Photographing The Beautiful Flower Show On Figueroa Mountain

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

If you are a photographer, you can’t help but know that this has been a big year for wildflowers in SoCal. Superblooms like the California poppy explosion down near Lake Elsinore drew such big crowds that the nearest freeway exit had to be closed. Anza-Borrego Dessert State Park was also overrun with tourists.

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

California poppies and lupine paint a hillside orange and purple

We are fortunate to have our own flower bomb going off on nearby Figueroa Mountain—without the huge crowds.

As you climb up Figueroa Mountain Road, starting just across the highway from Los Olivos, whole hillsides in the distance appear orange and purple from blooming fields of California poppies and lupine. Hillsides are covered in soft green grasses and the oaks are just leafing out with pale green foliage.

Owl's Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Owl’s Clover blossoms photographed at ground level

Nestled among the grasses are all kinds of exotic blossoms, from shooting stars and chocolate lilies to patches of owl’s clover. These are all “belly Flowers’, meaning you are going to have to lay on your belly to view or photograph them properly.

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

Bugs-eye-view photograph of poppies and lupine

If you want a really intimate image of wildflowers, try a little trick I learned from one of my students.

Preset your camera exposure, set your wide angle lens to autofocus and place your camera on the ground beneath some flowers, shooting up toward the blue sky. Don’t try to look through the viewfinder. Just keep shooting as you move the camera around. It’s a lot of fun and I’m sure you will be pleasantly surprised by the unusual bugs-eye-view of your patch of flowers.

Using a camera to capture both the grandeur of these massive blooms and the intimate delicacy of each flower is a challenge, but it can be done using a simple tool—backlighting. Light passing through a translucent flower petal will always be more saturated than light reflecting off the same surface and has the added advantage of highlighting all the tiny hairs, pistils and stamens that make flowers such exotic creatures.

Goldfield blooms

Sometimes a little lens flair is useful in creating a sense of tangible sunlight

Although it is a simple technique, backlighting does have a couple tricky aspects. First, make sure to check your histogram for exposure. Many cameras tend to underexpose backlit situations. You are essentially exposing for the shadow side of your subject and if you are using manual exposure, overexpose by about 2/3 of a stop. Second, avoid flair by checking the front lens element to make sure no direct sunlight is hitting the glass. If necessary, use something to shade the lens, like the brim of a hat or a gray card. Flair tends to lower contrast and hide details and nobody wants a blob of off-colored light in the middle of their image. See our previous post “The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting” 

California poppy photographed from a low level

California poppy photographed from a low level

A few things to keep in mind when you go. Take water, snacks and warm clothes. Go with a full gas tank and drive slowly. Some of the roads up there can be challenging, as can some of our fellow drivers. If you are a photographer, try to take some kind of macro lens. Many of the most unique blossoms are hidden away in the grass and rocks and it will take some “belly time” to find them.

Wildflowers on the Mountain have a short season, so don’t take too long to get up there. It’s quite a show and you don’t want to miss it. After all, who knows when it will rain again?