Photographer Bill Held began a recent workshop on how to photograph flowers by saying, "I'm not a technician. I use the old trial-and-error methods. I don't even know the names of all the flowers."
A technician does not a fine photographer make, but a horde of first prizes can make a fine photographer sought after for his technical know-how. Now 70, the Miami photographer has concentrated on flowers and wildlife since he retired eight years ago.
His approach is direct, his manner folksy and as down-to-earth as his khaki shirt, trousers and tennis shoes. He believes, for instance, that everyone can be an artist with a little perseverance and practice. And he believes, "There is nothing as beautiful as flowers in nature." That's why he photographs them and spends time helping other people photograph them.
The most common mistake that people make trying to take pictures of their flowers, says Held, is not using a little flash -- no matter how flashy the flowers themselves may be. Flash exposes all the intricate details of the flowers and separates them from the background.
Held uses a small strobe that's sometimes called a "fill flash" because it's the kind that portrait photographers use to fill in shadows of faces or highlight hair. Its light lasts only 1/1,000 of a second, so the light won't overpower the color of the flower or produce a glare.
The flash is attached to an arm or bracelet, attached to a 35-mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. Held uses a Nikkormat or a Pentax and slaints the flash so it's aimed toward the lens, or directly onto the subject.
For flowers, Held uses a 55-mm microlens, especially designed for close work. It lets him get within six to eight inches of the flower and get all surfaces in focus.
With a "normal" 50-mm lens, Held says, the closest you can get to the flowers is about three feet, ruling out close-ups.
However, Held uses 120-mm telephoto lens with his Hasselblad camera when shooting flowers. Although it doesn't give him the same depth of field (the same amount of total picture in focus), Held likes the way the camera works and the larger format of 2 1/4"-square film.
As for film, Held says "there is no comparison" to Kodachrome 64 for lack of grain and trueness of color. If he needs more speed because the light is dim, he sets the 64 ASA at 128, or uses the film twice as fast as normal. The only trick is to remember to tell the developer you "pushed" the film to 128 so processing time can be corrected. t
Held has found that giving flowers a squirt of water with an atomizer before photographing them adds brightness and interest and gives the flowers better color.
Then there's the question of composition. "Your eye automatically reads from left to right," Held explains, so he "leads" the viewers into his picture by having the composition run from left to right, usually by unconsciously perceived diagonal lines, to an off-center subject in the upper right. The diagonal lines may be the veins of a leaf, the direction petals, simply the over-all feel.
Time of day is another big factor when photographing flowers. Held always shoots between 7 and 10 a.m. when flowers are fresh, when there still may be some dew on the leaves and petals, when the air is cleaner and light not as glaring as it is around noon and into the afternoon.
And then there's the element that only the photographer adds:
"Always approach the flower or leaf from another angle. Don't just take one picture and leave."
To illustrate, Held has two pictures of the same scene: One shows small leaves casting their shadows on a larger, lighter green leaf. The other is taken from the opposite direction -- a much more interesting photograph of shadows shot through a pale green leaf, back-lighted by the sun.
To back-light or side-light a flower artificially, Held uses a piece of white cardboard. He puts the camera on a tripod and aims the flash so it will bounce off the cardboard to the back or side of the flower.