Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Sun Ball

Since Sunday was a rainy day, I went with some friends to our usual ‘nasty day’ photographic haven, Phipps Conservatory. The display is going to be changing over to to the Fall Flower Show fairly soon and I had photographed the current show several times already. But the ‘Sun Balls’, as they are known, was something I hadn’t previously noticed. Or maybe they just hadn’t been in bloom yet.

Sun Ball or ‘Craspedia globosa’

Sun Ball or ‘Craspedia globosa’


These lovely flowers are native to Australia and New Zealand and are perennials. Their common names are ‘Sun Balls’ or ‘Billy Buttons’.

I thought it would be interesting to show what the scene looked like before I isolated the flower and processed it to give the look I was trying to achieve. The cell phone shot I took of the scene is posted below. I often take cell shots like this when at the conservatory so that I can reference the names of the plants after the shoot.


Lemons To Lemonade

Every summer I make my ‘pilgrimage’ to Jennings Environmental Education Center to see the annual blooming of the Blazing Stars (Liatris spicata), which grow naturally on this glacially carved prairie in the middle of the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. Alas, this year the bloom seems limited, and the flowers that were in bloom seemed mainly further out on the prairie, as opposed to being accessible near the trail. While it is possible that the larger portion of the bloom is yet to come (typical peak bloom is the mid to end of July and the beginning of August), I suspect that, for whatever reason, this year is simply not going to be a banner year for them.

Rather than lament the lack of Blazing Stars along the trail, I decided to photograph what was accessible to me. Only after getting home and doing an internet search did I think I identified this plant. I believe it is Yellow Foxtail (Setaria pumila).

At any rate, the foxtail itself was not overly attractive in its immediate surrounding, so I ended up layering in a texture. Even then the photograph looked as if it needed something additional, so I took another image of the Blazing Stars in the distance that I had made on the same morning, sized it appropriately, and layered it into the button of the photo. That gave me the result I was after.

Yellow Foxtail © Howard Grill

Yellow Foxtail © Howard Grill


In terms of what the Blazing Stars look like, I will share a photo of them I took a couple years back, from right along the trail:

Blazing Stars © Howard Grill

Blazing Stars © Howard Grill


The Chocolate Plant

As opposed to what one might think, the so called Chocolate Plant (Pseuderanthemum alatum) is not the plant from which the chocolate we eat is derived from. That plant would be the cacao tree, whose dried and fermented cocoa beans (seeds) are used in the production of chocolate. The Chocolate Plant is so-named because of the chocolate and silver coloration of its leaves. But when it blooms, the focus moves from the unusual leaf coloration to the beautiful small purple flowers that grow on tall stems.

This particular day was my first photographing at Phipps Conservatory in quite a while, and so when I returned there it was with fresh eyes, and that is always helpful.

Pseuderanthemum alatum © Howard Grill

Pseuderanthemum alatum © Howard Grill


Leaf Self Assignment #3

I thought I would continue showing some images from my self assignment of trying to make several interesting photographs from just a single leaf taken during a visit to my local botanical garden. I do like how the series flows and shows many aspects of just the one thing.

My friend and teacher, the late Nancy Rotenberg, used to say that by spending time focusing on and photographing just one ‘thing’ you could push yourself to go ‘beyond the handshake’; getting to know it and showing it to others in more depth.

Leaf Close Up #3 © Howard Grill

Leaf Close Up #3 © Howard Grill


Leaf Self Assignment #2

In my last post, I wrote about my self assignment of trying to make several photographs from a single leaf during a visit to my local botanical garden. And so here we have the second composition. The first can be seen here. I did find this self assignment challenging and hope to have a few more images in the group.

Leaf #2 © Howard Grill

Leaf #2 © Howard Grill


Heliamphora heterodoxa

Time for another photograph of one of the carnivorous plants I am growing in my basement. And so here we have a plant whose leaves are truly beautiful. Heliamphora heterodoxa is a type of ‘pitcher plant’ whose entire leaf is a pitcher, as opposed to the pitcher growing from the tip of a more ‘normal appearing’ leaf (some photos of these to come). Nectar is produced from the reddish appendage at the top of each leaf in order to attract insects, and when one falls into the pitcher its ‘look out below’, as they drown in the water and digestive enzymes at the pitcher’s base.

