Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

An epitome of red

with 50 comments

Yesterday Steve G. posted a picture of cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). It’s a species that Texas shares with Massachusetts, so I figured if his were flowering ours might well be too. I went to check a stretch of Bull Creek where I found cardinal flowers last September; sure enough, I found plenty again. Of my many new pictures I decided to show this portrait taken at f/2.8, which for such a wide aperture somehow managed to keep the frontmost flowers in focus while also doing what you’d expect and creating a soft feel overall.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 13, 2020 at 3:36 AM

50 Responses

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  1. You both have wonderful images of the cardinal flower but it’s interesting that you found plenty of the cardinal flowers whereas Steve G found only one. Yet, whether one or many, the vivid colour makes them a stand out attraction in the landscape.


    September 13, 2020 at 6:49 AM

    • Cardinal flowers are of such a rich red that, as you said, they stand out vividly against the surrounding greenery. I found at least two dozen of those plants spread out on or close to both banks of the creek, which I walked back and forth across several times (I’d prepared by putting on my hip-high rubber boots).

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 7:02 AM

      • I gather that the cardinal flowers are not a common sight. Can the same be said for wildflower photographers in hip-high rubber boots?


        September 13, 2020 at 7:31 AM

        • You’re right: on all my many outings in nature I’ve never come across another photographer in hip-high rubber boots. As for cardinal flowers, they grow near water, so that inherently limits their occurrence. I see them only at this time of year, and in some years I don’t see any at all.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 13, 2020 at 8:19 AM

  2. I really like the soft feel of this photo, and the depth you achieved.


    September 13, 2020 at 7:46 AM

    • Me too. I was very happy with the way this turned out. On some of my pictures I used flash so I could set a small aperture for more depth of field and greater sharpness; those pictures have good sharpness but a harsher look.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 8:21 AM

  3. What a scarlet beauty this is! I checked out the USDA’s, NRCS website and also looked at some links provided there. It does exist in my county in Oklahoma, and I would expect to find it in our wetlands area, especially near the slough and old river channel, but I have never seen it here. It appears to be quite toxic and not utilized by wildlife much, except maybe to find hummingbirds and butterflies frequenting it!


    September 13, 2020 at 8:02 AM

  4. Great capture of the cardinal flower, Steve! Your technical explanations inspire me to try similar techniques. Alas, with the 2.8 setting I am completely incapable of trying something similar. The best my Canon camera can do is 3.5.

    Peter Klopp

    September 13, 2020 at 8:38 AM

    • Go for it: f/3.5 is close enough to f/2.8 that you can get similar effects. Regardless of the aperture your lens is set to, you can reduce depth of field and create a softer effect by getting closer to your subject.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 8:45 AM

  5. It’s interesting to compare this photo with Steve G’s. As you’re wont to say, it’s often ‘background, background, background’ that makes the difference between equally admirable images, and the dissimilar backgrounds between the cardinal flower photos really make the point.


    September 13, 2020 at 9:00 AM

    • I varied my approach quite a bit during the two hours I worked along the creek. I did straight flower stalks and curved ones, upright ones and some that had flopped over into the creek; I even did some pictures of cardinal flower reflections in the creek. In some of those many photographs the background included many more details than in the portrait I chose to show. By coincidence, in a few pictures I even included a Texas relative of the boneset~thoroughwort that surrounded the cardinal flower in the Massachusetts photograph.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 11:19 AM

      • And just yesterday I found boneset mixed with Liatris over in the piney woods. I’m glad I had a tape measure with me; one of the Liatris had achieved a height of 4’3″. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. It was being supported by other foliage, which kept it mostly upright. It was a tough one to photograph, that’s for sure.


        September 13, 2020 at 11:35 AM

        • Your 4’3″ Liatris really was tall—the better to get low and have lots of leeway for portraits. Both cardinal flower and Liatris have a tendency to flop over when they get tall (or sometimes not even all that tall). As you mentioned, at times other things support one of those stalks, and I found that to be true of some of the cardinal flower plants yesterday.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 13, 2020 at 11:54 AM

  6. Those look like a flower a Hummingbird might like. It’s lovely.


    September 13, 2020 at 11:25 AM

  7. In my gardens the cardinal flower is a draw for hummingbirds. As a perennial it seems to grow fuller and taller each summer. Its almost shoulder-high spikes of dainty flowers keep it blooming for weeks.


