The making of "Poppy Silk" and thoughts on macro photography
Aug 15, 2016
This is a discussion about one of my most popular, and I think my most successful close-up photos of a flower, "Poppy Silk". And yes, despite the name, it is a photo of a real flower.
This was an image that I did at a point in my career when I was needing some creative outlet but didn't necessarily have the time to go on a trip to some fabulous location, which is usually my main desire as a landscape photographer. I started exploring what I could find with my camera in my own backyard. The neighbors living next door were avid gardeners and had a cluster of bright orange poppies in front of their house. Poppies are beautiful flowers, yet on other occasions when I had attempted to get a good photograph of one I always came up with something that I didn't really like aesthetically. This time, however, I think I found the right composition, and the right balance between parts of the flower in focus and parts out of focus. I created a composition where I used the natural flow of the shape of the petals to create a kind of swirl of color around the center. This effect is enhanced by the use of limited focus, which I did deliberately. The center has the detail, and the outer area is softer and a little more abstract. This is a technique I like to use a lot in my macro images, which helps to lead the viewers eye to a certain part, or parts, of an object, and let the rest recede a little more. It's always a fine balancing act to have enough detail, and not too little or too much. Too much I find can ruin the effect, and the "magic" is gone. Too little, and the focal point is too narrow and the image becomes an uninteresting blob. This is an area where practice, and trial and error, definitely come into play. There is no simple recipe that works every time, but I usually start with a large aperture, which limits the depth of field, (the area of the image that will be in focus), and then "stop down", or make the aperture smaller, as I go. The smaller the aperture the greater the depth of field. If I'm uncertain of the effect I'm getting, looking at the image on my rear LCD screen on the camera is really helpful. Also, If the wind is blowing, or the light is changing, I may do quite a number of shots until I feel like I've gotten the right look. Often I'm not really sure as to weather or not I have what I intended until I see it blown up on my computer screen, which by then is too late to change it. So I tend to shoot a lot of images while I have the chance.
I think the most striking thing about this particular shot, especially when you view a large print of it (I currently have a 20x30), is the detail. You get to see the structure of the starfish-like central part of the flower in a way that you really can't with the naked eye, or at least not easily. And I think this points to a quality that the camera brings to viewing the world that will only become more and more pronounced as the technology of making images advances. That is the power of the camera to show us things that are beyond what our unaided vision can see. In this particular instance, you could use a magnifying glass and get a similar view, but you can't hang that on a wall and enjoy it for as long as you want. I also enjoy the aspect of taking something that is fairly small and making it much much bigger in a photographic print.
It's always satisfying when you can find beauty in places and things you encounter every day. I think that it can be every bit as gratifying as going to a far off location and waiting for the right time of day and weather conditions. So, if you want to explore the world with your camera, why not start with the amazing beauty right under your nose.