Tuesday 13 July 2021

Good practice and bad habits in the pursuit of botanical beauty

Regular readers will know the name Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer, and may have come across both him and ecologist  Callum Macgregor on social media. They are both keen plant-hunters and excellent photographers but are growing increasingly upset at the way some botanists are allowing their desire to get a great photograph to take precedence over their concern for the plants themselves. 

Here's an example: the images on the right and below left show the rare X Dactyloglossum viridellum (Northern Marsh x Frog Orchid hybrid) in northern England which got a lot of attention from visitors whilst it was flowering. Someone decided they needed a photo of the whole plant, from ground level upwards, and removed all of the surrounding vegetation to get it. The images are reproduced courtesy of Dr Richard Bate, who was definitely NOT responsible for the damage shown (orchid expert Richard can regularly be found on Twitter offering orchid ID tips, sharing orchid images and calling out examples of the kind of bad practice set out in this blogpost). 

I asked Callum and Jon to put their heads together and come up with some pointers around how we can get the most out of plant photography without causing harm to our wild flowers. 

Over to Callum, who has summarised his and Jon's ideas on this subject: 

"Gardening: as a relative late-comer to botany, I never imagined this word could mean anything other than a green-fingered love of plants.

Now, I’ve come to realise it has a darker meaning - one associated with bad behaviour around our rarest and most beautiful plants.

I’m learning quickly that, like all branches of natural history, some botanists pick up bad habits that can give the hobby a bad name and put the very plants that we so admire at risk. Indeed, some of these are shared with lovers of other groups – butterflies, birds and so on – where issues of disturbance of wildlife by naturalists and photographers are also raised.

I discussed some of the bad habits that newcomers to botany (like me) should be aware of, with Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer. Together we came up with some suggestions for how to get the most out of the plants – and your camera – without causing harm. Many of these suggestions reflect the guidance of the BSBI Code of Conduct.


X marks the spot!
Monkey Orchid Orchis simia
Image: J. Dunn
I think a good rule of thumb for my photographs is that nothing dies in pursuit of them – including the subject and any innocent bystanders. We have both seen some truly shocking examples where it looks like somebody has taken a road roller or a strimmer to the surrounding sward. Jon recalls seeing a well-known nature photographer, who would doubtless prefer to remain nameless, actually bringing out a pair of kitchen scissors from their camera bag in order to cut away surrounding vegetation for a ‘clean’, uncluttered image.

How to get around this:

Pick your angle carefully. If you can’t get a clear view of the flower from a particular direction because of the sward, consider whether you would have better luck from another side. The best photos aren’t always the front-on views!

Incorporate the sward into your photo (image on right): a clean image of a single flower isn’t the only way to compose a beautiful photo. For example, the colour contrast of a purple orchid among yellow cowslips can really make the orchid shine out. Similarly, surrounding vegetation can provide good context of the habitat in which a particular plant is found, or even generate creative ways to highlight the subject.

Bog Orchid
Image: C. Macgregor

Manipulate the sward, rather than cutting/picking it. Gently push blades of grass back from your image, and weigh them down with a light-to-medium weight object. Take your photo, remove the weight, and if you’ve done it right, everything should spring back into place. There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest and most creative I’ve seen was knitting needles, used to create a triangular funnel through the sward from camera lens to flower. This approach is subtle enough to be used on the background sward as well, if you frame your shot carefully.

For the image on the left, of a Bog Orchid Hammarbya paludosa, I kept the foreground clear by using my pocket tripod on one side and my wallet (positioned very carefully!) on the other.

Learn to use your camera! Be brave, and take the camera out of the ‘full auto’ settings. For plant photography in particular, learn to work with a shallow depth of field (see image below right) in order to focus on your subject, but making vegetation in the foreground and background blurry. It doesn’t have to be moved or removed – to some extent the camera can do that for you. Plants are particularly well-suited to experimenting with camera settings until you get the perfect shot, because you can be sure they won’t run or fly away…

A shallow depth of field
picks this Bog Orchid 
Hammarbya paludosa out
from the sward.
Image: J. Dunn

Related to the last point, practice! Before you find yourself in the field confronted by the orchid of your dreams, know what works and what doesn’t by practicing on plants in your garden or the local park. An hour or two of practicing will help you to understand your camera, and get much better photos to take home when it really matters.