These beautiful plants are native to the high mountains in Venezuela and Brazil. While they are slow growing plants, I can see some definite growth in the few weeks that I have had mine.

The plant’s, color, shape and symmetry are what made me want to photograph it almost as soon as I received it. I think you’ll agree that they are very ‘photogenic’!

Heliamphora heterodoxa © Howard Grill

Heliamphora heterodoxa © Howard Grill


And here we have ‘live action video’ of an ant falling to its death (not for the faint of heart :)

These plants are both beautiful and intriguing!

More Cacti

The "Cactus Project" continues, in black and white of course!

The focus stacking that I talked about in my last cactus image has gotten me thinking much more carefully about the idea of focus in a composition. Is the image really one where I think selective focus with a limited depth of field would best portray what I am trying to convey, or would front to back sharpness better convey what I am trying to transmit? I had previously been 'bothered' when I wanted to use front to back sharpness and things were 'almost' all sharp. It's not easy being compulsive :). Now, I am more apt to use focus stacking when I seek true front to back sharpness, with the caveat being that compromise is necessary in some situations, such as where there is subject motion. I think my photo buddies and I would be willing to pay Phipps to just turn those fans they use to ensure air movement off for two hours on Sunday mornings :)

In this first photograph of Senecio talinoides flowers, I wanted the depth of field to be limited so as to have the stems and background fade away.

The Flowers of Senecio talinoides    © Howard Grill

On the other hand, in the image below I wanted sharpness throughout, at least for all the spines. That couldn't be achieved in one shot this close up because the angle the cacti were growing at precluded the option of getting the camera parallel to the surface of the 'stem'. Therefore, this image is a blended focus stack of probably 10 or so shots, each made two mm apart without adjusting the focus of the lens.


Opuntia 'Pricckly Pear' Cactus    © Howard Grill


Cactus Spines

I have been fascinated by the spines of this Echinocereus species cactus at Phipps Conservatory for some time. In fact, I have taken several photos of it in the past but have never been happy with the images for one reason. The spines are so long that when I fill the frame with them using my 180mm macro lens it simply isn't possible to get all the needles sharp along their entire length, even at f16 or f22. The depth of field just isn't great enough. 

I really should say that it isn't possible to get them all sharp in one single frame. Last weekend I took out all the stops and brought along my macro rail. The rail lets me take a series of tripod mounted images without refocusing, by manually moving the entire camera and lens closer to the subject as a unit, bit by bit. As the lens moves closer to the subject, a different area is brought into focus. 

I took 35 shots, each spaced 1mm apart (probably more than I needed to) and combined them using Helicon Focus focus stacking software. The software uses computer algorithms to take the sharp parts of each of the 35 frames and combine all of these sharp areas into one single image.

The result is shown below, converted to a sepia toned black and white photo. Those needles deserve to be shown in sharp focus throughout their entire length. And those tips are mighty sharp!

Cactus Spines    © Howard Grill

Euphorbia canariensis

Continuing on my black and white cactus journey of the last couple of blog posts, we have Euphorbia canariensis. As opposed to the other two images, this one was actually made a number of years ago on a trip to London, at the famous Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

I enjoy these images in black and white because removing the green color allows one to focus on the lines and shapes of the cactus which, to me, is the real 'essence' of these plants.

Euphorbia canariensis      © Howard Grill

Cactus - Black And White

In the winter I tend to visit Phipps Conservatory quite a bit. For one's warm in there! And their array of flowers and plants allows one to escape winter, if only for a short time.

Recently I seem to find myself drawn to the cactus room, and, because cacti and succulents are more about line and shape (to my eye anyway), I enjoy portraying them in black and white:

Cactus      © Howard Grill

The Edges Are Always Interesting

There is a saying in photography that goes something like this:  'if you are looking for something interesting to photograph always look at the edges'. The edges are where interesting things occur. Look for photographic opportunities where water meets land, where sky meets horizon, where storm-clouds meet clear skies. It is where 'the battle' takes place. I think that looking for interest at the edges is a good strategy even for simple everyday things. Like plants.


Edges    © Howard Grill



During my April trip to Georgia, the group I was with went to visit the Callaway Gardens Chapel In The Woods, a very peaceful location.  A few purple irises were growing at the edge of the water just in front of the chapel. I spent a good deal of time working on the camera position to try to get a background that didn't detract from the beautiful simplicity of the flower.

