Chasing Wildflowers at the ‘Crown of the Continent’

Glacier National Park in northwest Montana could just be the most beautiful US National Park. But I am also biased, as I’ve spent over 2 months in the park over the last five years. I keep going back for many of the natural treasures the park offers and it’s without a doubt my favorite national park outside of Alaska.

Glacier includes over 1 million acres of protected wilderness, over 130 named lakes, some of the most jagged peaks in North America, jaw-dropping waterfalls, more than 1,000 species of plants, and 62 species of mammals.

For landscape and wildlife photography, the park is one of the rare gems in the United States. The landscapes are some of the most inspiring, and the wildlife can be numerous.


If you’re interested in joining us for an upcoming Glacier trip, we still have space available on these departures:


There’s one thing though that keeps pulling me back to Glacier during the summer months – the pairing of wildflowers with some of the best mountain landscapes anywhere.

From late June to late August, many different wildflowers bloom in the park. They start in the lower elevations and end in the high alpine. No matter where they’re blooming, there’s always a spectacular backdrop to photograph them with.

Now if you’re like me, I get giddy about wildflowers – what photographer doesn’t?!? Let’s talk about some tips that I’ve used in Glacier over the years.

To Get Close or Not?
I definitely recommend attempting to get as close as you possibly can to the flowers while composing a wide-angle flower scene. A wide-angle shine for these situations, as the closer you get, the larger the flowers appear = better foreground.

I commonly approach wildflowers patches and get my 14-24mm lens as close as I can to eye up compositions. All of the images that you see in this article, bar one or two, were shot with the flowers 6 to 12 inches from the front of my lenses.

Getting close will instantly improve your flower foreground…most of the time. There are scenarios where I’ll decide to back off:

One, if it’s windy. With gusting winds, flowers aren’t staying still and I like to look for compositions a little further off to ensure my flowers are sharp (wind also wreaks havoc with focus stacking, see below).

Two, although I enjoy getting super close to flowers, I try not to get blinders on for that type of scene/composition. I always assess the entire area, because there may just be a better composition that includes the flowers, but doesn’t require me to be right on top of them. The image below is a good example –

Getting close does have challenges as well, like depth of field, which we’ll discuss in a point below.

Focus on Depth of Field
Depth of field is extremely important for wildlife images, specifically those wide-angle scenes where the flowers are in the foreground and you have mountains or something else in the background…and you’re trying to get as close to the flowers as possible.

Typically, shooting around f/8 – f/13 will yield maximum sharpness depending on the lens and those are the apertures I use for many landscape scenarios.

My approach is different with flowers though. I commonly shoot between f/16 – f/22 when shooting wide-angle flowers. I do this to maximize depth of field, or what parts of a photo are in focus. By shooting at a narrower aperture, I’m able to get my camera closer to the flowers and we’ll hit on why that can be important. So, I’m willing to give up a little bit of sharpness to gain depth of field with flower scenes.

Many times, I resort to a more advanced technique, one we discuss and practice during our Glacier workshops – focus stacking.

Focus stacking is a technique that allows you to maximize depth of field and ensure overall image sharpness. And you’re able to shoot at those tack-sharp apertures (f/8 – f/13).

The technique involves capturing two or more images with different focal points and merging those images together using a post-processing application (I use Adobe Photoshop CC). The merging and blending process uses only the sharpest/in-focus areas of each respective image. The final result is a single image that is tack sharp from foreground to background. It is similar to exposure blending, but in this case, images with different focal points are merged versus different exposures.

Don’t Forget About Technicalities
There’s more to taking great wildflowers images than just plopping your camera down. Trust me, I’ve learned that the hard way. Just because wildflowers provide a great and colorful foreground, that doesn’t mean you can let everything else involved with taking a photo float by the wayside.

Two things I’ve already mentioned come back around here – wind and composition.

Don’t forget to factor in the wind. Wind will cause flowers to blur if you’re not compensating for it. Whenever it’s windy, I aim for a 1/50 s shutter speed to even faster if needed. I take a shot and check it in playback to ensure sharp flowers, if they’re blurring, I speed up my shutter even more. Oftentimes, this requires raising the ISO and it’s one of the few times you’ll want to do that for landscape photography – I’d rather have a noisier image with sharp flowers than a clean image with blurry flowers.

Also, composition. The most important thing about a photograph. I mentioned not getting sucked into feeling the need to always have flowers front and center. But, no matter your flower composition, make sure to look it over. Are there distractions? Is there good flow? Are my edges clean? Does it complement the focal point/area?

All important things to consider. Even when I do choose to put flowers front and center, I’m checking those things. Flowers don’t automatically make a photo great; you still need a strong composition.

And just to finish up, always review your shots in playback. If you’re shooting at f/16-f/22 and attempting to get as close to flowers as possible, while still having the entire frame in focus – review. Zoom in and look to see if the frame is sharp, or if you’re getting out of focus areas. If you are, you may need to focus stack or take a step back. Reviewing images in playback is such a huge help, whether it’s focus or exposure, playback can help you fix mistakes before it’s too late.

Matt Meisenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin.  His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special.  Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.

Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.

As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.

You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com

 

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