• Introduction
  • Equipment and Techniques
  • Accessories
  • Film and Composition

  • Introduction

    (This article first appeared in The British Cactus and Succulent Journal, Volume 6, No.2, June, 1988. A few technical details have been changed to reflect more recent improvements in equipment but the fundamentals, the reasons, facts and joys are the same now and they remain.)

    My primary hobby, now that I have time to pursue one properly, centres around the culture, study and recording of my collection of 1100 or so cactus and other succulent plants. In my list of the essential divisions of the hobby, photography of the collection stands very high, well up among the activities which are most important and require the application of the greatest care.

    As a source of pleasure for me, photography stands on a level with the best aspects of the hobby, and would be well worth pursuing on that basis alone. Aside from its educational and other practical values, photography strongly encourages my application of high standards in all other aspects. It focuses my attention on the particular ways of producing the very best cultural results and it sharpens my awareness of the characteristics of the plants. Naturally, the good results which flow from such improved habits demand absolutely the same care in improving my photography as well. Originally no more than a fine recording instrumentality, photography has become fully integrated as a complementary and virtually essential part of the hobby. I was encouraged, by photography, to improve upon everything I was doing and, consequently, my pleasure and competence in all of these activities have become much greater than they were before.

    Equipment and Techniques

    In the greenhouse I use a Minolta SR370 SLR motorized camera and, mainly, a 50mm f3.5 Rokkor macro lens and its 50mm extension tube. Occcasionally, I use the lens' reversing ring and sometimes my Minolta bellows IV unit; the latter with a 35mm f2.8 lens reversed for the highest magnification I normally need. Most of my plants are small, ranging from miniatures which a dime could hide, through the majority of golf ball size to a few much larger ones. Their flowers, too, the main subjects of my photography, range from about confetti size to that of dinner plates. So I don't usually need much space for photography. In order to capture all of the components of the beauty of my flowers, some of them extremely subtle, I prefer shooting when the sun is high, in hazy daylight, further diffused through the fibreglass of my greenhouse walls, so that my exposures are mainly in the range of f22 or f16 at from 1/30th to 1/2 a second, using Kodachrome 64 and Kodachrome 25 film. These reproduce for me the most accurately natural colours.

    The golden glow of early morning or late afternoon are quite magnificent for mood shots and for artistic effects, or when some dull subject needs a boost. But my subjects are superlatively beautiful of themselves and a strict realism here is the only appropriate goal. Like the lily, they need no gilding. Indeed, I find that many of the tricks which make magic in a vista serve only to degrade the colours and the apparent textures ot these flowers to unacceptable gaudiness and discordance, reminiscent of a teenager's first efforts to make up as a 'femme fatale'.

    I nearly always take two shots of each pose, one about 1/2 stop under, and the other at the exposure indicated by my meter, as a means of achieving the full colour saturation that I like, and I usually find that the underexposed, saturated shot pleases me best. I make it a habit to check many of my exposures with an 18% gray card, which often reverals that I have been developing careless habits. It's well worth the effort. I gave up taking a third, 1/2 stop overexposed shot long ago because I seldom found it useful. Very often, however, the lighter, less saturated (slightly overexposed) slides produce the better prints, so I use the saturated slides for projection viewing and the lighter ones for prints or enlargements. Since nearly all of my shots are mainly backlit, I use crinkled aluminum foil reflectors to modify shadows, or to emphasize some obscure detail when I can. But in the soft, diffuse light I prefer, shadows are not much of a problem.

    Although backlighting makes my favourite dark, royal blue felt backdrop appear very nearly black in my slides, the fundamental blue colour remains and beautifully complements the flower colours. This is especially true of cactus and other succulent flowers, many of which have a subtle blue component in their colours. As well, the rich blue in conjunction with yellow or orange flowers always appears so very attractive and satifactory a combination that I tend to favour it over all of the others. The 'cool' quality of the blue colour also adds a 'crisp' and 'buoyant' attribute to the photos as opposed to the 'heavy' influence of unmitigated black. Dark, or dark-edged subjects, of course, require light-coloured backdrops, and the choice of colours must be governed by those of the subject and its basic 'mood' - but that's another, controversial, topic.


