Challenges Shooting Flower Portraits in Dappled Light

Modern cameras make it easy to take a picture. Most have a “Program” mode that takes care of metering, shutter speed, and aperture, leaving the picture-taker free to compose and focus. Generally, I avoid Program mode in favor of aperture priority because of my bokeh preferences. My technical knowledge has grown based on need. And since I’ve spent most of my two-plus years in photography buying and testing cameras, most of that knowledge was not directed at making images. Using 400 ISO film and shooting with natural light has shielded me from having to think more deeply about topics such as depth of field or shutter speed. The few times I have used a tripod were indoors, where I controlled the light.  

I usually do garden shots in the afternoon or on cloudy days where 400 ISO film and an f5.6 aperture make handheld shots no-brainers. But now that I’ve caught the bug to make flower portraits, new issues have arisen to which I had never previously given a second thought. A few weeks ago, I decided to take some shots after 6 PM. Tall trees shade the yard at this time of day, and the golden dappled light that pokes through the leaves has caught my eye.  

I’m enamored of my Pentax 645, and it is becoming my camera of choice for flower portraits. The only Pentax lens I own is the 120mm f4 macro, and the only color film I have on hand is either ISO 160 or 100. Low ISO film and a slow lens were not problems until I decided to shoot in dappled light. I have a sturdy tripod and remote release, but I forgot about the wind! Often, I must use an aperture of f8-11 or smaller to attain the required depth of field for the image, so I’ve had to shoot at 1/8 or 1/15. At those speeds, the wind, even a slight breeze, becomes an issue.  

The simple answer to my problem would seem to be higher ISO film. Except, I’m particular, and I want as little extra grain as possible. If I were using a digital camera, I would increase the ISO and fire away until I got what I wanted. But I have a Pentax 645, which means I must be more precise in my approach.  

Agapanthus in late evening light. Pentax 645, 120mm f4 macro, Portra 160, f11, 1/8, mild breeze

Adding to these technical matters is the fact that some flowers only last for a short time. My daylilies bloom for only about three weeks each season, so I have to get all the shots during this brief period. Further, each bloom really only lasts about a day. The agapanthus only last about four weeks, and they are quite delicate. As a result, the days when all the factors—blooms, weather, wind, and time to shoot—occur concurrently are few. 

Here’s what I am doing to address my dilemma. First, I’ve started using a DoF app to quickly determine the DoF for any focal length, aperture, and negative size. Using this info, I can then measure out the real-world depth, then adjust the aperture setting accordingly. In this way, I never use a smaller aperture than required and possibly gain a stop or so in shutter speed. For those who might be wondering why I don’t use the Pentax’s DoF button to get an idea of the field depth, it’s because that stops down the lens, and then it’s too dark for me to see anything useful in low light.  

My second adjustment will be finding a higher ISO film that suites my taste for color rendition and grain. To that end, I am going to try Lomography 400, Portra 800, and possibly, Lomography 800. Since grain is less of an issue in 6×4.5 than 35mm, the 800 ISO emulsions may prove to be acceptable. They would provide three stops above my current 160/100 ISO stock, which could get me a 1/60 shutter speed. A one-stop push on 400 ISO stock might not be too grainy either. (I’ve already had decent results for Portra 400 at box speed.) I want to avoid digital—this is a personal quest. As for the wind, I am open to having a reasonable discussion about its behavior, but it never deigns to stop—just passes by.  

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