"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Early Spring Hellebores (2 of 2)

From “Helleborus” in Flowers and Their Histories by Alice M. Coats:

“Few plants are of greater antiquity, or more surrounded by legend and superstition than the hellebore. According to Greek tradition, the shepherd Melampus first became aware of its properties through observing its effect on his goats; and he used it successfully to cure the daughters of Proetus, King of Argus, of mental derangement — in some versions of the story, by dosing them with the milk of the goats that had eaten it, or in others, by the use of the herb itself, followed by baths in a cold fountain; so that for centuries afterward, the plant was famous as a cure for insanity….

“One of the species grew plentifully about Anticyra in the Gulf of Corinth, so eccentrics were playfully advised to ‘take a trip to Anticyra,’ and Horace calls a hopeless mental case: ‘One not three Anticyras could cure.’ So powerful a herb had, of course, to be treated with great respect, and
Greek rhizotomoi or root-gatherers thought it necessary to draw a circle round it with a sword and recite prayers to Apollo and Aesculapius, before digging it up; keeping at the same time a wary look-out for eagles, for if one of these birds chanced to hover near, the gatherer would die within the year. It was also considered advisable to eat garlic before-hand, in order to ward off the poisonous efluvia of the plant. Later, the Gauls are said to have rubbed their arrow-points with hellebore before hunting, in order to make the meat killed, more tender.

“It was possibly introduced into this country by the Romans, who would hardly have allowed themselves to be deprived of so useful a plant; and it was much valued in mediaeval times for keeping away witches and evil spirits, and breaking spells and enchantments. If cattle fell sick, either through poison or evil spells, the practice was to bore a hole through the animal’s ear, and insert a piece of hellebore root. This was removed twenty-four hours later, by which time the trouble was supposed to be cured. The belief in the plant’s efficacy as a cure for mania continued right through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries….”


This is the second of two posts featuring hellebores from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens.

The first post — where I describe some of the sorcery I used when taking the photos — is Early Spring Hellebores (1 of 2).

About half of the photos in this post were taken with backlighting or side-lighting; those are the ones that look like they might have their own electric light source. Others were from shadier spots (like those in the first post) where I played around with different combinations of dappled sunlight just to see what would happen.

Thanks for taking a look!

Early Spring Hellebores (1 of 2)

From “Hellebores” in Flowers in History by Peter Coats:

“Old English names for hellebore are setterwort, oxheal and bear’s foot, which, less fancifully than Bishop [Richard] Mant’s description, refer to the shape of their leaves. But the most popular name for one variety of hellebore is the Christmas Rose. Hellebores are referred to by [John] Gerard by yet another name, neesewort, and recommended as a cure, not surprisingly, for ‘Phrensies‘, but with the advice that it should not be administered to ‘delicate bodies… but may be more safely given unto country people which feed grosly and have hard tough and strong bodies.’

“Hellebores, however they are named, are more popular with discerning gardeners today than they have ever been before. To have several varieties of hellebore in your garden is the sign of maturity of taste, of garden one-upmanship; they have become, in the gardening fraternity, a status symbol.

“Some hellebores, though not as many as are grown today, have been features for many years in Western gardens; and in Victorian times, and indeed up to the present day, while labor was available, the most prized flowers were those that were carefully protected in winter by glass bells, or in miniature greenhouses which were specially built for the purpose.”

From “To Mary Frogley” in John Keats: The Complete Poems, edited by John Barnard:

Hadst thou lived in days of old,
O what wonders had been told
Of thy lively countenance,
And thy humid eyes that dance
In the midst of their own brightness,
In the very fane of lightness.
Over which thine eyebrows, leaning,
Picture out each lovely meaning:
In a dainty bend they lie,
Like to streaks across the sky,
Or the feathers from a crow,
Fallen on a bed of snow.
Of thy dark hair that extends
Into many graceful bends:
As the leaves of hellebore
Turn to whence they sprung before
And behind each ample curl
Peeps the richness of a pearl….


I’ve never photographed hellebores before. I’ve stumbled by them often, but would find their colors monochrome and a bit dull so I’d move on to something else. I don’t know if those I’ve posted here are possibly new plantings, or if I just caught them at the right time — but the purple and pink marbling among their blooms got my attention and this hellebore community was quite insistent that I take their pictures. This is the first of two posts featuring some of the ones I encountered.