    The camera tripod is a sturdy one, and a second tripod with geared centre post serves to hold and position the subject very handily. One accessory I developed to hold my plants rigidly, so that I can make better use of the tripod's tilting arrangements, consists of a series of about five food tins of sizes selected to hold the various plant pot sizes.
    Placing black cover around the pot. Note purple background, and can mounted on tripod.
    Each of these cans has a hole in its bottom and a nut soldered (inside!) to fit the tripod head screw. This set is needed because positioning of the subject is so very important to the composition of my shots. Another important accessory is a focusing rail to permit moving the camera alone rather than both the camera and tripod for coarse focusing. A long, preferably very supple, cable release is quite essential. A small flashlight is necessary to highlight the subject while checking depth of focus with the lens stopped down. To hide the pots and stray images from below and back of the subject, I use a strip of dead black, heavy, close-woven, brushed suiting material which I can tuck in below the plant stems and over the pot rims.

    I use every manipulative technique I can find which will reveal every component of the beauty of my subjects while falsifying none of them, and I'm constantly trying new ones. Fibre optics, for example, provide a splendid means of piping light far into a flower tube for some of the more intricate macro shots.

    For especially close-up work, such as studies of seeds or spines, bugs, sprouting seedlings, etc., I can get macro shots at magnification ratios (at the film plane) if up to 6:1 by using my 35mm f2.8 lens reversed in the bellows IV unit.

    Film and Composition

    One interesting aspect of using Kodachrome film, which can be developed only by Kodak, is that the results cannot be seen in less than a week or more. Since cactus and other succulent flowers are mostly short-lived - some last only for a couple of hours - the missed shot is lost forever. With some older plants, many flowers are produced over a period of a few weeks or more, and many of those shots are repeatable. But the first time a seedling blooms - the most important occasion, for me, since I might have waited five years or more for that first bloom to appear - it usually produces only one or only a few flowers which are quickly gone. Since the next opportunity to photograph that new flower is 12 months in the future, I tend to use a lot of film at different exposures, to ensure that I capture that first showing properly. When eight or ten, or a couple of dozen new species bloom that way, it can cost a lot of film, and I end up with some shots I could very well do without. Nevertheless, I find that only the Kodachromes reproduce the true colours of my flowers, and I an using Kodachrome 25 more and more because of its superior colour saturation and richness of tone, as well as its superbly sharp imaging and its ability to resolve extremely subtle tone differences over a wide range.

    I don't use print film at all. The main reason for this is that the colour balance and saturation of the print is at least partly determined by the preferences of the person operating the printer. He usually 'adjusts' his exposure to 'correct' the effects of my bracketing my exposures, so the result is seldom exactly what I am seeking. If I bracket, I may get back two or three identical prints. Other reasons include a too broad exposure latitude, lack of brilliance in the prints, the preferences of editors for slides, difficulty in cataloguing and storing negatives and prints and at least three times the cost. With the Kodachromes, processing is fixed at a consistently very high standard of quality and accuracy, and any errors of exposure show up precisely. I can therefore identify my faults and make corrections as needed. As well, I can choose to print only those shots that are worth printing.

    The controversy over 'tight shots' doesn't bother me much. One faction says "Fill the frame! Compose in the viewfinder!" Graphic designers and editors, on the other hand, say "Let me do the editing! I buy only shots with room around the image so its there if I want it."

    This latter makes more sense to me when I consider that slides are not necessarily the only end product I seek, so I tend to leave space. If I lose points at the club for this, that's tough, but my aim as a hobbyist, not an artist, is to produce photos which first, satisfy me, and also can be reproduced for a text or a journal, or as prints or enlargements in various formats, and I happen to prefer images uncrowded by borders. I find our celebrated rules of thumb, such as the 'Rule of Thirds' and the 'S curve Rule' generally valuable and helpful but, at times, mere hindrances so I use them, or I compromise with them, or violate them deliberately depending upon whether the result is likely to suit my immediate purpose or not.

    In conclusion, I mustn't fail to mention an important influence; my membership in our local Photographic Guild, which has been so very beneficial in sharpening my technical, perceptual and aesthetic senses. Constant exposure to the work of others, criticisms inherent in competition, and the expressed opinions of the members, as well as the lectures and seminars taught by advanced amateurs and professionals, have been excellent guides in the process of improving my photographic techniques and concerns. As a consequence my results and, finally, my pleasure in both the photographic and the horticultural aspects of my two main hobbies have been very greatly improved. I can't imagine any better reason for joining the camera club; can you?

    Paul J. Brunelle
    June 7, 2002
    Thelocactus bicolor


    Titanopsis calcarea


    Diffusion Kaleidoscope


    Echeveria colorata


    Rebutia epizanaense


    Echeveria carnicolor


    Fly Eggs in Stapelia


    Rebutia muscula


    Rebutia orurensis


    Stapelia wilmaniae


    Echeveria derenbergii


    Caralluma caudata


    Sulcorebutia arenacea