying vignetting
- Adjusing exposure
Other useful tools are the adjustment brush for picking out fine details and the radial filter tool which I sometimes use to highlight areas of an image.
Here’s simple trick in Photoshop to give an ethereal feel to an image this works well for landscape and portraiture as well as macro, and can give a woodland a really fairytale feel.
- Open your image in PS.
- Make a duplicate layer of your chosen image.
- Apply a Gaussian blur to the duplicate layer (50-80%)
- Apply a curves adjustment layer to the duplicate layer and lift the top right part of the curve to lighten the blurred layer.
- Apply a cliping mask to the curves adjustment layer you just created (right click on the layer to see this option)
- Select the duplicate layer you made initially and move the opacity slider to between 15 – 30%
As you move the opacity slider you can see how this affects the ethereal quality of the picture. It is then possible, should you wish to pull parts of the image through using a mask or the eraser tool, or to just apply this effect to parts of your image.
Multiple exposures and ICM
The foxglove image above uses another creative technique which I employ quite a lot, and that is to shoot an ICM (intentional camera movement) image and a still image of the same subject and then to combine them. As my camera won’t allow me to do this “in-camera” I imagine my finished image while shooting and then combine them in Photoshop later. This can be as simple or eleborate a process as you chose to make it, but in it’s most simple form, layer two images and with the top layer selected play with the blending modes and opacity settings on the right hand panel.
The image of oxeye daisies below has been made using the same pincipal. I will write more about multiple exposures and ICM photography in another post.
A final word of caution
Shooting on the woodland floor and in meadows will expose you to ticks. I am frequently bitten by them and have taken anti-viral medication for Lymes disease on a few occassions. Do make sure you are covered up, especially in long grass and where deer are present. Check yourself over when you leave a site. Use a tick remover to safely remove the little sods and if you have flu like symptoms or a bullseye rash or any concerns following a bite do seek medical advise.
If you have enjoyed this blog and found it useful I’d be really grateful if you would consider buying a card (for less than the price of a coffee) at my online card shop, HERE. Or if you would like to share any images that you have taken I would love to see them. x
NB. I’ve just realised that I hadn’t mentioned ISO in this post. For anyone that may be interested I usually shoot at ISO 100. But occasionally, if the conditions are darker in a woodland setting perhaps I will adjust ISO up to a maximum of 400.