Haworthia decipiens var. decipiens

Today’s post is the first in what is intended to become a daily posting of one or more interesting and beautiful pictures (mainly) of succulent plants. The text will be kept to a minimum, so as not to distract from the images. These post will be an addition to, not a replacement for, the usual ones.
You may also notice that I have added a photo gallery to the blog. Enjoy!
We kick off with two pictures that are identical, except for the fact that one was taken with a diffusor. That one seemingly little difference produces quite a different result. One can not really say that one picture is better than the other, but they give different information and also evoke a different feeling. When the light is harsh like in this case, it is worth taking a couple of pictures with and without a diffusor or reflector.

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Some Poellnitzia pictures

It keeps amazing me how sometimes you decide to do something and you end up with a totally different thing from what you had in mind. This post is a case in point.
I thought it would be a good idea to write a post on a certain aspect of plant photography that is often neglected (paralleling the subject) and went out into the garden to take some pictures to illustrate the principle. As it happened, there was a nice specimen of Poellnitzia in flower that seemed to fit the bill. Because the inflorescence in these plants is rather long and thin, even the gentle breeze that was blowing made it almost impossible to make a sharp picture. Quite a while ago I bought a gadget especially for occasions like this, where you have to stabilise something that is moving in the wind. It is called a Plamp (plant clamp) and  has a couple of other uses as well.  Although I rarely (have to) use it, it may make the difference between a good picture and a bad one (or none at all).  Have a look at http://www.tripodhead.com/products/plamp-main.cfm for more info.
Even after the inflorescence as such had now been stabilised, the individual flowers were slightly moving in the wind. This defeated the object of showing the differences in depth of field as a result of different camera angles. After the rigmarole of setting up camera, tripod and Plamp, combined with the fact that a flowering plant of this species is not a common sight, I was rather reluctant to just pack up and leave. So I decided to have another look at what was there. As usual, I started with a couple of what my friend Neil Curry, a retired filmmaker, uses to call establishing shots, showing the subject in its environment.

The background was nice and dark but because I did not compensate for its darkness this is how the picture turned out.

This is what it looked like after taking a second picture with one stop underexposure and some fiddling in post production. You will notice that I also removed some of the nasty light blotches in the background.

After this, I went somewhat closer up and photographed only the middle part of the inflorescence.

Because the tips of the flowers have a unique shape I decided to make a picture of those at natural size. The flowers are so special in fact, that a whole genus (Poellnitzia) was established to accommodate just one species (rubriflora).

The plant itself is similar in shape to species in related genera (Aloe, Astroloba, Haworthia) but the colour is rather special.


Machairophyllums flowering after fire

In an earlier post I referred to a fire that raged on the nearby Rooiberg about a year ago.
Approximately half a year after the fire we discovered a great number of flowering Machairophyllums in the burnt areas.
Although there are several populations on the Rooiberg, we had never found a flowering specimen before and we wondered why that was. Had we never been there in the right time of the year and of the day (the flowers open after dark) or did the plants, like so many others occurring in fynbos, need a fire to trigger flowering?
Last Sunday we decided to visit the mountain again and see if we could find out if the Machairophyllums in the not burned areas had flowered so profusely last year as well. This is easy to establish because the fruits stay on the plants for a long time. We saw a couple of hundred plants in perfect condition, but only very few with  (max. 2-3) fruits.  If you look at the accompanying pictures (taken last October), you will see how profusely the plants flower after a fire.
All in all It seems safe to say that  this species of Machairophyllum -and probably the others too- may not be totally dependent on fire to trigger flowering, but that it certainly makes an enormous difference.
When I say “this species of Machairophyllum “ you probably wonder exactly what species we are talking about here. Comparing all the information from literature, I come to the conclusion it is most probably M. albidum.  Apparently other people too have a problem deciding which is which in this genus: The Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants recognises 7 species but also says “The genus is under study and four or five species may only be distinguishable”.