Edit things out. If a particularly annoying bit of vegetation can’t be moved or avoided, get busy in Photoshop once you’re home. If your photos are just for personal use there’s no issue with this, and even if you want to enter competitions, many now allow it (for example, the Hardy Orchid Society competition permits “limited manipulation to remove distracting items”).


Of course, before even considering taking a photo, you first need to locate and approach a plant. Damage often occurs at this stage as people wander off paths and through sensitive habitats. This doesn’t just apply to photographers, but anybody who wants a closer look at a plant.

Stay on paths where possible. In the butterfly world, some argue that damage to host-plants from trampling is one of the greatest modern threats to populations. Whilst this may be true at certain highly-visited sites (think Large Blues at Daneway Banks, for example), it’s worth remembering that a little disturbance can be a good thing: many sites are preserved by grazing with large animals! Some sites are truly off-road and have no footpaths to follow. Nevertheless, if there is a path, it makes sense to use it, especially if you aren’t familiar with a site. This will prevent you from accidentally treading on something special.

Try to avoid lying down to take your images or to examine small plants, especially if the surrounding area contains other plants. We’ve all done it, but it’s to be avoided if at all possible. Vegetation can be crushed or uprooted, and may not flower and set seed, or may be killed entirely. Look at the damage (below left) that Jon found in front of three Bog Orchid  Hammarbya paludosa plants in Shetland last year – there were crushed orchids amongst the flattened area of vegetation, and torn off and uprooted moss and other plants that had presumably got in the way of the lens of the photographer in question.

Crush damage to the Shetland Bog Orchid
 site - the picturesque group of three
plants is circled (top right)
Image: J. Dunn

And NEVER EVER step over a fence or barrier intended to protect plants from people. At the end of the day, a nature reserve is just that; a reserve for nature, not a zoo or botanical garden. Remember it is a privilege to view rare and beautiful plants: not a right. Often these barriers will protect the densest part of the population, and scattered individuals can be found outside the fence if you cast your eyes about.

Use a tripod and remote shutter to reduce the need to approach a plant set back from a path. Most modern DSLRs allow you to connect them to a smartphone, with full control over settings and even touch-screen autofocus targetting. Lower the tripod into position carefully at arms’ length, step back and experiment with depth of field, shutter speed and focal positions to your heart’s content from a distance.

Self-heal Prunella vulgaris
Image: J. Dunn
If you have a telephoto or zoom lens in your kit, don’t leave it at home! You can let the lens cover the distance so you don’t have to. Jon has taken wildflower images using a 500mm lens that he’d normally use for bird photography. Check out the image on the right  - Jon used a long lens to create an interesting effect in his photograph of Self-heal Prunella vulgaris. As with experimenting with camera settings, think out of the box when it comes to the equipment itself. Of course, the same applies to binoculars; there are even reasonably-priced models on the market that are specifically designed for magnifying small subjects over short focal distances.

Sometimes plants will be protected individually with wire cages. In some circumstances it can be OK to lift these cages to take pictures (if you’re unsure, check with the reserve warden or site manager first). But if you do so, make sure you replace the cages carefully and securely once you’re finished.

Just because you’re not in a nature reserve doesn’t mean you can do as you please! Nature reserves are special places, but we should all extend the same level of care and due diligence to our behavior wherever we are in the countryside, be it on a footpath or bridleway, in public access woodland or common ground, or on a roadside verge.

Sharing information

Botany can be a surprisingly sociable hobby, both in the field and online. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the success of #WildFlowerHour on Twitter – more than 30,000 followers and counting! These kinds of interactions will doubtless be particularly important in this spring of social distancing. But it’s important to apply the same care and attention when back home, sharing the fruits of your labour, as you did in the field.


We all love to share our sightings, and (for those with cameras) our photos, on the internet. But if something you post online could lead a total stranger to the exact location of a rare or vulnerable flower without your knowledge or consent, consider whether you should be posting it at all, or if you could disguise the location better. I found as many as four rare orchid species during the summer of 2019 in officially non-publicised (but publicly accessible) locations, using only information openly posted online by enthusiasts. There were other leads to plants on private land that I decided not to follow up – but a more unscrupulous person might have chosen differently.

