Fragile: Photography as botanical illustration

Posted by David Travis on 2 Jul 2021

Fragile: Photography as botanical illustration

These pictures show garden flowers—sweet peas, aquilegia, foxglove, poppy, gaillardia and Jacob's ladder—presented in the style of Victorian botanical illustrations.

I’ve been trying to create this kind of effect for a while but not been able to achieve it. My creations seemed too contrived and too self-consciously ‘artistic’.

Here’s an example of a failed image I created last year. I realised at the time that it wasn’t quite there. I was looking for something that suggested botanical illustration while remaining contemporary in feel. This wasn’t it.

Recently I saw the work of Niall Benvie in Outdoor Photography (issue #269). I noticed that he includes low contrast foliage in the background of his images and that really seemed to make the composition work. So I tried again, but rather than use flowers as the background (as in Benvie’s work), I used grasses I found on the canal towpath.

The photography element was really simple. I used a small LCD panel and either placed the cut grasses on top or placed the panel behind the flower in situ. I put the panel on its brightest setting and then found an exposure that just stopped the panel from blowing out yet also allowed enough ambient light to fill the shadows. Most of these are taken at 1/400s, f/5.6, ISO 200. The only real challenge in getting the photographs was trying to hold the panel in place with one hand while composing the picture and pressing the shutter with the other hand. For some images I used a tripod but in many cases the ground was uneven so I just had to work handheld. Since most botanical drawings are in portrait orientation, I photographed the images in the same way.

My aim in taking these pictures was to create images that at first glance look like botanical drawings but when you look deeper you realise they are contemporary photographs.

I created this version after a photography friend, Kevin Burton, suggested I go full-on Victorian plant collector to see where it leads. I think this has lost the contemporary feel that I was after but it's still interesting.

The main challenge was the post processing. Compared to my failed attempt you can see that the flowers in the newer images are less saturated and of lower contrast. In addition, I’ve discovered that the simplest way to get the ‘botanical illustration’ effect is by using Photoshop’s ‘Photocopy’ filter as a layer above the flower, set to about 50% opacity. This emphasises the edges of the flower and the veins, and it’s what really makes these images appear at first glance like a drawing.

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