phalaenopsis, or moth orchids in a greenhouse

Give Yourself A Photo Assignment II

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I have too many interests! Photography is my passion, but I also love cooking, hiking, kayaking, fishing, gardening—the list goes on. Orchids have always fascinated the gardener in me and at one point, I decided to give myself an assignment photographing orchids and local orchid collectors.

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Comparison of micro orchids and lemon-sized cymbidium orchids

Like many editorial photographers, I find a subject that interests me and start to pick around the edges of the subject with a camera. Once I capture a few interesting files, I find a client to publish the project and then dive in head first.

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Orchid collector tending plants in his shade house

Everyone has their hobbies, their causes, their passions. They all make great self-assignments.

It can be as simple as photographing a short road trip up the Big Sur Coast, or as complex as—well, orchid collectors.

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

Studio portraits of orchids in a lath house

My first step was to ask myself why anyone would be interested in this subject. Let’s face it, orchids are exotic creatures, the butterflies of the flower kingdom. One group even has the nickname of butterfly orchids. Orchid collectors are seemingly sane individuals who obsessively shape their world around obtaining and raising orchids. Being a photographer, I can relate to that last part easily.

orchid seedling lab

cybidium orchid seedlings are inspected at Gallup and Stribling Orchids, Carpinteria

My next step was compiling a Shoot List.

This is where I determine the width and depth of my coverage and I tend to burrow in deep. Orchid portraits would be necessary, of course, in both commercial greenhouses and private lath houses. I needed to illustrate the huge variety of orchids, from large tropical cattleyas to tiny micro orchids.

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Chinese Brush Painting of orchid

Images of collectors would also be critical–watering, feeding, pollinating, hybridizing and interacting with their specimens. I would also need to cover orchid shows, competitions, clubs, sales and cultivation demos. This shoot list introduced subjects that needed to be researched and a list of people I would need to contact.

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Orchids for sale at a commercial greenhouse

Finally, what was going to be the “Look” of the coverage. It seemed obvious to me that bright colors were going to be a thread running through the images.

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

Orchid collector in the jungle of his lath house

I could easily photograph orchid blossoms every day for months and still not have the visual diversity of images for which I always strive. It’s easy to get tunnel vision at this point, but that is the beauty of a self-assigned project. It forces you to move past the obvious core subjects and produce a wide range of subjects that expand on that main topic. It forces you to be creative.

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

laelia orchid is pollinated by hand

I find self-assigned projects fall into two main categories—locations or subjects.

How about spring wildflower blooms in the California deserts—if the rains continue? Wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley? This is a subject we cover n my Location Photography Spring Workshop coming up in March. Something more challenging? How about marine mammals of the So Cal coast? Saltwater fly fishing in the California surf? Did that one already. Got really wet. Summer Solstice Parade from costume development to the actual parade?

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

A half hour with your favorite beverage should generate enough ideas to keep you busy for the next year. Step outside your comfort zone, learn to shoot a wider range of subjects and become a much more rounded visual storyteller. Get curios and have fun.

All you need is the structure of a self-assignment. Try it out!


laelia orchid

The Challenge Of Creating Visual Impact In A Photo Essay

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of my favorite assignments, no matter the subject, is a photo essay. I love immersing myself in a subject and drilling down into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies. My curiosity and my love of photography intertwine in a joyous dance that is new to me every single time.

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

orchid collector checks a hybrid orchid in his shade house

A photo essay is essentially a story told with minimal words and, hopefully, lots of photographs.

The trick is creating a diverse range of images that are all necessary to fully explain a subject or location. Whether it is a long-form essay, like a coffee table book, or a short-form essay, like a two page magazine article, the steps are the same—research, organize, shoot and edit.

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

laelia orchid is pollinated to create a new hybrid

Let’s use an essay I photographed recently on orchid collectors for Seasons Magazine as an example. I dabble in gardening and like most people, find orchids both beautiful and exotic, so it was a subject that I found fascinating. Santa Barbara is known for its commercial orchid greenhouses and the city also holds an International Orchid Show each year. The magazine asked that I tie those into the piece as well.

collector tends a cymbidium orchid

orchid collector tends a special cymbidium orchid

Research was going to be critical. Finding contacts at the greenhouses and orchid clubs, collectors that were willing to be photographed on location, schedules for orchid competitions and sales and sources for various types of orchids in full bloom had to be compiled.

prize winning cymbidium orchid

prize winning cymbidium orchid

For such a simple subject, this was going to be a complex project.

In addition to contacts and permissions, research helped me put together a shoot list. This list is critical to making sure that coverage is as diverse, and thorough, as possible. And compiling a shoot list is not a static process as changes and additions are continuously made to the list as images are reviewed.

collector views images of micro orchids

collector views images of micro orchids on a Scanning Electron Microscope

While making appointments was stressful, shooting was a great experience. That is not to say that I could just go out and create beauty shots of orchids all day. Let’s face it, that would quickly put my audience asleep. The flowers are addictive, however, and I had to force myself to cover related subjects.

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

collector looking at a flower spike of micro orchids

Growing and hybridizing orchids has a laboratory phase. Some collectors specialize in miniature orchids, so small that the individual flowers are hard to see without a magnifier. I found a collector that paints orchids. Subjects just popped up as I explored the unique world of orchid collectors.

orchid seedling are checked

orchid seedling are checked in a commercial greenhouse

Post-production also came into play as I created studio portraits of blooms against a white background in the greenhouses. Editing was on ongoing process and accurate captions were critical for the article’s text.

collector paints orchids

collector paints orchids using the Chinese brush painting technique

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

expensive paphiopedilum orchid

Although this sounds like a lot of work—well, it was. The magazine did a great job laying out the images, however, making it all worthwhile. Try it yourself. Pick a topic and spend a month or two researching and photographing a narrow subject or location. You’ll be amazed how it forces you to be a more thoughtful and sensitive photographer and how much fun it can be. Then find a publisher. Think big!

If you are already shooting photo essays and have a favorite subject, share it with the group in the Comments Section. Thanks.