Photos of the Week – March 5, 2021

For no particular reason, I’m sharing some photos of wildflowers in the mint family (Lamiaceae) this week. Among prairie plant families, mints seem to get less attention than others, including Poaceae (grasses) and Fabaceae (legumes), but there’s plenty to like about them.

Field mint (Mentha arvensis). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/100.

For one thing, most plants in the mint family provide helpful hints to those of us trying to identify them. Significantly, most have a stem that is square in cross section. That’s a very helpful clue when you’re staring at an unknown plant, and it can push you in the right direction in a plant key or field guide. If you roll the stem between your fingers, you can feel those four angled edges. (Be aware, however, that some non-mint plants also have square stems.) Mints also have opposite leaves, meaning their leaves emerge from the stem in pairs, straight across from each other – as opposed to alternate leaves, which appear in a staggered formation up the stem.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/13, 1/640.
Marsh hedgenettle (Stachys palustris). The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie in Minnesota. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/60 sec.

I was trying to decide how best to describe the way the flowers look on mints and looked up the description of Lamiaceae in my trusty Flora of Nebraska book for inspiration. After reading it, I decided to just quote from its descriptions of mint family flowers. Here you go:

  • “Inflorescences usually of cymes axillary to leaves or bracts, the flowers of one pair of leaves or bracts forming a verticillaster, the verticillasters either borne along the length of the stem or crowded near the tip to form an interrupted or +/- continuous terminal thyrse.”
  • “Flowers usually perfect with the calyx persistent, +/- tubular, varying from regular with 5 (or, rarely, 10) teety or lobes to bilabiate and forming either 2 or 3 lobes;”

There was more, but I expect that clears up any questions you might have had. (heh heh)

(If I was going to start a rock band tomorrow, I would call it “The Persistent Calyxes” and we would play Verticillaster guitars.)

Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/22, 1/250.

Of course, the most familiar characteristic of mint family plants are that they usually have a fairly strong fragrance, even when not flowering, thanks to glands in their stems and leaves. There are lots of great examples of this, but my personal favorite mint smell comes from mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp). It has a very gentle and pleasing scent; not quite as sharp or biting as a peppermint or field mint. So now you know that about me.

Ok, I hope you enjoyed this short tribute to the mints. Wish me luck on my new musical adventure!

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/400.

Shoot for the Eye

I’ve given a few photography workshops lately, and have been helping our new Fellows, Kate and Sarah, with their photography skills as well. I always feel a little funny teaching photography workshops because so much of photography (like all art) is subjective. If you like a photo, it doesn’t matter what I or anyone else think, it’s a good photo. As a result, I spend most of my workshops helping people understand how their cameras see the world differently than our own eyes/brain and how to use that information to create images they like.

I do talk a little about composition, though, if only to help people explore their options. One piece of information seems to really resonate with a lot of people, so I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s helpful to anyone reading this. The suggestion I make is this: if you can see the eye of your subject, make sure that eye is in focus, even if nothing else is.

Juvenile snapping turtle. Note that very little of the photo is in focus because of a shallow depth of field, but the eye is sharp.
Black-tailed jackrabbit. While trying not to make sudden moves that would cause it to run, I very gently moved my camera back and forth, taking lots of photos and trying to find a position from which I could capture a clear and focused shot of the eye.

When we look at each other, without even thinking about it, we usually seek out the other person’s eyes first. Similarly, when people look at a photograph of an animal – of any kind – their eyes automatically gravitate first to the eye of the photographed creature. If that eye isn’t in focus, it’s a little unsettling to the viewer. Because of that, unless you’re intentionally trying to unsettle people who look at your photo, it’s important to make sure the eye(s) of your subject is/are sharply in focus.

Hover fly and dew on big bluestem
Northern leopard frog.

Chances are, when you looked a the leopard frog in the above photo, you didn’t notice right away that the tip of its nose was out of focus because your attention was first drawn to the eyes, which are nice and sharp. In fact, you might not have noticed the blurry nose at all until I just mentioned it. However, if the nose had been in focus and the eyes had been blurry, I bet you would have noticed.

Pearl crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, especially with close-up photography, it’s only possible to get a small area of a creature to be in focus at a time. In rare instances, as when the creature is facing away from you (or nearly so), it’s ok if the eyes aren’t the focal point. If you’re unsure, though, I’d suggest trying to aim for the eyes first and then once you think you’ve captured some images with sharp eyes, experiment with focusing on other parts of the body. In the butterfly photo above, the angle of the butterfly made it very difficult to get much of it in focus, but I made sure I focused on the eyes.

Below are three side-by-side comparisons of photos in which there is a nice sharp focus on part of a creature’s face, but only one of each pair has the eye in focus. Sometimes the difference is subtle, but I’m guessing you’ll prefer the choice with sharper eyes. None of these are extreme examples – the eye is nearly in focus in each image, but I still think the small differences are noticeable and important. You can click on each image (and all the images in this post) to see a larger and more clear version.

Grasshopper. The eye in the left photo is not well-focused.
Plains garter snake. The eye in the left photo is not in focus.
Long-horned bee. In the top image the eye is not in focus.

Making sure to get the eye of your subject in focus is, in some ways, a pretty small thing worry about when you’re trying to deal with a complex mix of camera settings as well as a subject that won’t HOLD STILL JUST FOR A SECOND. However, it’s a small thing that can be the difference between a photo you’ll be happy with and one you won’t. If you’re using a digital camera, I highly recommend taking lots of photos of each subject to make sure you capture at least one solid well-focused image before the subject flies, hops, or otherwise scurries away from you. All those photos don’t cost you anything other than the time it takes to browse through them and delete those that aren’t well-focused.

One last tip for anyone who photographs insects. Compound eyes are really tricky – especially on creatures like dragonflies or praying mantises that have enormous eyes. As you try to focus on the eye, it can be really hard to know when you’ve got it right because the eyes have depth to them and they can look in focus at various depths. I’m not sure how to explain it any better, but if you’ve tried to focus on an insects big compound eye, you might know what I mean. Usually, what I really want is for the surface of the eye to be in focus, but it’s amazing how many times I think I’ve got it right in the field, only to discover later that I missed it.

As a result, I go way overboard (if I’m given the opportunity) on the number of photos I take of each insect to make sure I get it right at least once. And I often marginally alter the focus of each one – sometimes by very slightly nudging my tripod forward and backward as I shoot. Now and then, one of the first tries turns out to be perfectly focused when I examine the images later, but that’s a rarity.

Anyway, I hope those are useful tips to at least a few of you. If you’re a photographer and don’t have a macro lens, I can’t recommend them highly enough – assuming you can afford one. Mine is a pretty cheap used Nikon 105mm lens (the older one without vibration reduction) and only cost a few hundred dollars. That’s not nothing, but if it’s within your budget, it might change your whole world. Just remember – shoot for the eye!