Story & Photography by Franklin Kearney
It stood alone at the back of the fog-shrouded field. Situated far off the beaten path and dwarfed by its much taller neighbors, it was virtually invisible. Tram loads of visitors were invariably drawn to the flashier specimens along the roadside – giving nary a glance to their diminutive counterpart in the rear. It can be a losing battle for a tiny star magnolia tree to garner any attention under these conditions. However, unexpected gems might be found when you take a closer look at the “underdog.”
While recently searching for the first signs of spring in the New York Botanical Garden, I took an early-morning walk along Magnolia Way. I too was immediately attracted to the larger trees near the side of the road. But, closer inspection showed them not to be in the best of shape. Magnolias don’t stay in peak condition for very long. I’ve actually seen brown spots forming on the petals of bulbs still in the process of blooming. Casual photographers usually don’t care that much if individual blooms aren’t in pristine conditions. They’re more drawn to the overall magnificence of the trees and the surrounding area. Focusing only on that may yield a few interesting images, but your compositional choices will soon be limited. Seeking out the more intimate details of the scene will open up an infinite array of opportunities.
When it became evident that I wasn’t going to find any suitable subjects on the big trees, I turned my attention to the little “Cinderella” tree at the back of the field. Ignored and forgotten by the masses, it provided a treasure trove of spectacular photo ops. The following are just a few of the images I was able to create from this unassuming subject.
I shot all of these photos with a 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens, with a 20mm extension tube attached. This allowed me to focus close, but not too close. When going to the trouble of shooting in the field, it kind of defeats the purpose if the photos look like they could have been shot in a studio. The strategic inclusion of stems, branches and beautiful bokeh (soft-focused areas) in the background not only helps to add a sense of place but also provides endless compositions.
Bokeh is all about depth of field, and getting the right amount can be a challenge. Too much and your background will become recognizable and distracting; too little and some the important parts of your subject will be out of focus. If you have never used your camera’s depth of field preview button (or even wondered what it was for), now is the time to put it to use.
When this button is depressed, your lens is immediately stopped down to its “taking aperture.” This is the aperture your lens is actually set to, as opposed to its widest setting – the setting that your camera sets to so it can provide the brightest possible viewfinder image. While viewing the scene at the taking aperture, you’re able to judge the depth of field a little easier. I say “a little” because the viewfinder image will become much darker and it may take a few seconds for your eyes to adjust. I find it helpful to rack the aperture back and forth until you can better see how the depth of field is affecting the scene. When all of the important parts of the subject seem sharp, I’ll often close down one more stop just to be sure. I’d much rather sacrifice a little less softness in the background, than a little less sharpness in the subject. By today’s standards, this button is probably one of the lowest-tech features on your camera, but if critical focus is important, it can be the most useful.
I sprayed the magnolias with water to simulate early-morning dew. Besides adding a nice decorative element, the water droplets helped me to focus by giving me something solid (as opposed to smooth petals) to latch onto.
As a finishing touch, I used an off-camera flash outfitted with a warming gel. The gel helped to shift the white light of the flash to a color balance that better matched the warm tone of the early-morning ambient light. By using it off-camera, I was able to hold it at the precise angle for the best light. Even so, I still took several shots of each scene. The slightest repositioning of the flash caused the shadows to fall in different places – drastically changing the look of the photo. With several images to choose from, I could select the one with the least distracting shadows.
Patience is really a virtue when it comes to nature photography. I spent almost two hours at this location. It’s not uncommon for me, and I’m sure most other photographers, to spend several hours in the same spot photographing the same subject – when most casual shooters would have long since moved on. Of all the wonders of land and sea, one should not overlook the beauty of one little tree.