Friday, March 26, 2010

Capturing spring wildflowers in Texas with only one camera, one lens, and one filter

Whenever Texas outdoor photographer Ernesto Santos gets a chance to use his camera, he's well prepared. But now he tells us he's "gearing down" for a monumental four-week photo tour this spring. "I will begin by saying that spring is finally here in south Texas as the warm sunshine and sparkling color of wildflowers return to the Rio Grande Delta. Down here the wildflower season occurs about 3 to 4 weeks ahead of the more famous flower fields in the Hill Country and Panhandle Plains. Although we don’t get a lot of the larger species like Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush, it looks like we are in for a great display, nonetheless.

"This spring," says Ernesto, "as I arranged to photograph wildflowers at a ranch near Falcon Lake in Zapata County, I realized it would be a great chance to practice some 'photographic minimalism' by limiting myself to a Nikon D300, a 105 mm Micro-Nikkor f/2.8 AF-S VR, and -- the one filter I could never do without -- my trusty Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer. This, I reasoned, would be good training for the trip to Asia that my wife and I will be taking in May -- since we will be quite limited in terms of how much photo gear we can carry.

"When a friend and I arrived at the ranch we saw the Spanish Dagger Yuccas were already blooming. Usually the first plants of the season to bloom, these yuccas sprout a large spike in the center of their main stalk from which a large head of white blossoms erupts. The image above shows one in full bloom. I used the LB Warming Polarizer here primarily to saturate the bright sky but the warming effect also added a little more dimension to the cream colored blossoms. I also used the pop-up strobe on the D300 to illuminate the dark green spiked leaves and add detail inside the flowers.

"I was happy to see such an abundance of green growth and small pockets of purple, pink, and yellow color covering the ground. I soon found these tiny flowers in a small patch of prairie verbena. The rich purple of the blossoms stopped me in my tracks. I was eager to see what effect my warming polarizer would have on these delicate flowers and the rich green foliage surrounding the little clusters. I took a shot of the flowers from a short distance and came up with this nice composition.

"My success with the polarizer encouraged me to move in closer to get a real micro view of these tiny beauties. I adjusted the exposure settings to increase my lens opening and decrease the depth of field. This also prevented over-exposing the delicate hues of the petals. Choosing a wider aperture also allowed the use of a faster shutter speed to deal with the stiff March breezes coming off the lake. As I turned the bezel on the warming polarizer, I noticed that it not only improved the overall richness of the isolated blossom but it helped darken the background slightly -- which then became a beautiful creamy bokeh. The polarizer also eliminated the errant reflections of the ground clutter to isolate the prairie verbena.

"Moving on, I soon found a number of fineleaf fournerved daisies. I could see that capturing the essence of these tiny flowers would be a challenge. I decided to take the same approach I did with the verbena. So I first took a shot of a cluster of the flowers in a pleasing random array along with some interesting branches in the background. As I had done when shooting the verbena, I rotated the polarizer to punch up the color, eliminate the glare, and add some warmth to the strong branches in the background. This made a nice counterpoint to the dainty yellow daisies.

"By this time, I was totally absorbed in the pursuit of more wildflowers -- even my aching back wasn't going to stop me. At my age, if you want to work with the micro lenses out in the field you have to accept the fact that you are going to WORK -- I may have been a crouching tiger during the action, but I knew I would be paying the price afterwards. Anyway, here is a closer view of the fineleaf daisies in an interesting double-pair composition. I really like how the polarizer increases the acuity of the subjects. Although the wind was blowing consistently, I was still able to freeze the swaying flowers using a fast shutter speed and good timing.

"In this one last view of the fineleaf daisies, we also see the skeleton of a large prickly pear cactus. As the dead cactus decays, it reveals a very interesting grid-like framework that once supported the plant's water-logged cell structure. Here in this shot I found a lone daisy representing the renewal of life from within the fallen cactus. As it sprang out of the cactus framework, it offered a very interesting composition. Again the Singh-Ray polarizer was used to pump up the color and reduce the reflections from the cactus skeleton.

"At this time of year there is beauty at every turn. Even the lowly prickly pear cactus blooms profusely. Before that can happen, however, the plant goes through a process of renewing its pads for the brutally hot and dry summer ahead. As these new pads sprout from the old growth they are quite delicate and offer an incredible hue of fresh bright green.

"Here is a close-up view of the intricate beauty of this process which so often goes unnoticed. At this time, the morning sun was starting to reach overhead and break through the spreading cloud cover. On occasion the glare was a little strong but by exposing this shot while the sun was covered, the polarizer did a great job of eliminating the remaining stray sunlight and boost that gorgeous green color.

"Once the new pads of the prickly pear cactus grow to sufficient size, the sprouting of blossoms begins. Here we see a pad proudly exhibits a row of 'tunas' which eventually become the blossoms themselves. I caught these early in their development when they were still green. Over the coming weeks they will turn a deep crimson and then the flowers will bloom.

"With the morning winding down and our appetites for a Texas barbeque growing, my friend and I met up on a trail. As we headed back to the vehicle we came across exactly what we had come out for so early that morning. There, growing low to the ground, almost unnoticed under a huisache (Acacia) nurse tree was a strawberry pitaya cactus with a lone but beautiful and perfect blossom. The magenta color of the petals was incredible and the yellow interior with the stamen and pollen deposits just took this display over the top.

"My photo buddy and I took turns getting our shots of this cactus blossom, but it became obvious that my images taken with the LB Warming Polarizer really improved the overall color rendition and helped accentuate the fine "gold dust" of the pollen sprinkled on the petals.

"As the big trip to Asia approaches, I'm feeling more and more confident that I can survive four weeks of photography with a relatively compact photo kit -- my wife's Nikon D5000, my D300 and 'our" 18-55, 10-24 and 70-300 lenses. Plus, of course, my Singh-Ray filters."

To follow Ernesto's photo adventures and enjoy his many award-winning images, visit his website.

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