Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how she used two studio flashes to capture this image of catkins bursting with pollen.

An internationally renowned photographer of

the natural world and author of more than 50 books,

Heather brings her expertise to AP.

With its puffs of luminous green pollen, this image of catkins from a birch tree is a spectacular sight to behold. The image was actually used on the front page of the Independent newspaper in May 2006 to illustrate a story about vast amounts of birch pollen that had blown across from Scandinavia and settled in parts of East Anglia, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire.

Birch trees produce catkins in the spring and these release pollen clouds during April. At this time of year you can see the puffs of pollen in the air. These pollen clouds can make an interesting composition, but you have to consider how to light the catkin to illuminate the microscopic particles. To show the pollen clearly, backlighting is the best approach.

In the field you could do this by mounting the flash or asking someone to hold it in the correct position, but there are lots of factors that make taking a shot like this difficult to do outside. You have to contend with messy backgrounds, and there is also the issue of the wind blowing the pollen in directions you don?t want it to go or worse, not scattering enough pollen. To get this dramatic effect there needs to be a large burst of pollen from the catkins. I?ve tried this same shot outside, but it doesn?t work as well.

I took this image in an indoor studio that I had created for this shot. I like working in a controlled environment, but not instead of shooting outside. For my macro work I shoot both inside and outside; working inside complements the photography I do outdoors. For a subject like this, however, photographing indoors makes it easier to control what is going on.

There are several stages to go through when setting up this shot and certain things to bear in mind.

After picking the catkin twigs I brought them inside and put them into water. Providing you don?t move or disturb the catkins in any way when you come to photograph them they should still be full of pollen. A single catkin gives out a surprising amount of pollen and more than one is helpful for creating substantial clouds of pollen. It?s a good idea to have more than one catkin branch so can have several goes if you don?t get it right first time.

I try to get my shots right in-camera, as this is the way I?ve always worked. I took this image on my Nikon F4 with a 105mm macro lens. To light the catkins I used two studio flashes each mounted on a stand on the table and angled at 45° so the catkins were lit from behind. I made sure the flashes were out of shot. You can tell I used two light sources by looking closely at the rim lighting on the stem. The flashes have revealed the bright, intense greens of the leaves, catkins and the pollen brilliantly.

The simple black background was some distance behind the catkins. Focusing on the catkins, I framed my shot to leave space below the catkins for the pollen cloud. Afterwards, as I was editing the image, I added black on each side to create a square image. Using a piece of cotton tied around the twig (I made sure it wasn?t visible), I tweaked it firmly once to shake the pollen from the catkins. I had someone to help me do this while I concentrated on taking the shot. The catkins moved sideways rather than backwards and forwards, which meant the focus distance wasn?t affected. The exposure was 1/500sec.


To hold the birch catkin securely I used a handy device called a Plamp (pictured) made by Wimberley. You can buy these at Warehouse Express

For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit Heather?s book, Macro Through a Nikon Lens, published by Chris Weston Publishing Ltd priced £18, is available to buy from her website at

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley