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Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Photograph Falling Magnolia Blossoms

I've always loved drifting petals and petal drifts. A couple of years ago I happened to be in Virginia during cherry blossom time. Not only were the cherry trees gorgeous, but their drifting petals filled the air like falling snow. Seriously. I even tried to capture it on video.

So back home in Indiana this spring when the petals on my beautiful magnolia tree started blanketing the ground, I thought I would try to capture their descent. I guess there are many ways you could approach this ... a close up of a single petal in mid-air, a long exposure that would leave a trail of movement or even a multiple exposure showing the descent of a petal. All challenging shots in their own right (at least for me).

"Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon on a Coffee Table 
  at a 2015 Indianapolis Flower and Patio Show exhibit.
As it turns out, a simple, straight-forward approach was enough of a challenge! It's not easy to capture a petal in flight. But let me digress. Back in March I went with a friend to the Indianapolis Flower and Patio show at the state fairgrounds. While I was admiring a particular landscape display, a little book entitled "Steal Like an Artist" lying a coffee table caught my eye. The landscaper told me that his daughter was an artist and that this was her favorite book. Intrigued, I snapped a photo. When I got home, I ordered this book and another entitled "Show Your Work," both in ebook format and both by the same author Austin Kleon. I enjoyed them both, especially the latter. Some concepts I garnered from Austin are that you need to find a group of like-minded people - or let them find you; that online is the best venue for meeting like-minded people these days; and that to be found online you need to establish a long-lived online presence. Last but not least you need to show your work - only work to Austin is not just the final product - but also the process. He says we should be active everyday and share bits and pieces of things we are working on ... So I'm going to share a few lessons learned from some 200 attempts to capture petals in flight. I know, kinda lame, but it is one of the things I've been trying to learn how to do in my photography.

If you're going for stop-action on moving objects, then you need high shutter-speed (burst shooting capability is also nice). So any setting that gives you the highest viable shutter speed (whether you choose a wide-aperture or work in shutter-speed priority) is good. Also, for high shutter-speed you'll need good light - so early to mid-afternoon with its usually problematic high contrast is not necessarily a bad time of day in this case.

Multiple vantage points work, but I found in looking at some of my 200 photos, that petals show up best either silhouetted against the sky or against something light - or if the petals themselves are gleaming in the sunlight, against something darker. In the wide-open Indiana prairies, petals do not fill the air like drifting snow (unlike Virginia). So wait for a breeze gust or better yet a steady wind.  Aim and focus toward the direction the wind is blowing the petals to have a better chance of catching them. Focusing or metering on the trunk of the tree provided me a fairly nice medium gray tone and adequate depth of field. (I should also mention that the sun was at my back, in the west - and I forget whether I set the camera to spot-meter or to center-weight meter.) Also if you can, position yourself where you can see the top of the tree. Wait to see several blossoms start to descend - and press and hold that button! If you're lucky you'll catch 'em in mid-air. My frustration was that my camera only did three bursts and then lagged in recording them, thereby limiting my ability to keep shooting. Probably using a tripod and remote control would be good - but I need to brush up on those skills. I set the camera to ISO 100 which gives sharp, beautiful detail (but higher ISO's will allow you to work at higher shutter speeds). I think in my best shot I forgot I had set the focus to macro or macro zoom - and that actually lent a nice little exaggeration to the photo. (Or maybe that's just my imagination.) In post-processing, perhaps adding a motion filter to the photo would also help emphasize falling or drifting petals.

Falling and drifting magnolia blossoms - best viewed full screen
Falling and drifting magnolia blossoms - zoomed in
My final thought on this topic, is that this shot was a lot of work for relatively little return (capturing about seven little petals in flight), and is probably more easily and successfully attempted in Virginia during cherry blossom time. ;)

In the meantime, happy shutter-bugging!


May and June
In May and June when the flowers bloom,
and the air is filled with a sweet perfume,
and the petals blow like the drifting snow,
then the neighbors forget their winter woe
and greet one another on a sunset stroll.

from poems.html

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