The Challenge of Grass Photography versus Botanical Illustration

Photographing grasses is a challenge. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Spring grass inflorescences are appearing locally. Their arrival brings the renewal of one of the greatest challenges of botanical photography. I prefer to photograph plants in their natural habitats, rather than using microscopes in the lab or ‘cheating’ with PhotoShop. It invariably takes multiple photographs and field trips to capture a grass satisfactorily.

Grasses are uncooperative. They have the inconvenient habit of wavering in the slightest breeze and blurring the shot. On a windy day, just forget it. You also need perfect light conditions to set them off well. The supreme frustration is trying to capture clear shots of small diagnostic features like ligules and hairs in the field.

Before Christmas last year, I was lucky to have an exchange of emails and a telephone chat with the botanical artist, Lizzie Harper. We discussed our mutual love of grasses. I mentioned that I wanted to write a blog about my favourite grass, Wood Melick, Melica uniflora. Lizzie kindly sent me a copy of her illustration afterwards. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus shutdown means that I won’t be renewing my photographic efforts with Wood Melick this year. It could be several more years before I manage to take the exact shot that I desire. In the meantime, my best attempt to date appears below.

The delicate, swaying inflorescences of Wood Melick, Melica uniflora. This grass is an ancient woodland indicator in the South West of England. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Botanical Macro Photography

I tried to capture the way this grass cascades beautifully at the woodland edge in the above shot. The frustration of botanical macro photography is that you can’t recreate the beauty you see with your eyes. Automatic settings do not capture plant features satisfactorily. Manual settings require a focal point. Photography teaches an even greater admiration for the extraordinary capabilities of the human eye and the botanical artist.

Botanical Illustration

Lizzie Harper’s illustration of the same grass, Wood Melick (Melica uniflora) appears below with her kind permission.

Botanical illustration of Wood Melick, Melica uniflora shown with kind permission of the artist for this blog. Copyright Lizzie Harper. All rights reserved.

As a botanical artist, Lizzie Harper can fill in any blurring with an artistic flourish. A missing section can be copied from another, or combination, of photos. Diagnostic features can be pulled into focus. Any inconvenient competition for attention can be faded into the background. An awkward photographic angle can be corrected. A line drawing can guide the eye to the essential features.

Botanical illustration has a long and respected history. Today’s young botanists and ecologists tend favour photography and the convenience of iPhones. Digital photography has undoubtedly made huge technological advances. The active field botanist travels large distances on foot with a heavy rucksack. The heavy, expensive lenses of the more sedentary bird photographer are an undesirable, additional encumbrance.

Botanical Training

Grass identification is recognised as an ongoing challenge in botanical training. I like to assemble my own personal library of field photography in different seasons and habitats. I include early, late, poor, damaged and diseased specimens as a record. I refer to drawings in conjunction with keys for identification. Botanical photography and illustration are ultimately complementary skills.

Dry, incomplete, end-of-season grass inflorescences. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Digital photography and copywriting © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Wood Melick illustration © Lizzie Harper

Link to Lizzie Harper’s website

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