This blog is a bit free-form, but when possible, I talk about my thought process behind specific images – what I did, why, what worked, what I screwed up, how I worked the shot, etc.

So today I am going to do that with a flower, more specifically, a Rocky Mountain Beeplant (Cleome serrulata) from Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico.


I was driving to the north part of Vermejo to get to several glacier lakes and explore some areas I had not seen yet. As I traveled, I came across a neat patch of these beeplants. It was mid morning on a bright, sunny day, so the light was ok, but a bit harsh. And windy, too, so not exactly an ideal time to photograph wildflowers.

But those are just excuses, and I don’t like excuses, so let’s shoot!


I hopped out of my truck, grabbed my 180mm macro lens, set up the tripod and shot with the sun behind my back. I tried to get low and find a simple background free of clutter, and I shot it at f/16 to try and get the entire flower sharp. (A fairly conventional approach).

Rocky Mountain Beeplant

The result? Meh. Too much contrast, a little harsh, and the background at f/16 is just too distracting for my tastes. Nothing special.


So what can I do to make a better image?  For starters, I can switch to a wider aperture to render the background softer, yet still enough to keep part of the flower sharp. And I can wait for a cloud to drift across the bright sun to diffuse the light a bit or just hold a circular diffusing panel between the sun and the flower to soften the light.  I went for the latter, and shot this image at f/8.

Rocky Mountain Beeplant

The result? Much ‘mo bettah!  The diffused light is lovely. The background flowers are soft and out of focus, yet colorful. And while the entire flower is not sharp, enough of it is for me.


But do I stop there, or keep working it?  What else can I do?

Well, lots, actually. I can shoot it from different angles, add a teleconverter for a different effect,  zoom in on details, shoot for abstracts, shoot for black and white, add flash and work some rim-lighting, etc.

If you have studied a bit from masterfully creative photographers like Freeman Patterson or Nancy Rotenberg, you know that there are whole WORLDS to explore in a single flower. It is YOUR choice as to WHAT to explore.

Here is what I chose to explore.


I started playing around with the strong shapes of this flower isolated against a white background. This is a fun technique (see the awesome “Meet Your Neighbors” project for more tips and inspiration).

There are specific backgrounds that work well for this, but I only had a diffuser and a white reflector with me, so I used what I had.  I took the diffuser, clamped it to several small light-stands, and set it up behind the beeplant.  Why the diffuser and not the reflector? My reflector is old and flaky and not a solid white surface, and I did not want to do a bunch of cleanup in Photoshop.

So I shot this with the diffuser behind the flower, and I used the reflector to bounce a little bit of sunlight back into the flower. (NOTE: Click on these images to pull them up against a dark background).

Rocky Mountain Beeplant

The result? Not bad. A little contrasty, but in a good way. How about if I shoot it from the other side with more direct light?

Rocky Mountain Beeplant

Oooh. I like that, too!


As I worked the beeplant, I realized that it has just a beautiful shape and I wondered how it might look in complete silhouette. So I took the diffuser and moved it to the other side of the beeplant, between the sun and the flower.  I pushed the diffuser close against the flower so that a bit of the purples would show through and started shooting.

Rocky Mountain Beeplant

Kind of cool but not great. Sort of inert, but a good start.

Then, serendipity – a little insect hopped onto the diffuser and gave me a few moments of magic.

Rocky Mountain Beeplant


Thank you, little friend – I think that little insect adds the life that the first image lacked.


As I played around in the field, I thought to myself “what if I shot the flower in front of a silhouette, layering the normal flower image against this mysterious shadow?”

So I put the diffuser between one small beeplant and another larger one. For the composition, I tried to keep from too much overlap in their shapes and generally succeeded, though the wind was really whipping them around.

The sun was directly behind the diffuser, so I took the reflector and propped it up against my tripod and bounced some fill light into the foreground beeplant to light it up a bit. I think I might have used the silver side of the reflector to put a little specular edge to the foreground light.



Rocky Mountain Beeplant



The result? I like it. A lot.


My first shot was nothing special, but with a lot of work and a little bit of vision, imagination and luck, I got some images I am proud of.