Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how she created a shadow behind a starry clover to make this unusual plant jump out from the frame

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

The starry clover, or Trifolium stellatum to use its botanical name, is a beautiful plant. With its short stems and hairy leaves, each clover head is covered in bright-red star-shaped spikes. The clover flower itself has pale pink petals. What you can see here is the part of the clover where the flower nestles. When the flower dies, it falls away to leave the amazing red star-shaped bracts of the plant. It was these that caught my eye. Starry clover plants are found in Britain, but they are very rare. Shoreham beach in West Sussex is the only place where it occurs in the UK.

I photographed this starry clover in Spain. I was walking along a shingle-covered beach when I spotted it. I took an initial shot when the sun was out and you can see the background behind. The background is blurred, so it?s not as distracting as it could be, but it is still a little confusing to look at.

The red bract doesn?t stand out as much as it could. There are some wonderful textures ? the sharp-looking spikes and the tiny hairs, for example, which I wanted to draw attention to. The starry bracts are the most exciting parts of the image and I wanted these to leap out.

After I?d taken the first shot I thought the composition would be much simpler if I didn?t show the background at all. To create the shot with the black background I used a very simple technique that doesn?t cost anything and is very effective. It involves casting a shadow behind the subject. It?s a useful technique if want to photograph a plant in the field where you?re trying to get rid of a distracting background. Shadows, of course, occur naturally and you?ll often see this in nature ? if you?re in a forest a tree trunk will sometimes cast a shadow behind a subject, for example ? but the shadows aren?t always where you want them. It?s very easy to create this effect yourself by using an object to cast a shadow.

I?ll sometimes position my backpack so it casts a shadow behind a subject that I?m photographing. If you?re with another person you could ask them to stand so their shadow falls behind the subject. In the past I?ve used an anorak hung on a tree branch, which also works quite well. It doesn?t matter what object you use ? the only requirement is that it casts a big enough shadow. And that the object or person is out of shot, of course!

The object I use and where I position it depends on the time of day I?m shooting, and where the sun is in the sky. Shadows are longer later in the day so you don?t need such a tall object to cast a shadow. On this occasion I stood my rucksack upright out of shot to the left so the shadow fell directly behind the starry clover.

I was looking down on the plant and it was slightly raised from the ground ? if the plant had been flush with the ground it wouldn?t have been so easy to cast the shadow behind it. I used my Nikon F3 with a 105mm macro lens and manually focused the image.

The clover head is globular, not flat, which meant setting a wide aperture to try to blur the background would cause parts of the plant to be out of focus. Instead, I used an aperture of f/11 to ensure that all of the plant would be in focus. I took the picture using natural light.

If you compare the two shots you can see that the exposure for the plant is the same ? the only difference is the black background. I always set my exposure manually and in this case I calculated my exposure for the shot with the blurred background and used this exposure for the shot with the shadow backdrop. Setting your exposure manually means the camera won?t be confused by the dark background and try to compensate by altering the exposure. You could use black velvet instead of a shadow, but there?s something about using what?s there in nature that I find delightfully appealing.

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

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

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley