Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how her simple flower image demonstrates that sometimes less can be more

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

When I?m walking through an unfamiliar environment, I often find myself scanning the area for photographic opportunities. This is particularly true when I?m exploring forests and woodlands due to the diverse nature of the landscape. It?s something that I do more when I am abroad because those woodland areas tend to contain flowers and creatures that I?m unfamiliar with as a resident of the UK. Scanning is a good habit to get into as a photographer, although it probably accounts for why I?m always tripping over roots and rocks. It?s important to remain aware of your environment and to look for things such as the light falling in an interesting way or flowers with fascinating forms and colours.

This picture was taken near the border between China and Burma Myanmar]. I was exploring one of the forests in the area and moving slowly along a narrow path. This wasn?t a particularly difficult flower to spot because it was right beside the path. I had no idea what it was and to this day I have been unable to identify it. What I found particularly striking about the flower was that it had such a simple form. It?s not a particularly colourful plant and is incredibly basic in its structure. The image is not exactly what you would call a ?Wow!? shot, but that?s what I love about it. This is a shot that works because of its simplicity, which is a big draw with macro work generally. Sometimes less really is more ? you don?t always have to be overwhelmed by bawdy colours.

The flower wasn?t lit by direct sunlight and the sky was fairly overcast. This isn?t usually a problem because often you?ll find that bright but overcast weather is best when dealing with a forest environment. In these conditions your image won?t be littered with bright highlights. However, with macro photography you have to get in very close and your lighting parameters can shift dramatically. As you can see in the image, I had to deal with little white flowers and a dark background, and I was well aware that the lighting wasn?t going to change any time soon. Working with the extremes of white and black meant that I had to be very careful when metering because there was a risk of getting more dark than light.

Before I put my Nikon D3 with 105mm f/2.8 AF Micro Nikkor lens on the tripod, I metered off some big leaves that were in the same area (and therefore in the same light), making sure they were matt green rather than shiny. This kind of light- to mid-green colour is always a good average tone. Things like holly leaves or grey leaves are no good at all. Through practice you get to understand what will work and what won?t.

The head of the flower was quite flat, so I made sure that the sensor plane was parallel with it. This meant that I had to set up my tripod so it was above the flower and looking down over it. When working in a forest there?s always the temptation to get down with your camera tripod and shoot at an angle. However, shooting straight down meant that I was able to get all the white florets in focus with the green buds receding into the background.

The most important thing to realise when you?re shooting macro images is that you have a limited depth of field, which you can see as either an advantage or a disadvantage. Shooting small objects opens up many possibilities when experimenting with apertures; you can either shoot your subject with a shallow depth of field, which will make it pop out from the background, or you can try to get everything in focus using a larger depth of field, for a complex and busy image. It depends entirely on what you?re after. If it?s for identification purposes, everything needs to be sharp and clear, but if you?re looking to produce something a little more creative then you can experiment. Here, I was able to shoot using a shallow depth of field, which was made all the more effective by the dark background. Had it been lit differently there could have been many distracting elements visible, such as leaves and twigs. The settings I used were 1/50sec at f/9, which gave me just the right depth of field for the effect I wanted.

One of the things that really helped me when taking this picture, as it so often does, is depth of field preview. Recently, I was talking to two photographers who both told me that they take a photograph and then try to decide from that image how they need to alter their aperture. I would rather try to get it right first time. That?s what the depth of field preview button is for: to give you an immediate preview of what the final image will look like.

As I stated earlier, sometimes a simple shot can be the most effective. Training your eye to spot simplicity is as difficult as training it to spot the fantastic. Once you understand how to spot those two extremes, though, a whole world of possibilities opens up.

Heather Angel was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more images by Heather visit or Heather regularly runs workshops at the British Wildlife Centre. For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit