Getting up close to wildflowers

Steve Gater DWT Botany Group, News


With spring around the corner, wildlife enthusiasts are eagerly getting out into the field to enjoy and be amazed once more by the reemergence of life. With botanists it is the time to watch tree buds sprout, herbaceous plants appear from nowhere and early spring flowers opening to attract pollinators. It’s also a time to skill-up on identification and capturing the wonderful variety of plant-life within our region. And that includes capturing and sharing images, but how?

Gagea lutea, Yellow Star of Bethlehem, – a scarce little beauty!

Saturday afternoon,12th March, offered botany group members a chance to learn about close up photography and then apply in the field as spring unfolds. We were delighted that Bob Robson was able to lead a three-hour training session, and what an excellent session it was. Bob is a highly talented and experienced wildlife photographer. He freely admits that botany is not his real specialism, but his images of dragonflies, and more, show that he has mastered the art of close-up wildlife photography. Bob runs the Rainton Meadows Photography Group. So, he was a great choice of trainer and provided what his audience was looking for, starting with an overview of photographic technique.

DWT Botany Group members learn about wildflower photography

The essential basics of correct exposure were carefully explained; to get ISO, speed and aperture right means knowing what each does and that was well explained and illustrated. Bob encouraged us to use the full functionality of our cameras, using manual or aperture-priority settings to capture the very best images. He was well armed with cameras and associated kit, showing us what was possible, with advantages and disadvantages of the options available. He was very clear that you need to know your camera to be able to use it to your advantage.

Bob Robson showing the various settings on modern-day cameras

Bob explained the differences between a range of camera types on the market and introduced trainees to the recent innovation of mirror-less cameras. These are more lightweight than the more expensive DSLR cameras, and possibly the camera-type for the future. While an attractive option, certainly for general photography, the feeling was that DSLR with greater options for high precision lenses, was the way for now for this group.

That led to considering what lenses to use for plant photography and how to get the most of out such equipment. So, how do you take great pictures of brypohytes – mosses and liverworts? What is possible in the field and better indoors with lighting and possibly the aid of microscopes? How do you capture different parts of a plant, in variable light so that exposure is right and the image is focused? What about contrast, tone, white-balance? Bob was alive to all of these questions and more.

Polytruchum commune, common haircap

Purpose designed and built close-up or macro lenses were explained, with focal length 60mm, 100mm and 180mm prime lenses compared. Why these are better than variable focus lenses was covered. Extension tubes and magnifying filters were considered – much cheaper options that do the job, but with differing limitations and much reduced image quality. Essentially, you get what you pay for. But, with ever-improving technology, that could be a never-ending shopping spree! Bob was very clear and helpful with his insightful and balanced review of these options.

He then moved on to picture processing, explaining the purpose and advantage of shooting images in the RAW format. This gives extra opportunity to improve image quality after the picture has been taken, at the cost of very large files on the camera (so fewer images can be stored) and more learning of how to use the necessary software. He emphasised the need to take great pictures to start with, and to learn how to use your camera’s functionality to best effect. So, think about bracket exposure and setting exposure compensation to deal with difficult light conditions. Look at the colour histogram on the camera before shooting. Check depth of field and align the subject to the plane of the image sensor to keep all in focus. Set ISO as low as possible for clarity of image. And so on…. There was much to learn and Bob was keen to invite and answer as many questions as possible.

DWT Botany Group members familiarising themselves with various camera settings

To end an absorbing and highly informative training session, Bob illustrated his learning points by showing a fantastic range of his own work on plants and dragonflies that you can see by clicking here. The fact that we had almost to be pushed out of the room so that the centre could be closed at the end of the day says it all! Thank you Bob for your thoroughly well prepared and delivered training session. Now it is up to us to apply our learning and post to the DWT Botany Group page via Twitter and Facebook – no excuses now.

There are two photography groups associated with Durham Wildlife Trust and both welcome new members;
Rainton Meadows Photography Group – click here for details
Low Barns Photography Group – click here for details

Steve Gater
Chair at Durham Wildlife Trust

Steve has a life-long interest in wildlife and a passion for flora. As an active member of the Durham Wildlife Trust Botany Group Steve enjoys exploring Vice County 66, the area covered by Durham Wildlife Trust, with its many specialities and wide range of common species. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer, Steve is a strong advocate for enjoying, protecting and conserving habitats and the wildlife they support - a fundamental priority for us all!