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Warm up with a private orchid photo shoot at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This event is currently full, but Jeff is accepting waitlist registrations. If there is enough demand, Jeff will consider creating a second event. Please e-mail him at goldbergjeffa@gmail.com for more details.

Just as winter takes hold of Chicago, it’s a great time to talk about a visit to the tropical environment of the Chicago Botanic Garen for the annual orchid show.  If you like to see 100’s of different orchids in natural and playful settings, this is the show for you to see. For photographers, shooting orchids at the show can be challenging. There is often a crowd (especially on weekends), tripods are only allowed one afternoon mid-week and you feel bad spending 10 minutes to get the shot when others are waiting patiently to see the same flower. Well…we have a solution for all of this.

We have arranged for a private shooting event from 8-10 a.m. on Saturday, February 25, 2017. We are limiting this event to just 20 people so we have a chance to move around a bit. Normally, just to pay to go to the show is $12 plus $20 parking. We have arranged for this to be just $35, including parking, and then you can stay as long as you like in the show after 10 a.m. (just without a tripod).

The garden is located just off the Edens Expressway at 1000 Lake Cook Road.

Orchid shot at 2016 Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show

To sign up, reach out to Jeff Goldberg via email, at goldbergjeffa@gmail.com. Once you’ve confirmed, you can pay via PayPal or check. I will be coordinating the event and will be shooting as much as I can in our two hour window (and beyond).  If you have any questions, just let me know.

To be clear, this is not a class. There will be no formal photo instruction. However, I’m sure we all will pick up a thing or two from our fellow photographers at the event including Chris Smith. This event should be a lot of fun, but to help with your photography, I do want to offer my “Top 10” tips to consider and potentially practice (at the garden, at home or with some outdoor winter macros):

1. Stop and smell the roses…err…orchids

If you haven’t seen this show before, you should take a few minutes to just take it in. There is an almost unimaginable variety of orchids artfully displayed both in natural and whimsical settings. Don’t forget to take a moment before you start or when you are done to just admire the display of natural beauty.

2. Isolate your subject

The flowers will be densely packed together. You may like the texture this presents, and if so, go for it. I tend to like to isolate the flower. To do this, I look for flowers on the edge of the plant. That is the most significant difference you can make. Secondly, I shoot with a 100mm macro or a longer zoom, e.g. 70-200mm, if stepping back. To me, this makes for a cleaner shot, but of course it’s personal preference.

3. Pay attention to your background

It is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of photographing these exotic flowers. If you can pause to check out the background, you can save yourself frustration and potential significant amounts of post processing. This is also a public display. As such, you will see exit signs, sprinkler heads, flower labels and other people in the background. Orient yourself so you have a background you like, e.g. other flowers or a solid color wall.

4. Consider the depth of field conundrum

I will tell you now that you will have a mental debate with yourself the entire time about the appropriate aperture to use. There is no right answer here, but I will offer a couple thoughts. At close range and with a longer focal length and large apertures, e.g. f/2.8, the depth of field might be 1/2″ or less. You can use this creatively to direct focus to a specific part of the flower. If you want more in focus, you can do a couple things. First, you could orient yourself so more the flower is perpendicular to you rather than straight on. Second, you can go with smaller aperture. However, if you do, more of the background will be in focus, so you need to be even more careful about selecting the background. Shutter speeds will also be extended. Good thing for this event you can use a tripod if you chose.

I generally oscillate between f/2.8 to isolate a portion of the flower and f/8.0 perpendicular to the stem to get more of the plant and flower in view (as I normally shoot handheld I don’t go too small or I can’t manage the exposure properly). If you really want to experiment, you can focus stack by taking a series of photographs with the same settings, but focused on different elements of the flower and merge together in post processing. This is a very advanced technique, but quite effective.  If you want to try focus stacking, make sure you practice before this event.

Orchid shot at 2016 Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show

5. Take note of the light

The light in the event is not created for photographers. Rather, it’s created for people to safely navigate the green house and see all of the flowers.  It can be harsh.  You may find a flower in a spot light which can be interesting. Adjust settings to isolate that flower. More often, you will see mixed lighting which is hard to deal with. My go-to option here is to stand between the light and the flower creating a shadow. That provides even light on the flower and makes the exposure easier to determine.

6. Carry black foam board

I carry a small piece of black foam board every time I visit the garden or a forest. I carefully place the board behind a flower to really isolate it from the background.  This is something that is easy to do in the wild, but much more difficult to do at the botanic garden. You need to be VERY careful not to disturb the flowers and you will end up bending in awkward positions. If you want to try this, I would suggest isolating a flower at the edge of the bunch. There are also many opportunities to practice this in the public area before going into the show, or after, as there are orchid displays in the water feature.

7. Try a flash or a flashlight

While certainly not required, a flash can help. It is very easy to blow out a flower or create harsh shadows with a flash. Consider lowering the power of the flash and, if you can, get it out of the hot shoe. In that manner, you can create subtle shadows that look natural. Additionally, I try to use flash to further isolate the flower. I adjust the exposure to limit natural light and then aim my flash at the part of the plant I want to light. Alternatively, you can light paint with a small flashlight. I will also try this at the event. With your camera firmly in your tripod, set to a few seconds in shutter priority mode (or manual), you can adjust exposure to remove all natural light. Then, during those few seconds of exposure light just the parts of the flower you are interested in with a flashlight. This will take some experimenting to get the timing and amount of light right, but you can perfectly control the amount and direction of the light.

Orchid shot at 2016 Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show

8. Avoid over-reliance on a tripod

The images in this blog post were all shot hand held without an assistant at last year’s show. While a tripod can be nice and is certainly required to try some of the techniques described above, you do not have to rely on it. Actually, in many cases to get the angle you need to isolate a flower and the background, using a tripod would be near impossible. So, don’t be afraid to go handheld. And if you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry about it. You can still create amazing images shooting handheld.

9. Experiment

This is a great opportunity to experiment with different techniques and equipment. Try the same shot at different apertures, e.g. f/2.8 and f/16. Try the same shot from different perspectives simply by moving a few inches and/or changing from portrait to landscape orientation and back. Try with and without a tripod. Try at wide angle and then again with longer focal length. Ask a friend to hold a flash for you (assuming you have extension cable or remote trigger). Shoot from unexpected directions, e.g. under a flower that is hanging above your head. Take some shots of your fellow photographers doing something interesting.

10. Don’t rush and have fun

In the end, we are there to have fun. Don’t forget to do that. We all get caught up in the moment. I am no exception. You will see me moving around, dropping things, trying to contort my body in unnatural ways to get a shot, etc. I can’t help it. However, I do remind myself after a while to take a break, slow down and enjoy the experience. I would advise you to do the same. Also, you don’t have to leave after our two hour shoot. You can stay for a few more hours if you wish. Just realize there will be more people in the show with you.

I look forward to seeing many of you at this event and others around Chicago this winter!

4 responses on "Warm up with a private orchid photo shoot at the Chicago Botanic Garden"

  1. So where do we sign up?

  2. david, at the moment we are full. fast reaction yesterday. however, if interested i can add your name to the waiting list. if spots open i can reach out or if we get enough demand, we could create a second date at the garden.

  3. Great suggestions, Jeff! One thing I’d like to add, though…I had a piece of black foamcore with me this week at the orchid show and was gently disciplined by the CBC staff. They said that they USED to allow photogs to do so, but too many flowers were damaged as a result and therefore, no longer allow it.

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