Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel recounts how she took this image of a gentian flower using natural light and fill flash, and explains how, even in macro photography, you must sometimes improvise

An internationally renowned photographer of the natural world and author of more than 50 books, Heather brings her expertise to AP

I was in China photographing alpine plants when I took this shot of a gentian flower. One day when I was out shooting I came across a meadow that was soaking from the rain. There were thousands of beautiful gentian flowers in all shades of blue and in all sizes. The petals open when it is sunny and it can be frustrating if the petals are closed. Fortunately, on this day they were open.

Gentians are beautiful plants that belong to the Gentianaceae family. There are around 400 species found worldwide, predominantly in Asia, Europe, North and South America, and New Zealand. I?m working on a project about pollinating flowers for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so I was particularly interested in the pollinating parts of the flower. This is actually a shot of the gentian sectioned lengthwise to show its inner structure.

I took several close-up and wideangle shots of the gentians, but it was the internal structure that I was trying to capture. I couldn?t have taken this shot in the field because the background would have been too cluttered ? I needed to isolate the flower from the busy surroundings. I also wouldn?t have been able to show the inside of the flower effectively without cutting it in two.

Consequently, I picked one of the flowers and took it back to the hotel to see if I could create a compelling shot of a single gentian. I would never pick a flower growing in a protected area and it?s not acceptable to pick wildflowers whenever you like, but on this occasion I could see that it was all right to take one. I actually ended up taking the flower with me on the plane to my next destination, and when I arrived at the hotel I thought I?d better hurry up and photograph it before it withered.

I cut the flower in half, attached it to a glass with tape and placed it on the windowsill. There was nothing in the room I could use to light the gentian in the way I wanted, so I decided to use natural light with flash to fill in the shadows at the base of the flower. My flashgun wasn?t mounted on the camera, but was attached using an off-camera flash cord. I set my exposure manually and spot metered on an average tone, in this case, the slightly darker blue areas at the top of the flower. I underexposed the flash by 1.7 stops.

The sun was behind the flower, but not shining directly into the camera. The light shone through the subject at an angle and backlit the flower beautifully. I love how the light brings out the blue of the petals and reveals its intricate inner structure.

The black background you see isn?t artificial ? it?s something in the background, perhaps a tree, that has created this black backdrop. When I?m travelling in the UK I often carry different types of backgrounds with me, but when abroad it?s more difficult to do this. If you are in a situation where you don?t have all the equipment you need, you have to think laterally and use what you?ve got. Sometimes this can be tricky and you?re not always sure if you?ve got the shot you want, but at other times you?ll be pleasantly surprised.

Shooting handheld, I fired off a few exposures on my Nikon D3 with a 105mm lens. My ISO was set to 1000, giving me an exposure of 1/125sec at f/22. I may have moved slightly closer or further away as I was framing the shot, but I didn?t vary my shooting angle.

I prefer to do as little as possible to my images afterwards, and apart from the occasional crop my photographs are nearly always as taken. In this case I didn?t need to crop at all. It?s amazing what you can achieve when shooting within limited means.

To see more images by Heather, visit For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit

Heather’s latest book, Exploring Natural China, published by Evans Mitchell Books, priced £19.95, is available from Amazon.

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley