How to Photograph an Orchid

These fascinating plants are worlds unto themselves.

There are over 25,000 wild species of orchids on six continents around the globe, not counting thousands more hybrids cultivated by horticulturalists. Orchids come in a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and in almost every colour except true black. They live in soil, atop rocks, or on trees, gleaning nutrients from the moist air.

Orchids are also masters of manipulation, using the full arsenal of their anatomy—color, textures, and smells—to trick insects into spreading their pollen. Their diversity—and adaptability—are what enthral photographer Christian Ziegler. "Every place I have been, there have been orchids," he says, from the woods of southern Germany where he first discovered them on nature hikes as a boy, to the rainforests of Panama where he now lives.

Ziegler spent two years travelling the globe on assignment for National Geographic and for his book, Deceptive Beauties. He finds that the plants make fascinating subjects, and he has tips for anyone who wants to photograph their seductive flowers.

Courting bees and beetles, the nectarless pansy orchid impersonates a nutrition-rich neighbour, the pea flower.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A spider orchid (at right) grows next to a carnivorous sundew in western Australia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Do your research.

More than 90 percent of orchid species grow in the tropics, but that doesn’t mean there aren't some near you. North America alone is home to more than 200 species. (One resource for finding orchids near you: Go Orchids, a geographic database run by the North American Orchid Conservation Centre.)

If a greenhouse or botanical garden is your best option, find out when the next orchid show will be and whether there are rules about photography.

Christian Ziegler photographs orchids in the field in Sardinia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


Pack light but bring the essentials.

When Ziegler goes into the field, he typically takes his digital SLR camera with a macro lens (2.8/100mm), a wide-angle zoom lens (2.8/16-40mm), three off-camera flashes, and a small tripod. "With the macro, you can focus in on a small flower and easily isolate the flower from the background," he says. The shallow depth of field also blurs the background, so you get the colours of the surrounding environment without distracting from the star of the show.

Male flowers of tropical Catasetum orchids conceal a pollen-loaded slingshot, which fires its sticky bundle when a prospective pollinator jostles the trigger. Bees are prime targets.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Each mottled flower two inches across, a Prosthechea prismatocarpa bows from a moss-encrusted rock beside a mountain stream in Panama.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Show them in their natural element.

The landscape can be as much a part of the story as the orchid, Ziegler says. When he wants to incorporate the setting, Ziegler uses a wider lens. "The image turns into a landscape with the orchid as the focus, which works especially well when the flower has a strong colour to help it stand out from the forest backdrop."

Snail orchid flowers photographed in a mobile studio in western Australia
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A crab spider orchid photographed in a mobile studio in western Australia
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A blue velvet orchid photographed in a field studio in western Australia
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A bird orchid photographed in a field studio in western Australia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Play to their strengths.

"Both the shape and colour of orchids are crucial. Everything depends on them," Ziegler says. "Sometimes I like the straightforward look of a simple portrait—just the flower—especially when it is small and you need to drive attention to it."
"I always use flash to highlight the orchid flower. I keep the flash low so it's hardly noticeable, but it helps to highlight the colours." He also uses a soft box to diffuse the light source.

If he is going for more of a portrait, he might photograph the plants against a black background in a makeshift field studio. "I use a large piece of black velvet and it's important to arrange it evenly. Then I set up three or four flashes on brackets and put my camera on a tripod. All without disturbing the plant." This enables us to focus on the beauty of the flower without distraction.

Following a perfume trail to its source, male wasps in Australia ravish a king spider orchid. Every orchid has a petal modified for pollination, some theatrically so.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Flies—one with a yellow pollen sac already attached to its back, in a spot it can't reach—visit a Masdevallia orchid in Central America.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Spend time to see what other creatures might show up.

Orchids are masters when it comes to attracting pollinators, even mimicking scents, colours, and textures of female insects in hopes of attracting males—who will unwittingly pick up tiny pollen packets in the process. Bees, butterflies, wasps, and hummingbirds are all lured by the orchid and can help tell a more complete story.

A lilliputian orchid, each flower under half an inch long, blooms brightly in the highlands of Panama.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Get creative with your camera to add something extra.

To photograph this lilliputian orchid, Ziegler tried a different approach. "I used three off-camera flashes combined with available light. Then I took a longer exposure for the picture, around one-tenth of a second, and moved the camera a little to create the washed-out effect around the edge of the flower." The macro lens creates a blurry background, which focuses all the attention on the flower.

Leave them as you found them.

Like any wildlife, wild orchids are part of a larger ecosystem and disrupting them affects not only the plant but also insects and creatures that rely on it. In some cases, orchids are also protected by law. And, chances are if you are enjoying the experience of finding and photographing an orchid, others will too.

Header Image: On the island of Sardinia, the flowers of mirror orchids (Ophrys speculum) perfectly mimic the reflection of the blue sky on a female wasp's wings. Male wasps, beguiled by the flower's sight and scent, are lured into service carrying pollen from plant to plant. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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