water lily

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.

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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National Park Service Centennial by Todd Henson

The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 on Thursday, August 25, 2016. The National Parks, and other lands managed by the NPS, truly are some of the jewels of the United States. The NPS works to preserve some of the most beautiful locations in the country, while still keeping them open and accessible to the public. I have benefited greatly from this system of parks and monuments, and I hope they continue to be preserved far into the future.

I have not visited nearly as many of the parks or monuments as I would like, but included in this post are photographs from a number of the locations I have had the privilege of visiting, sometimes multiple times. The National Park Foundation can help you find a park near you.

National Park lands are known for their iconic scenic views, beautiful mountain ranges, flowing streams and waterfalls, and fields of flowers. But they are also home to wildlife of all sorts: mammals, reptiles, birds, spiders, etc. And the Park lands also include many monuments and memorials showcasing fantastic statues and amazing architecture. If you haven't been to a National Park, Monument, or Memorial lately, get out there! Go visit one today. And take along your camera, create a few images. It's worth the trip.


Locations Around the National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Lincoln Memorial at night

Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool at dawn

Washington Monument & Cherry Blossoms Reflected in the Tidal Basin

National World War II Memorial Water Fountains

Storm over the Washington Monument and Tidal Basin in Black & White

Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial in Infrared

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial and Washington Monument in Black & White

Closeup of Jefferson Memorial in Black & White


Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, Washington, D.C.

Lotus Flower and Bumble Bee against green background

White Water Lily in dark pond

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens Bridge in Infrared

Dragonfly on unopened Lotus Flower


Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain National Park in Black & White

Pika in Rocky Mountain National Park

Uinta Chipmunk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

Clark's Nutcracker in Rocky Mountain National Park

Yellow-bellied Marmot in Rocky Mountain National Park

Facing the Storm in Rocky Mountain National Park (Black & White)


Acadia National Park, Maine

Long exposure of a rocky shoreline in Acadia National Park, Maine (warmer tones)

Long exposure of a rocky shoreline in Acadia National Park, Maine (cooler tones)

Panorama of inlet and rocky beach in Acadia National Park, Maine


Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Maryland

Falls Along Canal in Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Great Blue Heron Above Falls in Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

Double-crested Cormorant in Potomac River at Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park


Great Falls Park, Virginia

Prelude to Rafting at Great Falls Park in Virginia

Kayakers in Potomac River at Great Falls Park

To the Falls, Great Falls Park

Facing The Fingers on the Potomac River at Great Falls Park


Turkey Run Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia

Blue Phlox at Turkey Run Park

Yellow Trout Lily at Turkey Run Park


Prince William Forest Park, Virginia

Stream in Prince William Forest Park

Quaker Ladies Flowers in Prince William Forest Park

Daisy Fleabane Flower in Prince William Forest Park

Arrowhead Orbweaver Spider in Prince William Forest Park


Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Skyline Drive Sunset in Shenandoah National Park

Flowers along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park


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Resources from my library

National Parks: Our American Landscape
Earth Aware Editions

Ian Shive, recipient of the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, is well known for photographing America's National Parks. His work is showcased in a book titled, The National Parks: Our American Landscape. I own a paperback edition of this book, and it contains some fantastic imagery, along with a number of essays by different writers. The book is in landscape format, approximately 8" x 10.5" and is 228 pages in length.

Ian's photos in this book present a far better sampling of our National Parks than I've done above. He has visited and photographed a great many of the parks over the years, capturing all aspects of them, from the iconic to the smaller, more subtle details. I believe Ian is a true master of his craft.

Photographing America's National Parks  with Ian Shive.  Image credit: CreativeLive

Photographing America's National Parks with Ian Shive. Image credit: CreativeLive

In addition to the book mentioned above, Ian Shive has taught a 3-day class at CreativeLive titled, Photographing America's National Parks. This class includes over 15 1/2 hours of video, along with several PDF documents with extra info, such as the keynote slides and some amazing examples of Ian's work. I own this class and really enjoyed watching it. This was the first CreativeLive class to take the studio out to a National Park, allowing Ian to demonstrate, in the field, how he goes about creating his images. Most of the topics he discusses are relevant to any form of outdoor nature photography, whether in a local park, National Park, or just in your own backyard. In fact, he advocates starting in your backyard. Most of us have something near us worth photographing, and having it close by gives us the opportunity to easily return over and over again at different times of the day and during different seasons. We can really learn the place. And this helps later when we travel to other locations because we've already spent the time locally learning our lessons, getting to know our gear, learning about light and composition, knowing what's possible.

The class includes many videos on location. The locations include several parks along the Olympic Peninsula, such as Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park. In some videos Ian takes us through a photo shoot, describing what he sees and what he's thinking as he works the scene. In others he takes us on a scouting trip, looking for scenes that might prove promising at a different time in different light.

Back in the studio he talks about how to select and edit your images and takes us through his process. As with many of the CreativeLive photography classes, this one includes critique sessions where they discuss student photographs. These are great learning sessions. Later he talks about the business side of nature photography, describing different markets for selling your work, including a stock agency he founded, Tandem Stills + Motion.

Photographing America's National Parks is available seperately or as part of the Travel Photography Toolkit, which also includes: Post-Processing for Outdoor and Travel Photographers with Ben Willmore and Travel Photography: The Complete Guide with Ben Wilmore. I purchased the first two and received a free copy of Travel Photography: The Complete Guide.