Photography with Cattleyas, Mike Armstrong

Mike is a long time member of EMOS, and during his long career has been a professional in both photography and growing Cattleyas. He is still recognised as an authority on Cattleyas although now retired they are ‘just a hobby’.

His aptitude for photography started with his mother who ran a camera shop in Louth. Up to being 10 years old he had a box brownie125 – a very common camera at that time. At 13 he was using a Halina 35 – one of the ‘new fangled’ compact cameras. Mikes passion at the time included steam engines, and he would think nothing at jumping on the train to York (and elsewhere) to take black and white pictures of engines. As the SLR camera was developed he bought a Contac, switching to a Nikon in his early 20s, with which he would often use up to 30 rolls of film a day. At this rate, and turning professional he also got through 2-3 cameras a year. He is passionate about using film rather than snapping various things on digital as it makes you understand what you are doing, and how best to use the settings – modern cameras tend to do this for you, taking most of the skill and passion away. As a professional his pictures became awarded, and he also became a judge.

He does use digital of course, and started with a low pixel count Nikon D2, and is currently using a D800E that uses 36.2mpxl – far higher than most users would require. These use just 3 colour layers – magenta, cyan & yellow Staging plants for pictures takes time, which is worth it to get that better picture. What might not be too obvious is that well grown plants tend to be easier to photograph – particularly with Cattleyas where the flowers will stand proud of the foliage. His preferred technique for growing this genera is to grow them in clear pots inside mossed baskets – which helps to keep humidity around the plant without having to have permanently damp roots. Remove all labels prior to taking a picture, clean the foliage, and optimise the staking of the flowers.

The biggest issue that amateurs get with their photography is a shadow of the plant on the backdrop. This occurs when a single flash is used, so it is better to use 2-3 additional lights – sides and rear as appropriate. These will have a dual function to both reduce the shadow, and to provide some backlighting which helps with the colouration of the flower as well as the background. A diffuser is always useful in this technique as it softens the light making it appear from more than a single bulb – which reduces the shadow.

The staging should include the camera on a tripod at the same height as the plant. Lift the plant to the appropriate height as necessary. Isolating the plant in this way ensures that a modern camera isn’t distracted by anything else to focus on. Wrap the pot in black cloth so that it effectively disappears. This can also be used with foliage, but needs more care. A useful technique here would be to create a decent size ‘Photo box’. Ideally this would be collapsible and portable. It would have a black back to it, with 2 sides of either white or of white muslin cloth to diffuse flash.

there are 3 different basic methods to take digital pictures – either as RAW, TIF, or (most commonly) JPEG. Raw allows more manipulation of the image with computer software. JPEG is all that any of us will ever need. there are a couple of decent software programs that can be used to produce the final image – such as sharpen up, brighten, or soften. Windows Live Gallery and Photoshop (‘elements’ only is good enough) are either provided with the operating system, or are easy to buy.

Several examples of Mikes photography were shown – including before & after software touch ups. Digital photography is a very easy thing to do as poor images can be discarded without any processing costs, unlike film. Have a go, do some experiments on photographing the same plant using different techniques and compare results (make sure you take note of which style is used for each 1). It can be great fun – don’t just put the camera on the ‘automatic’ setting, and learn a bit more about what it can do for you.