    September 13, 2020 at 1:03 PM

    • Ah, then you’ve seen hummingbirds on cardinal flowers, something that the previous commenter mentioned but that I’ve never seen. The cardinal flower plants I photographed yesterday were mostly the same individuals I photographed last September two weeks later; as you say, the flowers are likely to keep blooming for some time, so I might return for more pictures (or might not, as I took plenty yesterday).

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 3:04 PM

  8. Nice use of aperture to isolate, Steve.

    Jane Lurie

    September 13, 2020 at 1:56 PM

  9. Beautiful image – has a 3D look!


    September 13, 2020 at 7:46 PM

  10. Gives the impression of birds taking flight. Poetry.

    Michael Scandling

    September 13, 2020 at 8:43 PM

    • I take it the birds would be cardinals. Poetry in motion, to borrow an old song title.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 13, 2020 at 9:09 PM

      • They would be Cardinals, not Mona Lisa with a ponytail.

        Michael Scandling

        September 13, 2020 at 11:05 PM

        • About Mona Lisa: “There’s nothing I would change. / She doesn’t need improvement; / She’s much too nice to rearrange.” I remember when the painting was on loan for a few weeks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1963. My father took my sister and me to see it, which meant waiting in a long line for the chance to look for just a few seconds as viewers were kept moving along.


          Steve Schwartzman

          September 14, 2020 at 4:23 AM

          • Quite a story. Thank you. Reminds me of seeing the Pieta at the World’s Fair in 1964.

            Michael Scandling

            September 14, 2020 at 10:29 AM

            • As someone growing up on Long Island, I visited that World’s Fair, too, but I don’t remember the Pietà. It’s a Pity that I don’t.

              Steve Schwartzman

              September 14, 2020 at 12:30 PM

              • Well, you know, it was about 15 seconds.

                Michael Scandling

                September 14, 2020 at 12:30 PM

              • As I read the article I thought of the school girls fainting when they got into the warm Met from being in the cold outdoors. Almost exactly a year later the same girls were fainting at the Beatles.

                Michael Scandling

                September 14, 2020 at 12:32 PM

                • That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 14, 2020 at 2:02 PM

                • The thing that got me is that it was the heat that made them faint. Not the painting itself. Of course the article doesn’t really say how they responded to the painting.

                  Michael Scandling

                  September 14, 2020 at 2:27 PM

                • And the teenage girls who got hysterical at rock concerts seem to have done so because of the musicians as guys, rather than because of their music (which at some concerts got drowned out by all the screaming).

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 14, 2020 at 2:36 PM

                • Yes. And it is ultimately why the Beatles stopped touring. The very last concert was in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. The local promoters, Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell, took a bath.

                  Michael Scandling

                  September 14, 2020 at 2:37 PM

                • The androgen got overwhelmed by the estrogen.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 14, 2020 at 3:01 PM

                • As so often happens…

                  Michael Scandling

                  September 14, 2020 at 3:28 PM

            • Me too! 🙂


              September 18, 2020 at 2:40 PM

              • I was referring to seeing the Pieta (or rather, being herded past it) at the 1964 World’s Fair.


                September 18, 2020 at 2:41 PM

                • I scrolled my cursor straight back up to see what the beginning of your comment lined up with. That’s how I knew you meant the World’s Fair and the Pietà. How long ago all that was.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 18, 2020 at 3:34 PM

  11. What a beautiful portrait. I have Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’ in my garden. I hadn’t realised it was a Texas native!


    September 14, 2020 at 5:13 PM

    • It’s scattered across much of North America, including most of the 50 states in the United States, plus parts of Canada and Mexico. It also grows in Central America and even northern Colombia. I was happy with this soft portrait.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 14, 2020 at 5:21 PM

  12. It’s gorgeous, Steve. I remember Cardinal flowers from the east but never saw many of them. I think the best place for me was my parents’ retirement home in western NC. Sometimes you’d see them in roadside ditches down there! The graceful bend to the right on this one is lyrical…and you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a fan of f2.8.


    September 18, 2020 at 2:37 PM

    • Gorgeous is how I saw/see it, too. Because I usually prize sharp details in closeups, I rarely open up my 100mm macro lens all the way to its maximum aperture of f/2.8. This one worked out well, so I’ll have to experiment some more with wide apertures, especially when I’m not in very close to a subject. That said, I have an upcoming post in which very little is in focus.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 18, 2020 at 3:31 PM

  13. Cardinal Flowers respond well to limited depth of field as you’ve done a nice job demonstrating here. Thanks for linking to my image.

    Steve Gingold

    September 28, 2020 at 3:15 AM

  14. […] Along Bull Creek on September 12th I reflected on cardinal flowers. […]

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