Butterbur Petasites hybridus 
Image: C. Macgregor 
One way in which you might be publishing such information without even realizing it is through metadata. ‘Meta what?’, we hear you ask. Metadata describe the properties of a photo, including the make and model of camera, the camera settings used, the date and time at which a photo was taken, and for most mobile phones and many new or high-end cameras, the GPS coordinates. On a digital image, they are known as the Exchangeable Image File Format, or EXIF data. So, if you post your photos online in such a way that the EXIF data can be obtained, you might unwittingly provide an exact fix for the location where you photographed that rare orchid!

In the first instance, you can consider switching this off in your phone and/or camera – ensuring your images aren’t tagged in that way.

If you do want the EXIF data – perhaps for your own records – make sure to remove it from your image before you post it online. Norton has a good page that explains how… https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-how-to-how-to-remove-gps-and-other-metadata-locations-from-photos.html

Does that sound overly paranoid in a Big Brother kind of way? Well, maybe. But consider that every year we hear about orchids (and other wildflowers) being dug up from the wild by persons unknown. Similar things go on in the worlds of butterflying and birding (with collectors still chasing down specimens and eggs of rare species). Until this finally stops being the case, it makes sense to not make a wildlife criminal’s life easy.    

…but also undersharing

Whilst bearing all of the above in mind, also consider that it’s possible to hold information too closely. Over-suppression of information can lead to unintended consequences. If you find a new location for something interesting, rare or protected, we suggest sending a record to your BSBI County Recorder and making sure the landowner/land manager knows about it, even if you tell nobody else.

A great example of why this matters played out over Twitter back in February 2020. A tree-planting project, led by the Woodland Trust, very unfortunately led to planting taking place on a species-rich meadow in Cumbria. Botanists, locally and nationally, were outraged, and the farmer was reported to be “sad and frustrated”, having “had literally no idea that site was important for flowers”. Similarly, the Woodland Trust pointed out that their assessment of the site – which used online data sets of plant records – had not highlighted its importance. Fortunately, action was taken to remove the trees and mitigate the damage.

Finally, be aware of the influence you can have on newcomers to botany by being a friendly and helpful contact! Consider sharing information privately to people you think are trustworthy, or perhaps even offering to accompany them to a site yourself if you aren’t yet entirely sure of their credentials. Sadly, with Covid-19 and the necessity to follow restrictions around social distancing and small groups, that hasn't always been possible recently, but even during lockdown, I've managed to find new things within walking (and jogging) distance of my house. The image above left shows a patch of Butterbur that I never knew existed, but I found and photographed them during lockdown within a mile of my front door.

So, if you can help somebody else to experience the joy of plants (without putting yourself or others at risk), why not make that your good deed for the day?"

Huge thanks to Jon and Callum for this extremely helpful blogpost. I hope everyone will find their tips useful and please spread this blogpost far and wide, so that scenes like the below (captured by a distressed botanist, horrified at such destruction in the name of plant photography) of a broken and discarded Pyramidal Orchid, soon become a thing of the past. Don't forget to download your free copy of the BSBI Code of Conduct and enter your photographs - taken with care - in this year's BSBI Photographic Competition.


  1. I’ve never seen an option in camera menus for “switching off” EXIF generation, and it would be counter intuitive to do so…? e.g. Losing just the date would make finding and cataloguing images more difficult. GPS data can be selected or not generated from the camera though.

  2. I never knew about EXIF generation, and thankfully my camera doesn't have GPS. Interesting blog, thanks.

  3. I think it is also useful to visit well known sites sparingly. Don't go back year after year unless you are doing a population census. For example Hartslock, a mecca, is suffering.

  4. The community that a desired photographic subject is growing in is just as important as the individual plant, you don't need to see the whole thing, a drawing can do that if needed. It seems more useful to me to see a shot of how you would actually see it yourself, often intermixed with other species. That is where a lot of skill and fun in botanising lies, identifying plants from the little bits you can see sticking out. P


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