Since I hadn’t previously photoshot them (and have never tried growing them myself), I don’t know much about them — so it will be fun to learn a little about their botanical history, and dig up some poems like the one from John Keats above, where he conflates a woman’s appearance with that of some hellebores. Or maybe he doesn’t, and he’s really just writing about hellebores, nobody knows for sure.

I don’t usually use any lens filters with my camera, except for some starburst filters that I’ve occasionally strapped on when photographing Christmas decorations. But I recently bought one — a neutral density filter — and the photos in this post (and the next one) were taken with that filter in place. I also have several hundred other photos of early spring flowers and plants I’m working on, all of which I took using that filter. Why, you ask? Well, thanks for asking and I will now explain.

As frequent visitors here know, many of my photos are from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, where there’s an enormous number of native southeastern plants displaying themselves in a variety of natural settings and lighting conditions. As many of these plants are sun perennials, I’m often photographing in morning or mid-day sun — conditions that can allow for capturing detail, but can introduce bright lighting (and harsh shadows) that can be a challenge to manage. I would handle this by under-exposing my image slightly, then adjusting out any remaining excess brightness (especially overly bright highlights) in post-processing in Lightroom.

Neutral density filters are often described as “sunglasses for your camera” — a perfectly fine metaphor for what they do: reducing a scene’s brightness without (theoretically) altering colors. They’re commonly used in landscape photography — especially with scenes of water or waterfalls to create a flowing appearance for the water, so commonly used that way that every article I read or video I saw about them described this use. But since their purpose was to reduce a scene’s overall brightness, I wanted to see what would happen if I used them for flower photography, especially closeups of flowers like those featured below.

So I put these “sunglasses” on my camera and headed out on an extremely brigthteous day — just to find out what would happen. The first thing I discovered was that — since the camera now had sunglasses on and so did The Photographer — it was really-really dark in the camera’s viewfinder, sort of like night at 10:00 in the morning. It took me a minute to realize I had to rethink my exposure settings — and where I was accustomed to reducing exposure (to limit excess sunlight), I needed to do the opposite: increase the exposure since the filter decreases the light reaching the camera’s sensor. Without doing that, much of the scene’s detail would be missing.

This first outing was a bit of a bust: I took 600 photos and threw most of them out. As I was unaccustomed to using filters like this, lots of things that looked relatively well-focused in the camera’s viewfinder when I took them looked like fuzz when I loaded them up in Lightroom. That focusing problem was easily corrected once I realized that it I was using slower shutter speeds than I typically did (which introduced motion blur); and shallower depth-of-field (smaller f-stop settings that reduced front-to-back sharpness).

But it was a good learning experience: I went back for a second shoot and took greater care when focusing, having figured out how careful focusing and closely monitoring exposure settings (and leaning towards over-exposure), could get me the results I wanted. What I see now — with a little extra experimenting — is that a neutral density filter helps accentuate colors on a sunny day by: reducing the amount of light overall, eliminating aberrations like blown-out highlights or excessively bright sunlight, and allowing me to overexpose and thus let the camera’s sensor gather more color from the scene.

By creating a better balance between bright and dark contrasts that way, the filter lets the colors show through, since they’re not overpowered by the light or hidden by the shadows. The resulting images are rather fascinating to work with in Lightroom: I can add saturation to the colors without making them look harshly brighter. And intense shadows on subjects are virtually eliminated — meaning that I can alter the darkness of shadowy regions and get some nice background color and foreground detail in photos like this.

I’m still puzzling about optimal exposure settings and how to understand (and explain) how using these filters changes my plant-based (haha!) photography. Because the filter alters how the camera interprets the scene and recommends correct exposure with its meter, I may need to try different metering modes. Since I’m photographing relatively small subjects close up, I usually have the camera set for spot metering — which makes exposure recommendations based (roughly) on the subject I’m focusing on. But it may be better to try multi-segment metering, which will recommend exposure settings across more of the scene that appears in the viewfinder. These observations are not precise, I think, because this experiment is just starting (and, oddly, it almost feels like beginning with a new camera), but I think I’ll keep using the filter with my spring and summer photography — and fine-tune my understanding of how best to use it and how it changes the way I post-process my photos.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!