Kevin McNeal is a master at shooting wildflowers, as these photos attest. Here he discusses the one essential filter he uses for every one of his wildflower scenes and why.
With summer comes the arrival of wildflowers, in all their glory. In my experience, one of the most challenging aspects of nature photography is successfully shooting wildflowers. But nothing is more rewarding when the outcome is what you’ve tried to achieve. I’ve made many mistakes over the past few years shooting wildflowers and I hope to pass along some of my learning here.
When I look at images of wildflowers, the ones that capture my attention most are the ones in which the flower colors seems to “pop“ off the page or screen, but with accurate, natural color rendition. My first goal is to capture the vibrancy and color of the flowers and include as much impact as possible in the foreground to grab the viewer’s attention. To do this consistently, I’ve found that I always need to have certain filters with me. Depending on the scene and the light, I may use just one filter or a combination.
There is one filter I use for every one of my wildflower images – the LB ColorCombo polarizer. As I mentioned, color is the essential component in a successful wildflower shot. The color intensifier part of the ColorCombo boosts impact by rendering the scene with vibrant, bold colors. This may not be vital in other nature scenes, but it’s critical when shooting wildflowers.
While improving color intensity, the ColorCombo also renders the image with a natural color balance. I’ve tried other filters and found I was getting unusual colorcasts. On top of that, the colors were often muted. With the ColorCombo, the results are consistently excellent in terms of reproducing vibrant, but accurate color.
The second component of the ColorCombo that gives it a huge advantage over other similar filters is that it contains a warming polarizer within the same filter. In the past, I’d have to stack filters to get the same results.
There is always a certain mood I’m trying to convey when shooting wildflowers. I will always lean toward a warmer tone in the image, as this is generally more appealing to most viewers than the cooler tones of a standard polarizer. Having the warming component also helps me capture the best of the warmer tones in the image, like the reds and yellows, accentuating the colors, while remaining natural in the overall tone.
One of the arguments I often hear is that “I can add and adjust color when I process my RAW images, so why do I need this filter?” For me personally, it’s critical to capture the image as close as possible to how the scene was originally. You can add saturation and vibrancy later in post processing, but the side effect is that you’re pulling pixels from the image and thus degrading it. This is especially true in the shadow areas and these negative effects become very visible when making a larger print. With a properly rendered RAW image, colors maintain their vibrancy without drastic adjustments in post processing.
Another advantage I appreciate with the ColorCombo is that images rendered with it remain sharp throughout. With other filters, I’ve noticed a dramatic reduction in quality pertaining to sharpness. This is critical when shooting something in the foreground close to the lens.
There is always a fine balance between ISO and shutter speed when shooting wildflowers. In the past, I’ve had to shoot without a filter to capture the flowers without movement. And other filters decreased the shutter speed, not allowing me to capture sharpness and detail in the foreground flowers. With the “lighter, brighter” ColorCombo being one stop faster than similar filters, and newer cameras having the ability to shoot higher ISOs with fewer noise pixels, shooting wildflowers with success is much easier now!
The ColorCombo’s clarity – and color rendition and saturation that is both vibrant, but also natural and true to the subject – are definite advantages when shooting wildflowers, which is why I always use it.
Depending on lighting conditions and the mood I’m trying to achieve, I also use Rowell graduated neutral density filters to balance a bright sky and darker foreground, the Benson reverse grad for sunstar control at sunrise or sunset and a 5-stop Mor-Slo filter for longer exposures to intentionally let the wildflowers blur, as well as the clouds.
Take a look at this brief video of Kevin shooting the image below.