Behind the Orchids: Exploring from Behind the Lens

March 19, 2015 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens 20th annual orchid exhibition is well underway at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Walking around the exhibit hall, you can’t help but appreciate at the multitude of colors, shapes, and sizes of the orchids on display. How is it possible to capture such beauty? If you’re like me, you take hundreds of photos on your phone.

In addition to the seemingly endless pictures I’ve taken on my phone, I’ve had the opportunity as an orchid exhibition intern to get behind a DSLR camera and experiment with orchid photography. I’m by no means a professional photographer, but experimenting with settings and subjects has given me a new-found appreciation for photography and shown me there’s more to understand about orchids than meets the eye.

There’s a lot to understand about how to take a photo at the show, and it all begins with the orchids themselves.

Phalaenopsis hybrid from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Phalaenopsis hybrid from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

First Element: Subject

When taking a photograph, first consider what’s in your viewfinder. It’s helpful to try and center your shot on an orchid bloom to give yourself the most unobstructed view. Bloom-centered orchid photos are beautiful, but there also is a great appreciation that can come from taking photos that capture the plant as you would view it in real space. When up close with an orchid, you have the opportunity to view the plant from all different angles. I’ve found that taking different approaches to photographing an orchid subject can capture facets of its beauty that you may not have noticed before. The orchid Ornithidium coccineum ‘Superman David’, for example, has both a delicate flower and interesting plant structure which both deserve recognition. ‘Superman David’ is subject in both photos below, but taking photos from different viewpoints can help viewers better appreciate the orchid as a whole.

Ornithidium coccineum 'Superman David'

Ornithidium coccineum ‘Superman David’

Second Element: Light

Another element I focused on when learning to use the camera is lighting. Clearly, there is different lighting outside than in greenhouses or even in the orchid exhibit hall. Different types of lighting have different benefits and can result in interesting images. The natural light outside or in the greenhouse makes an orchid come to life. You get the feeling of how the orchid would appear in nature.

In the exhibit hall, the lighting is designed to really bring out the dazzling and detailed displays of each orchid arrangement. Aside from beautiful vignettes, the smallest individual orchid flowers are showcased with breathtaking brilliance. Whereas natural light shows orchids in context, the spotlights and other lighting features in the exhibit bring a greater focus to orchid details. These orchids are here to perform, to play both lead and support. That’s what makes an exhibit interesting.

Plants from the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition (Left) and a well-lit Bublaphyllum (right)

Light in the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition helps highlight orchid details.

Third Element: Focus

There is something to discover in both blurred images and sharp photographs. Whether intentional or not, capturing a blurred image creates an interesting experience for the viewer. It’s almost as if you’re outside looking in or looking over someone’s shoulder. You can see enough to make out the shape of the object, but can’t quite focus on the details. It produces an exciting feeling, because you want to know the specifics and there are still things you don’t know yet. With blurred images, you hone on different features of a plant than you normally would. You pay closer attention to the shape of the flower, or notice the overwhelming color which may be lost to the intricacies of orchid patterns in sharply-focused frames. Look at the following three photos, what changes and what new views appear for you with each progressive shot?

focus 1

focus 2

focus 3

As the images get progressively less focused, what stands out to me in the above images is the “C” shape of the Oncidium Tiger Crow ‘Golden Girl’ on the right hand side of the photo.

Regardless of what kind of camera you may have, there’s ample ways to tailor a unique photo by experimenting with these elements. Visit the orchid exhibition and get creative!

– Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

Entry filed under: Education, Exhibits, Orchids. Tags: .

Long Lasting Enjoyment and Ephemeral Beauty: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Cultivate ’14: Plants and Art

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