• Wildflower Photography in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

      Anza-Borrego wilflower
      Photo by Mark Holmes - Click image to enlarge
      Growing up in England, my idea of a desert was an image of Peter O’Toole riding a camel across endless drifting sand dunes. It wasn’t until I moved to California that I came to learn that deserts could be vibrant places, full of animals and plant life. As a photographer, I soon learned what an exciting place my local desert was to drive, hike, and take pictures in.

      The beautiful Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is less than two hours’ drive east of San Diego. Every spring, locals follow the progression of the wildflower bloom, trying to gauge the weekend when it will be at its peak. Fickle at best, the wildflower season can be wonderful or almost non-existent, but there is usually enough of a bloom to make a road trip well worth the effort.

      You basically have two choices when taking pictures of flowers. Either you can stand back and compose a nice scene of color, or get up close and concentrate on individual blooms.

      Photographing Scenery

      Anza-Borrego wilflowers
      Photo by Mark Holmes - Click image to enlarge
      Photographing scenery is easy enough. Just set your camera in aperture priority and use a small aperture of around f/16 to ensure a nice deep depth of field that brings both the background and foreground into focus. Just make sure you keep an eye on the shutter speed to make sure that it doesn’t fall below a speed you can safely hold. Slower than 1/60 of a second with a normal 50 mm lens can result in camera shake and a blurred image.

      The larger the focal length of the lens, the faster your minimum shutter speed needs to be. For a rule of thumb, use one over the focal length as the minimum shutter speed. So, if you are shooting with a 200mm telephoto lens, keep a shutter speed of at least 1/200 of a second. On a bright sunny day, you will have to raise the ISO to 200 to achieve this at f/16. The more you raise the ISO the grainier your pictures will look, so you need to decide whether it would be better to use a tripod that allows you to achieve slower shutter speeds without camera shake.

      Set the camera white balance to the Daylight setting, unless it is cloudy. Then you can try the Cloudy preset, but I have found this usually gives too warm a tint unless I am shooting at sunset.

      Close-up photography

      Anza-Borrego wilflowers
      Photo by Mark Holmes - Click image to enlarge
      When photographing scenery, you are usually focusing some distance away, so that the depth-of-field is very deep. The closer you focus, the shallower the depth-of-field will be for any given f-stop. This means that even at f/16 the depth-of-field may not be sufficient to bring the center of the flower and all its petals into focus. You will need to choose very small apertures to get all of some flowers in focus. Selective focus shots, with only part of the flower in focus can also look very nice; just make sure you choose your focus point to good creative effect. To focus really closely and have part of a flower fill your picture, you might need a specialist macro lens.

      Using small apertures to increase depth-of-field means you will be using slower shutter speeds, which is why you often see flower photographers carrying tripods into the field. Extreme close ups and slow shutter speeds provide a lot of opportunity for camera shake, so a tripod can be very handy. Also, a windy day can make it nearly impossible to capture sharp pictures of wildflowers. Early morning can be a good time to shoot before the wind gets up.


      Anza-Borrego wilflowers
      Photo by Mark Holmes - Click image to enlarge
      I would prefer a cloudy day to photograph flowers, as the light is softer. Direct light with corresponding strong shadows and glare on shiny leaves is not the best for capturing flower pictures. I carry a small five-way reflector that allows me to reflect light on to the plant to fill in shadows. It also has a translucent scrim in the middle that can be used to screen light from the flower and create soft lighting. When using this, I make sure that the background I am shooting is also screened in the shadow of the scrim, otherwise the background will be too bright.

      Favorite Places

      Anza-Borrego wilflowers
      Photo by Mark Holmes - Click image to enlarge
      There are many great places to visit in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. To access some locations you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle. Ask at the visitors’ center if you are unsure. Three of my favorite places are Palm Canyon, Fish Creek, and Font’s Point. You can camp in the park, and the town of Borrego Springs has a variety of hotels and RV parks.

      Mark Holmes
      Mark Holmes
      Mark Holmes is a professional photographer and technical communicator based in San Diego, California. The author of Digital SLR Photography For Dummies, Holmes produces a monthly newsletter which provides tips for shooting extraordinary digital photographs. More information is online at MarkHolmesPhoto.com or on the Facebook San Diego Digital Photography page. Holmes contributed photos of funny signs to RoadTrip America's Caution: Funny Signs Ahead.
      Comments 2 Comments
      1. Mark Sedenquist's Avatar
        Mark Sedenquist -
        Here are two of Mark's funny signs:

        Cruise Ship Parking

        One Bed Motel
      1. CalOldBlue's Avatar
        CalOldBlue -
        Other things demonstrated in (some of) Mark H's pictures speak to composition:

        Try to have a foreground object of interest in your landscapes.
        Try to have a person, or a manmade object, to show scale.

        Nice shots!