This picture was taken at 6.32 PM, when there was still just enough light to use

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Fifteen minutes later the light had gone. so I had to use flash for this and the next two pictures


machalbi 2012-10-23_8034_lznres

Looking and seeing

“Our looking is perfected every day-but we see less and less. Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING. Onlookers we are, spectators…”subjects” we are, that look at “objects”. Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once – and for all. By these labels we recognize everything but no longer SEE anything. We know the labels on all the bottles, but never taste the wine. “
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

“You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”
Eliot Porter

When we want to take our photography to a higher level, we must learn to observe better. It is not about visiting exciting places and having wonderful subjects in front of us.
Even in the most ordinary places you may find something of interest. It has little to do with the things you see and everything with the way you see them. The more carefully you observe things, the better your pictures will become. You can only really learn how to do this when you are able to relax. As long as your mind is filled with worries and concerns, you are occupied with yourself and not with the things you want to see. Therefore, you must try to clear your mind. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. A good start would be reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s inspiring book  “Wherever You Go, There You Are”.
Once you know how to relax, you can go on to the second step: paying attention to something or somebody.
As Freeman Patterson says in one of his books: “The trick is to learn how to switch yourself off, so you can switch your subject matter on. You have to “let go”.”
In other words, you must develop an attitude of “relaxed attentiveness”. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, and certainly it is not is easily accomplished. Nevertheless, it is well worth trying to get there.
Mindfulness is another word to refer to this state, in which we are not going anywhere or looking for anything specifically, but are one with what is surrounding us. Once we are able to “switch ourselves off”, we allow the picture to find us, instead of us trying to find the picture.
Most of us seem to suffer from sensory overload nowadays and we cannot pay constant attention to all the stimuli that we are subjected to. It is however possible to tune in to specific ones if they are of sufficient interest to us.

I remember an afternoon during one of the first photo workshops that I attended in South Africa. We stopped somewhere in the mountains near Kamieskroon and within minutes everybody was happily shooting away at rocks, trees, flowers, insects and what not. Everybody except me, that is. I was still busy trying to wind down, to relax, to “get in the mood”. Suddenly I became aware of the enormous variety of subjects and of the many ways people were responding to them: some were on all fours , one or two were lying on their backs looking up into a tree, others were sitting on rocks or in trees looking down, etc, etc. So, if I was the only one not seeing anything worth photographing, it obviously had to do with me and not with a lack of suitable subject matter. As soon as I realised this, the “what should I photograph” spell was broken and I started taking pictures just as happily as all the others.

Often one is so focused on the point of interest in the picture frame, that all the rest is not seen consciously. Apparently, the brain filters out much of the “noise” around us.
Richard Zakia (Perception and Imaging, 1997) describes this as: “We only see a small fraction of what we look at, and more often than not we “level” what we look at rather than “sharpen” it.”
One of the strongest barriers to seeing is categorizing and labeling:
– “why should I take a picture of that, it is only a nasty weed”;
– “no good photographing this flower, it’s not fully open yet”;
– “I don’t know this plant’s name, so there’s no use spending time on it”, etc.
It is only when we can leave this stage behind us that we will really see and realise that even simple, daily things can be very interesting.
As Robert Adams (Beauty in Photography, 1996) puts it: “Bell peppers would seem to be about as limited as any subject matter could be, but in fact how unlimited they are when photographed by Weston.”
Another attitude problem is caused by the “been there, done that” syndrome: you look at something and think: “Well, yes, I have seen this many times before and I do have pictures of it, so why waste time looking at it again”. (Never mind that it is not exactly the same thing; it is a different time of day, another season etc.). It may even be very useful to return to the same subject several times, because this will force you to look at it in new and unusual ways.
We need to have something like the receptiveness of a child looking at a thing for the first time. We can only hope to regain this wonderful innocent vision by breaking away from rigid, conventional ways of seeing and thinking.
A good way to improve your seeing is to look regularly at possible subjects through a small opening cut in a piece of cardboard. The opening should be about 10 x 15 cm (with the same aspect ratio as your viewfinder.
Because drawing  sharpens the visual senses,  one of the best ways to learn how to see better would be to attend a couple of art classes or study a book on learning how to draw. This may sound strange at first, but when you give it a try, you will find out that it really works. You will not only start looking at things in a different way, but also see things you never saw before.

The above is a somewhat modified chapter of my ebook on plant photography. The rest of this post is devoted to a recent example of looking and seeing “out of the box”.

Last Wednesday our small local photo group had its monthly meeting.  All the members had to show a couple of pictures of kitchen implements. Hardly an interesting subject one may think, but its very mundaneness had forced us to look at things in a different way.
Some of the results were quite surprising. The following pictures were part of my contribution : there is no direct relationship with plant photography, but the pictures give you a good idea what can happen if you let go of pre-conceived notions of what things should look like.

A set of cookie cutters

A fork, seen from the side

The same fork, seen from above. Lit partly from the back with small flash.