Fantastic Floral Imagery

Zeb Andrews loves photographing landscapes, but you wont find many mountains or rivers in his pictures.

10/01/2011 - 16:45

Living in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, that’s well known for its natural splendours and rugged coastline, it is of little surprise that Zeb Andrews got blind sided with photographing it.

When you talk to Zeb you’ll soon realise he doesn’t consider himself just a landscape photographer – it’s his floral landscapes that make him stand out as a photographer. If you ask him how he started producing these incredible images he’ll tell you he doesn’t remember, he just loves the idea of being able to explore and open up whole new worlds wherever he is.

“Attach a macro lens to your camera and get down on the ground and it is amazing what you can find in what was previously a mundane scene,” said Zeb. “It shows a good photographer is not limited by his surroundings but his own eyes and imagination.”

The style of his floral imagery is largely dictated by the equipment he uses. His 6X7 Pentax camera, combined with his lens choices, give him such good magnification when shooting wide open that he gets very little depth-of-field. In fact, what Zeb likes most about these images is what’s out of focus rather than what’s in and it’s these out of focus shapes and patterns which led Zeb to the name
‘floral landscapes’. His friends would look at his images and say: “That looks like the moon” or “That looks like the Northern Lights over Stonehenge” and soon Zeb realised, with a touch of imagination, that his images did actually resemble landscapes in some fantastical way.

This thinking soon began to steer how Zeb actually photographed the flowers. He was soon searching for flowers that not only had eye-catching colour, but could be interpreted into something else.

For this technique, Zeb has found some flowers work better than others. For example, Dahlias are his favourite flower to shoot as they come in such a variety of colours and shapes. But what makes them especially suitable is their depth and this doesn’t mean shape, it means the depth of the colours within the flower too.

“When photographing at such high magnifications and such shallow depth-of-field, it really helps when the flower itself has multiple colours within it that you can play off each other, or a physical shape that communicates something even when it is completely out of focus,” explained Zeb. “ Another good example at the other end of the spectrum for me has been tulips. I have never had much luck photographing tulips in this manner, largely because they tend to be too flat. The pictures end up looking like flat fields of colour. Which isn’t to say it cannot be done, I am sure it can, I just have not had much luck doing it. But Dahlias, Roses, Helichrysum, Cornflower and Pansies all work well.”

The basic principle behind how Zeb captures his imagery is quite simple: he uses two lenses. The first lens is a 200mm telephoto (roughly a 100mm in 35mm format), the second one a standard 90mm focal length (50mm equivalent in 35mm format). The telephoto lens is mounted onto the camera normally. He then uses a macro-coupling ring (initially it was lots of gaffer tape before he bought the ring) to mount the 90mm backwards onto the front of the 200mm. Macrocoupling rings are simple rings that have male filter threads on both sides (in Zeb’s case, a 67-67mm ring as both his lenses have 67mm threads). This attaches the two lenses together front to front.

Zeb’s found not all lenses work equally well in this manner. He says generally the lens on the body should be a telephoto lens. Any lens too wide is going to be vignetted by the barrel of the lens reversed onto the front of it. So you need a telephoto lens to see through the reversed lens without any obstruction or the corners of your frame get cut off.

Also, the reversed lens works best when it has a large rear optic. Wide-angle lenses and many zooms tend to have really small rear optics which can also interfere with the process.

While there are variations on the combinations you can use, Zeb’s found that the 100/50 combo works the best. But the joy of an SLR is that you can put whatever you want on the front of it and see the effect in the viewfinder, so try it out.

The 200mm lens used is an f/4 maximum aperture and the 90mm is f/2.8. Both are set wide open. The shutter speed is usually at least 1/125sec.

“Even as practised and steady as I am, I have trouble hand-holding slower than 1/125sec at those extreme magnifications. Generally I shoot in such light that I never have to go above 1/500sec. So, depending on how bright I am at one of those three shutter speeds I usually use ISO160 speed film unless it’s a dim day then I load ISO400. In terms of camera settings, that is it. I like to keep it simple.”

With his array of lenses, Zeb likes to use the old Pentax 6X7 over a DSLR. Why? Well, because of cost mainly.

“My Pentax camera produces a very large 6x7 centimeter negative with plenty of detail and ability to enlarge. I can make scans that exceed 70Mp and it cost me $200. In fact, this is not the first 6x7 I have owned. I dunked one in a river and dropped another out of my camera bag onto the sidewalk, slung is probably a better word, and none of them have ever cost me more than $200. Sure I have to pay for film, but as long as I pick and choose my shots and exercise good discipline, my film costs are surprisingly low.”

The other reason for choosing the 6X7 is because it’s a simple, mechanical camera that does what Zeb tells it to, even if he tells it to do something that it was not necessarily built to do.

“I get a bit frustrated with some modern cameras that shake their fingers disapprovingly at you and lock the shutter, keeping you from taking a picture, if you do not do everything exactly their way,” explained Zeb.

For his floral macros, Zeb uses slow and saturated film. Slow because he shoots with both lenses wide open, so his only other exposure control is the shutter speed. And as he tends to shoot mostly on sunny days a faster film would sometimes require shutter speeds beyond what his camera is capable of.

“Initially I was a big fan of the Kodak Ultra Colour. But now that has been discontinued I shoot a lot of the Fuji Pro 160C and the Kodak Portra 160VC. Both are fine films. I like the grain of the Portra a bit better, but the 160C is a great bang for the buck and is actually a bit more contrasty and saturated than Portra.”

The look Zeb creates in his floral imagery isn’t something he does by accident. It’s all intentional. Once he’s found his flower he spends time poking around with his lens, exploring the flower in front of him, looking for compositions that catch his eye and tell a bit of a story. According to Zeb, a lot of his work is intuition. It’s all about knowing when you find what you didn’t know you were looking for and then being able to hold your position long enough to get a photograph from that viewpoint.

The use of an extremely shallow depth-of-field also plays into the creation of his pieces as the backgrounds, colours and all, tend to blur and flow together. Again, with these images, it is as often about what is out of focus as what is in, and how those fields relate to each other.

To keep things simple, Zeb only uses natural light. He can see it real-time and know where his shadows and highlights are. He also likes shooting the flowers in the conditions he finds them and it’s something about that, and the characteristics of the light, that appeals to him.

With the colour and vibrancy of his images you may think quite a bit of post processing goes on, but you’d be wrong. Sometimes Zeb will tweak the curves or clone out a speck of dirt on a petal causing a distracting dark spot in the image, but he generally finds they do not need a lot of post-processing work. As they appear on the web is largely how they look coming out of the camera. That isn’t to say that he isn’t opposed to doing more post production on an image if he thinks it needs it or will improve it, but with the majority of the floral images he doesn’t usually find the need to.

Zeb’s images are a great example of the fact that we are surrounded by amazing photographs just waiting to be taken, we just have to open are eyes and look a little closer to see it.

“They’re just waiting for the right photographer with the right imagination and the right camera to come along and realise they are there. Everyday you and I walk by images like this, usually without
ever knowing it. Photography is great for helping us photograph the obvious, but it is even better at helping us see the not-so-obvious as well. And to that extent, a camera is just a camera. A soulless box of plastic, metal and glass. All the important stuff that occurs when a photo is made happens behind the camera, not in it.”

Images by Zeb Andrews.

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