Friday, May 29, 2009

Polygala paucifolia

If Polygala paucifolia, the Fringed Milkwort, or Gaywing, was more than two inches tall and did not live only beneath certain giant white pine trees, it would be a very well known and popular garden flower.

Polygala is one of the most difficult wildflowers to photograph. They are hard to find and hard to see. The entire plant is barely two inches tall, with flowers about the size of a thumbnail. Except for the flower, there is almost no plant, which is why its species name is paucifolia, a paucity of foliage. Their tiny size, leaf shape and preferred growing spot at the base of large white pine trees gives them their informal name, "flowering wintergreen," although they are not related to the wintergreen.

What makes Polygala such an unusual deep woodland wildflower is the electric magenta color and comical but beautifully complex orchid-like form of their flowers. They are not related to orchids either. Most woodland wildflowers are muted and pale in color. But not Polygala paucifolia. Their flowers are an almost undescribable shade of purplish magenta.

This color is so odd and bright that most cameras cannot capture it. Do a Google Image search of Polygala paucifolia and nearly all the photos will show a bluish purple flower, much like a common violet, and nothing like the color of the actual plant. This is an artifact of the camera being fooled by the deep, selectively filtered sunlight coming down from the forest canopy to where Polygona lives. And voodoo.

Getting the photos above took me three days. Not because the plants were moving so fast, but because my camera (an Olympus C-750 digital) stubbornly refused to accurately capture the real color of the flowers. This was my first attempt on Saturday, May 23:

An okay close-up photo, except the color is totally wrong. Polygala is magenta, not bluish purple. All the photos I took on May 23 were like this. The camera seemed completely incapable of capturing the actual color of the flower. It's almost like I took a picture of a sunflower and it came out maroon. I was flummoxed.

So I did some research on the camera and learned about the magical concept called white balance. My camera is automatically set to "daylight," meaning that it calibrates white (and hence all colors) to what the human eye perceives as white in normal daylight. But then I remembered that in the woods, nearly all of the available light is filtered through a thick canopy of leaves. The only light that reaches the forest floor has already had removed from it all of the frequencies of light that the tree leaves above use to make food. In essence, the light that you see deep in the woods is far different from what you would see in a field, where nothing interrupts the sunlight as it travels from the Sun to your eyes.

So I discovered that my camera has a special function which lets you set the white balance within the exact light you are photographing in. You go to that function in the camera, take out a white piece of paper, hold it right in front of the camera and lock in on that and press the button. This re-calibrates "white" as the way white looks like in the actual light you are using.

So on Sunday, May 24, I shot all of the Polygala again, confident I had the problem licked.

Nope. Even using the approved white balance adjustment method, the flowers were still too purple from what my eye told me they were. Now I was really flummoxed. How can the color of this tiny flower be so elusive to a massively high tech camera using all of the latest, better than human eye circuitry?

As a last resort, I discovered a manual white balance setting on the camera, which lets you adjust the white balance from "more blue" to "more red" by just clicking a secret button. Since the flowers were coming out way too purple, ie. with way too more blue in the magenta than red, I notched the white balance two clicks into red. Even then, the flowers were still too bluish, and worse, the pine needles and foliage were now too yellowish and reddish.

So finally, I took the last set of photos, made on May 25 (Day 3 !!!) with manual white balance set two clicks into red, brought them into Photoshop and used the "Hue/Saturation" setting to manually tweak the Magenta setting about 15 points into red and away from Blue. Then I tweaked the yellow setting to get riid of the "sickly yellow" feel that is still present at the top photo of the set.

Then, and only then, did the color of the Polygala flowers start to look like they actually look when you see them with your eyes. And looking at them now, they are still not exactly right.

There is a lesson here. Never trust your camera. Your eyes do not lie. Your camera often does. Trust your eyes.


Ron Huber said...
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JBS said...
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