Purple Tropical Water Lily by Todd Henson

Purple tropical water lily at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Water lilies can be such beautiful photographic subjects. But often they grow in crowded, busy, sometimes dirty ponds that create a compositional challenge. And they are often growing far enough into the pond you can’t quite get close enough to fill the frame or position them against a decent background.

But if you keep looking you can sometimes find a great subject against a pleasing background. I was fortunate to find such a situation at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C.

I was there for the lotus flowers, but the park also hosts water lily ponds, and I love trying to photograph water lilies. So this trip I actually went to the water lily ponds before looking at the lotus ponds.

I’m glad I did. It was still early and the sun wasn’t yet fully out over the ponds. This created a nice, soft light to show off the flowers without any harsh shadows.

Now to find a subject. I was very fortunate to find a lone water lily growing well above the water. And positioned just behind the water lily was a good sized lily pad.

Often the lily pads are damaged or dirty. But this lily pad was fairly intact and not too discolored. There were some off color patches, but by using a telephoto lens and a large aperture, which created a shallow depth of field, I was able to blur the lily pad enough that any rough patches mostly disappeared into the background.

I did the best I could to stand tall enough to look into the flower as much as possible. I wanted to see all that beautiful detail and color, the purples and the fiery oranges.

I also tried to line up the stem of the flower with the notch in the bottom of the lily pad, and place the flower so it was surrounded by out of focus green from the lily pad in the water behind it.

In the end this is my favorite photograph from the trip.


Finding Blue in a Field of Sunflowers by Todd Henson

A bee on a young sunflower against a cloudless blue sky.

One morning my brother and I found ourselves driving to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville, Maryland. We were hoping to photograph the fields of sunflowers that are planted there each year to feed the wildlife.

A young green sunflower bud.

But when we arrived we found the first field had yet to bloom. It was a field full of green sunflowers. A kind individual walking the field told us there was only one field even partly in bloom, and he showed us where this field was on the map. We, along with another group of photographers, got back in our cars and drove towards this field.

Facing the field of sunflowers, partly in bloom.

The morning was hot and extra humid. Just walking from the car to the field we were already soaked in sweat. Some of the sunflowers in the field has begun to bloom, but it was still mostly full of unopened green buds.

Side view of the partly blooming sunflower field.

So what do you do when you find your main subject is not how you had planned? You adjust your plans!

We hiked around the field looking for anything that caught our eyes. We did photograph a sunflower here and there, but what ended up catching our interest were other flowers growing amongst the sunflowers.

A beautiful blue morning glory flower against a green background, found in a field of sunflowers.

Along one side of the field we found morning glory vines with soft blue flowers. I tried using a very shallow depth of field to create a soft focus image, more about the green and blue colors than any detail in the flower.

Dew covered flower and bud at the back of the sunflower field.

At the back of the field we spent time photographing another flowering vine, possibly also a morning glory. I loved how dew had collected on the flower as it was still in shade; the sun had yet to rise high enough over the edge of the trees to reach this part of the field.

Green bee on a blue chicory flower with a green background.

And on the way back to the car we found a small patch of light blue chicory flowers attracting bees and other insects. Thankfully these were in shade which created a beautiful soft light just perfect for detail shots of the flowers and insects.

So if you ever head out for a shoot and don’t find exactly what you’re looking for, remember to stay flexible and keep your eyes open. There will usually be something else nearby worthy of your attention.


Examples of Using a Polarizing Filter with Water Lilies by Todd Henson

Example showing maximum and minimum effect using a polarizing filter with a purple water lily.

Do you use polarizing filters? I hope to convince you that polarizing filters can help you enhance your photographs. The effects can be dramatic, but they can also be subtle. It’s those subtle differences that can really make a photograph sing.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the technicals of how polarizing filters work. But at a simple level they just control how much polarized light reaches the camera’s sensor. You put the polarizing filter on the front of your lens. You then rotate the filter to control how much polarized light reaches the camera. 

What this means in the real world is that polarizing filters can:

  • reduce reflections and glare on water and other surfaces, such as leaves

  • saturate colors, like the greens of foliage and the colors of flowers

  • darken skies, turning them a deeper blue

  • slightly reduce the amount of light reaching the camera.

Today we’re looking specifically at using a polarizing filter when photographing water lilies. This is great both because it can reduce reflections and glare and will help saturate the colors of the flowers and lily pads. A potential disadvantage is that a polarizing filter does reduce the amount of light reaching the camera, sometimes forcing you to use a slower shutter speed. So watch your shutter speed and if it gets too slow then increase your ISO or open up your aperture.

Purple water lily. Left: maximum effect from polarizing filter. Right: minimum effect from polarizing filter.

As you can see in the first example above, the effect can be dramatic. The purple water lily on the left has the polarizing filter set to full effect, reducing the reflections as much as possible. The same lily is shown on the right with the polarizing filter set to minimum effect, letting us see the reflections.

It’s not necessarily that one photo is better than another. But the polarizing filter lets us control the look of the scene, it lets us control what we emphasize. In this example I prefer the left image where the polarizing filter has reduced the reflections. This darkens the water and helps the water lily pop off the surface. I also like the brighter tones of the green stem.

Pair of Arc-en-Ciel water lilies. Left: maximum effect from polarizing filter. Right: minimum effect from polarizing filter.

In the second example, of a pair of Arc-en-Ciel water lilies, the effect from the polarizing filter is more subtle. Again, the image on the left is at full effect and the image on the right is at minimum effect. The polarizing filter reduced glare off the water which darkened the water. I like this effect as it helps draw your eyes to the lighter colored flowers. You can see subtle differences in the flowers and lily pads.

Pink water lily. Left: maximum effect from polarizing filter. Right: minimum effect from polarizing filter.

The third example shows how the polarizing filter can affect colors, in particular the greens of the lily pads. The left image is at full effect. It reduces the reflections but does not eliminate them. But notice what it does to the greens of the lily pads.

The left image, with full polarizing effect, has beautiful green lily pads. The right image, with minimum polarizing effect, has lily pads with more blue in them. Which do you prefer? The polarizing filter lets you adjust the effect to serve your own taste.

I decided to take the third example a step further. I prefer the look when the polarizing filter is set to full effect. However, I really like the reflection of the water lily in the water and the polarizing filter tends to reduce this effect.

To deal with this I loaded both images into Adobe Photoshop as separate layers. I chose the fully polarized image as the primary image, then using a layer mask I slowly painted in the reflection from the less polarized image. This gave me the best of both worlds. I have the richer colors of the polarized image and also the more pronounced reflection of the water lily from the less polarized image. It’s a subtle difference, but again, these subtle differences can help enhance your photographs.

Pink water lily with maximum polarizing effect. I like the saturated colors of the green lily pads and the flower.

Pink water lily with minimum polarizing effect. I like the enhanced reflection but not the glare on the lily pads.

Pink water lily composite. Combined the color saturation of the maximum polarization version with the reflection of the minimum polarization version.

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