Tutorial: Finding and Shooting Trilliums

The season is almost upon us, so I thought it would be a good time to post about photographing trilliums. I had seen a photo somewhere on the internet that had a ton of flowers carpeting the forest floor and that was the beginning of my adventure into Ontario trilliums. Since I moved to Ottawa from Winnipeg a few years ago I’m always on the hunt for photo sites near my new home, and this seemed perfect. A lot of digging turned up a bunch of potential sites and I ended up having to categorize them as within Ottawa, near Ottawa, or a 3+ hour drive away. Almost all of the shots below are from a site about an hour and fifteen minutes away by car. I went about five times within about a two week period (since they don’t last very long), once to learn about the area, and then the rest of the trips were to get the shots I envisioned (with the weather impacting a couple of the trips). The days were already getting long and with the drive being over an hour long there were some outrageous alarm clock settings for the sunrise trips.

In strong sunlight it can be hard to distinguish the leaves from the flowers. A polarizer can help with cutting down the glare from the leaves, but keep in mind that adding a polarizer lengthens your exposure time, which isn’t good if there’s a bit of a breeze. This isn’t a big problem if you’re shooting in the middle of the day, but you generally want to be shooting during the golden hours just after sunrise or just before sunset. Add to that the forest canopy blocking light overall and it can be a bit dark, requiring a balancing of higher ISO levels and the choice to add a polarizer.

A sunrise shot without a polarizer. You can see that the conditions were pretty dark, and there was a slight breeze which would require a higher ISO to freeze the flower motion if you were using a polarizer. Plus, filters often add flare when shooting into the sun anyway.

In light of this (no pun intended), I’d recommend going for sunrise when there is usually less wind, less bugs, less people getting in your shots, golden light, and the chance of getting mist/fog. Keep an eye on the forecast since you won’t get nice golden light if it’s cloudy. Cloudy weather can be good for photographing flowers, but I’ve always found that a bit of light helps to elevate any photo. Take a look at two similar shots below, one with a bit of light and one when it’s cloudy. Which do you prefer? You can try out different weather conditions and see which you like.

Focus stacking can help in those situations where you want to get really close to the flowers to make them appear larger with a wide angle. But keep in mind the note above about wind, which can make it hard to combine focus stacked images properly. This also holds true for panoramas which can be affected by movement of the flowers. A safe bet is to have a higher megapizel sensor and simply crop a single shot. I prefer to have a higher megapixel sensor anyway, since I’d rather not be looking back in time and wishing I had more pixels. Spending just a few extra dollars more can ensure that the images you’re shooting, some of which might be very rare phenomena, can be turned into big prints if necessary (although there’s new software coming out that can increase resolution after the fact).

This is a situation where focus stacking could come in handy. A wide angle lens helps to emphasize and enlarge the flowers near the camera, but it also creates a sharpness issue as it’s hard to get things sharp when items are very close and farther away from the lens. In this case I didn’t stack, I simply used a very small aperture.
Here’s a case where you can simply crop your image to create a panorama if you have enough megapixels, and avoid any stitching complications caused by motion (or just the difficulties of stitching images taken with a wide angle lens).

While it’s nice to get some wide expansive shots to show the environment covered by a carpet of flowers, don’t forget to take some close up detailed shots too. One of the days when I went the sun didn’t break through and I was disappointed and just walking around looking for compositions and simply enjoying being there. Then I saw a little yellow spider on one of the purple trilliums (which are fairly rare). It stood still for me and I got some great shots of it’s contrasting colour against the purple. So even on the cloudy day I was able to get some of my favourite shots. (Later the spider crawled into the centre of the flower and was camouflaged pretty well against the stamens; I wondered if that was it’s hunting technique.)

A wide view…
…a close up detail shot.

To find where the trilliums are, I’d recommend starting with an internet search. Start somewhere like Flickr or 500px and try searching for “trilliums Ontario”, or whichever province you’re in (they are Ontario’s provincial flower but they can be found in other provinces too). Once you’ve found some possible sites you’ll have to go visit them and see if they have the trillium numbers that you’re envisioning. Spring is obviously the best time to go, and you need to go before the tree leaves start to emerge because the flowers die when the leaves start blocking the light.

As with most of photography, you should avoid just pointing the camera at the flowers and pressing the shutter. Try to include an item of interest, such as a tree or a pathway, and pay attention to where your eye is drawn in the composition (you don’t want to lead the eye toward empty space or out of the frame).

Here the pathway and the trees add some interest and create a scene, rather than just shooting a patch of flowers.
Here the roadway leads the eye into the image, and the light in the background also pulls your eye into the scene (and also adds some depth).

You can try some telephoto shots to compress the scene (having the background seem closer to the foreground). If you’re doing wide angle shots be careful of empty spots. You want balance in your composition, and with a wide angle lens you include a lot of the scene, which risks having empty areas and an unbalanced composition. However, if you include a lot of empty space, it leads into the genre of photography called minimalism and can be a nice effect when done right. You can see that in a lot of my shots in this post I included a sunstar to give some interest to the forest area at the tops of the frames.

I included a sunstar here to give some interest to the top of the frame rather than just the bottom. (I was wishing I had a shift lens, to keep the trees straight vertically. I could have shot from a lower position and tilted the camera up to straighten the lines, but then you wouldn’t be able to see the fallen tree running off into the distance.)

Keep in mind that these locations can have mosquitos and wood ticks. I’m not sure about your area, but West Nile virus has been found in Ontario, and Lyme Disease as well. Due to global warming, if your area doesn’t have them yet, it may in the future as the insects migrate into areas that used to be too cold for them. If it’s early in the year, the bugs may not be out yet, but in my experience, I’ve always been swarmed by mosquitos as the day warms up. Use bug spray, and tuck your pants into your socks (and spray your socks/shoes too) or wear boots.

Speaking of safety, if you’re going to a rural/remote area alone to do photography, always remember to tell someone where you’re going and when you might be back.

– Patrick





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