Working to get a good composition and a clean background can really make or break a photograph. I like the results I got in this composition.  I positioned the camera relatively high so that the water behind and in the distance from the flower would serve as a clean background. The focal length of the lens was 300mm (using my 100-400 zoom) which was able to blur any details in the water because of the limited depth of field at 300mm, even at f8. The sky was blue and thus the water itself had a bluish tonality, complementing the flower.



Pink Fantasy

Some weeks back I posted an image of a pink flowering tree from my "Unfocused" series. At that time I mentioned that I had taken some 'in-focus' photographs of the same tree.  I had to work a while to transform one of the focused photos into an image that I really liked by cropping, adding contrast, and enhancing detail in the flowers while subtly darkening the bottom of the image and cloning out the bright pathway in the background.  It's art, I can do that!

At any rate, I finally was able to produce an image that transmits (at least to me) the feeling of being there.  If it doesn't transmit that feeling, it doesn't see the light of day.

It just seemed right to call this one "Pink Fantasy"!

Pink Fantasy    © Howard Grill

Pink Fantasy    © Howard Grill


Backlit Tulip

Photography is all about light, and I think one of the most dramatic types of light is backlighting, particularly when the light is coming through or around a transparent or translucent object.  At the end of March I was walking indoors through the small botanical garden near my home (Spring still seemed a long way off, though it should have already arrived) when I saw sunlight streaming through one of the glass walls of the greenhouse.  That is usually a good sign to check and see if there are any flowers that are appropriately shaped to take advantage of backlighting.  There were some freshly blooming tulips, and one in particular was right in the 'beam' of light that was streaming in behind it.  The yellow tulip seemed to be on fire and lit from within.  

The tulip was growing in a window-box of sorts and so it wasn't too difficult to make the photo at 'eye'level'.  I decided to put the focus on the area where the stem turns into flower and let the rest of the bloom simply explode into a blur of yellow flames.


In my post entitled "Interesting Things Everywhere", I described how using Photoshop's invert command converted an abstract image I had made into a much more interesting photograph.  As such, I thought it might prove interesting to try it with my black and white flower images, perhaps one that was particularly abstract appearing. The inversion yielded quite an interesting result with this mum, at least I think so. As a friend of mine pointed out, the inverson seems to really make the spirals far more apparent than in the original, which is below the inversion. I wonder if that is because the inversion removes the idea of the photograph being a flower and allows our brain to now see more, without it being constrained with  pre-conceived ideas about what the subject is. Once free of the label perhaps we can become more aware and start to see shapes and patterns.  I don't know.....just a thought.  But I think this may be something that is worth trying on subjects that have a particularly abstract appearance to them.

Mum.....The Inverted

Mum....The Original

Copyright Howard Grill

Black And White Cleans Up

There are many reasons why a black and white presentation might be a good choice for an image.  One, which was the reason that I converted this image to black and white, is that it tends to simplify the scene. The shape of the tree branches and the echoing of the branches by the smaller tree in the lower right hand corner is what attracted me to this scene.  It is the reason I took the photo. At the time I made it I had fully intended for it to be a color image.  But when I looked at it on the screen it simply didn't work.  There were too many shades of green and too many leaf shapes distracting the viewer's eye from the broader lines and shapes.  It was the larger shapes of the trunk and branches that drew me in, not the micro-details in the leaves.

So I decided to give it a try in black and white with a higher key effect to help lessen the details in the leaves.  It worked for me.  The image became much closer to my original vision. Black and white saved the image.......or at least allowed it to transmit what it was that I was feeling and what it was that made me take the photograph.

Trout Lily

One of the wildflowers that I seem to have missed in years past is the trout lily. They are quite small, which is one reason I may have missed them, but they also have beautiful speckled leaves.  This year I was a bit early, as they were out, but the flowers had not yet fully opened.  However, even closed they possess a very dainty beauty.  They are a bit tough to photograph on their long stalks with the flowers drooped downwards, as the slightlest breeze makes them bounce all over. It was this constant movement that made me want to make a photo with a shallow depth of field, which I felt would impart that feeling of motion by blurring most of the flower but still show the delicateness by leaving a small area of the plant sharp.  The connection of the stalk to the flower seemed to me to be the best area to focus on.

Trout Lily