#509. Mona Lisa photography? (because a more descriptive title would include the word “arum”, which rhymes with “scarum”)

By philberphoto | How-To

Sep 09


It is said that Leonardo da Vinci never really considered that he’d “finished” his painting known as the Mona Lisa. That he continually studied it, and, at times, perfected it.


You’re thinking: he’s gone off the deep end. Comparing himself to a photographic Leonardo. What is he going to do next, show pictures that can only be viewed in a mirror, like Leonardo’s writings?



Actually, it is not that bad. My reason for using the Mona Lisa as a reference is that it is a small painting, but even something that small was considered worthy of endless work from such an intellectual and artistic giant.


For family reasons, I find myself frequently close to a botanical garden that encompass a series of greenhouses. And one of those has plants known as arums, with very stylish flowers. Though, if truth be told, most of them carry a very definite -and pungent- stench. So, with my usual mix of lazyness and curiosity, I found myself visiting it once, then more often, and, of course, taking some pics. You see, things are beginning to right themselves. After starting off with Leonardo, I am actually inhabiting a space saturated with vile odors… But worry not, they do not impregnate my pics…:-). But you do understand why Mona Lisa makes a more compelling title than a stinky flower…:-)


This year, I must have been there maybe 15 times. The flower count can’t have exceeded 30, out of which only maybe 12 were suitable, depending on look, position, background, etc…


And while Pascal dignifies me with countless gems from his glorious Provence, in returm, I send him more arums. A study in the minuscule. A subject done over and over. Before, there is no way I could have seen myself doing that. But now, I think, as I drive by, can’t I stop for 15 minutes, if I am almost sure to get one, or more, shots of such great -and ephemereal- beauty? And I stop. And Pascal has to endure more shots.


Being the super-nice chap that he is, he tells me that I ought to make a series of it and, eventually, I get to think that he might not only be nice (a plus in my book), but he might also be right (a big, big minus in the same book, because I claim a monopoly on being right!)


So there we are. A photographic stage that is very small, and cluttered, with only cramped and often awkward shooting angles. Limited material, with only some 12 flowers to choose from over a few months. Difficult conditions because the air is not only making me wish it only smelled of rotten eggs, but is also very hot and humid (it is a greenhouse, remember?)



The result? Pascal was right! Oooh that hurts! From which I draw 2 lessons.


One is that natural beauty is an endless fountain of opportunity, and not necessarily in proportion to size. Actually I have yet to compete for floor space with anyone else, though of course there are smartphones galore, and I have seen serious photographers in other parts of the botanical gardens. Including a very goth-looking girl who used a Sony A7 as a light-meter for her 6×6. So it is actually a lot less crowded than Iceland, the Lofoten or Patagonia…:-) And a bit closer, too.



Two is that like other art forms, photography does not necessarily culminate in very large form, and that -ugh- more work, and yet more, and more work, is a very good idea.


Now I am not going to get into a gear discussion, but let me tell you that most of those shots were taken at my lens’ MFD, or even closer with the help of a helicoid adapter or an extension tube, and with a very wide aperture (most at f:2.0, some at f:1.4, none at less than f:2.8 so, for this job, only very serious and motivated lenses need apply..:-)


But if anyone is/are interested in how to manage to get some aesthetic/artistic hold over a subject like this, despite the many “givens” of the shooting conditions, then I might be convinced….










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  • John Inglis says:

    Could you mention some of the lenses used? These are are so nice, it would be nice to know whether you are closer to 50mm or 100mm.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Fascinated by it, Philippe – I have a similar interest, because about 30-40 metres along the street from my front door is one of the best florist shops in this city – I find myself drawn there most days, and frequently spend an afternoon trying to explore new ways of photographing the same flower.

    Because of the focus issues you mention, I’ve tried using my stackshot system to get an increased but controlled depth of field, using a macro lens. Like anything else, it works on some things better than on others.

    More recently I have turned to my w/angle, and tried single shots are various different apertures – generally placing the camera at the minimum focal distance – and also varying the lighting all over the place.

    I think it’s an endless path – and a great way to pass the days when winter rains keep me indoors. The florist is also delighted – the ladies who run the shop get a regular supply of quality shots of their flowers!

    It’s an instructive exercise, because you test your handling of the camera[s], lens[es], DOF, lighting, backgrounds, bokeh, colour matching, printing and all sorts of stuff. All within reach of some more fromage, and a nice glass to wash it down. Even better – ALL my equipment is at hand, and I don’t have to lug it anyway or put up with complaints about erecting tripods!

    So I have been through your shots carefully, and adore what you’re doing with your arum lilies.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      PS – the “stink lily” (corpse flower, or titan arum – amorphophallus titanum) is also an arum – producing one of the largest flowers in the world, and producing a stench of rotting flesh. Several gardens in the UK have them.

    • philberphoto says:

      Wow, Pete, thanks for the kind words!I agree with you, this is endless fun. And there are many paths one can follow, from your all-sharpp focus-stacking to my barely-any-DOF. Have fun!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        LOL – “barely-any-DOF”? That’s why I whacked the w/angle on the front of the cam – GREAT DOF.
        But then I look at your shots, Philippe, and find myself entranced by the way they wander in and out of focus, and more sharply focused parts of the flower float in the softer focused areas.
        My residual problem is getting that sparkling off the petals of my cymbidium – it’s almost a sort of miniaturised glitter, but capturing it is eluding me. Halogens overhead bring it up, but then the most striking part of the flower falls into shadow. Sigh! By nature, I am stubborn, so I will persevere!

  • Joakim Danielson says:

    It’s a luxury to be able to visit a place like this over and over again to both improve and challenge youself as a photographer. Well done with this series that has lot of great compositions of colors (tones) and shapes.

    One has to wonder though about the mind of the frenchmen and the obsession with a specific shape, I mean the arums, the baguettes, the Eiffel Tower… What’s that all about? đŸ˜‰

    • philberphoto says:

      Well, Joakim, about your very pertinent question, let me just say this. There must be a reason behind Mona lisa’s enigmatic smile, don’t you think? And thanks for the kind words!

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Rolling on the floor laughing etc. – top comment, Philippe – and I STILL can’t stop laughing !!

  • Paul Perton says:

    These are exquisite images Philippe. I hope they’re already at the framers.

  • Bob Hamilton says:

    Lovely images Philippe, expertly taken – I can say no more.


  • SEan says:

    Hi Philippe,
    Terrific artistic and creative photographic work here, buster.

    I wonder if this endeavour would be supported by the use of an appropriate tilt shift lens?

    Would it be worth a look see, and use.


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