Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale)

A brief online conversation among fellow Chaparralians made me aware of the Scarlet Larkspur (Delphinium cardinale, also called Cardinal Larkspur) bloom at Torrey Pines Extension. Thankfully, we got a little break from the intensive heatwave that grilled Southern California early in the week, and a nice marine layer kept things cool – and the light nice and even, just the way I like it best for flower macros. :-)

In addition to the lure of a plant that I wasn’t aware of before, being out with the camera was a welcome “photographic escape” from the constant barrage of noises during our guest bathroom remodel. :-) Nothing like a quiet walk on a peaceful trail, with only bugs and bees and birds around –  hummingbirds in particular, almost on a feeding frenzy, attracted by the intensively red “bait” of the plant, exchanging nectar for the service of pollination.

The area where the flowers grow is surprisingly large – a sea of little red flowers on an east-facing slope. I quickly got fully absorbed studying these beautiful plants with the camera and macro lens. The combination of being in nature and studying nature while working the camera has a very meditational quality – maybe one of the most underestimated values of photography.

What’s especially striking is not just the intensive red of the flowers. There’s also the sheer complexity of these flowers, nicely described in the Delphinium cardinale article on Wikipedia, and the fact that one can see the full “life cycle” of the flowers, from the tiniest buds all the way to the seedpods – sometimes even on a single plant. (Let alone the miracle that these plants are in full bloom towards the end of June, six or more weeks after we had the last rain…)

Here are 12 photos – some tech notes about photographing and processing intensive colors like this scarlet red follow below the gallery.

Tech Notes

Photographing Intensive Colors

Any relatively pure and intensive color is a problem in digital photography – the digital sensor only records luminance, which means that intensive colors are captured brighter than they actually were. This is especially apparent with pure blue and red.

What’s more, the camera’s histograms aren’t really reliable: if your camera has separate luminance and individual R/G/B histograms, the red channel might be indicating color clipping when there actually isn’t any. And if you then use exposure compensation, you’re actually making things worse, because now you’re gathering less highlight data for the smooth color gradients.

This remains one of the most annoying problems in digital photography: the histograms are derived from the camera’s internal JPEG preview (even when you’re only capturing raw data). They simply aren’t an accurate representation of the raw data. Setting the camera’s internal JPEG engine to a “flat” or “neutral” tone curve (and perhaps further reducing contrast/brightness) helps a bit to render flatter JPEGs that don’t show clipped highlights when there are none – but it’s a crutch. You really have to experiment with your camera and learn what works and what doesn’t.

Processing Intensive Colors in Lightroom

Developing these photos on the computer with Lightroom requires some extra attention to the color gradients as well. My default profile (in Lightroom’s “Camera Calibration” develop panel) is “Camera Neutral”, to give me a relatively flat starting point – but Adobe’s attempts to mimic Nikon’s own profiles fall short when it comes to color gradients in intensive colors.

Sunsets and sunrises would be one example, especially when the sun is just around the horizon (above or below) and you’re working with intensive red, orange and yellow colors. Flowers like the Scarlet Larkspur with its intensive red are another, obviously. For these photos, I switch to the “Adobe Standard” profile – it has a better rendition of intensive colors, preserving detail where the “Camera…” profiles only show areas of unified, washed-out red blotches (and this happens even though Lightroom does not indicate any color clipping at all).

The problem then of course is that Adobe’s color rendition isn’t matching the camera’s sensor and color temperatures/tint (from auto white balance). What is actually a deep blue for example will come out violet or almost magenta (see Indigo Bush). And this mismatch of Adobe’s profile and the camera/sensor turned the Scarlet Larkspur’s “bright red with a hint of orange” color into a deeper red with a magenta hint.

Now I normally don’t care too much about color accuracy because developing photos on the computer is a creative process to me, not a documentary one – studying wildflowers is an exception. You can adjust the white balance to compensate, but in these situations, I often make adjustments in Lightroom’s “HSL” panel. For the larkspur photos above, I applied a slight shift of the red into orange, and increased the red luminance a little bit as well.

The result looks pretty good to me now, but then again – I photographed these flowers two days ago on an overcast morning. Their colors probably look a little different at different times of the day and under direct sunlight, of course. And who knows what tricks our own eyes play on us? A person that loves red wildflowers may find my photographic representation of these colors not accurate, perhaps. :-)

And if you found these notes about photographing and processing intensive colors helpful, you can buy me coffee. Thanks!

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4 Responses

  1. These are really lovely! I think you captured both the delicacy and intensity of these flowers really well. And I’m all too familiar with the ‘color blob’ problem when photographing wildflowers – especially the deep reds and oranges.

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