The Dahlia Garden next to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park peaks in beauty from mid July to mid September. This area was dedicated in 1920 to the dahlia, the official San Francisco Flower.
Although there are a variety of conditions in which to photograph these beautiful and diverse flowers, I prefer a calm foggy day. The colors really pop! (The sunshine will bring out the butterflies but it often gives you garish light and very bright hot spots in your background).
Most mornings you can meet the overseers who donate all of the tubers for their particular area. They sure are proud of their award winning gardening. The California Dahlia Society helps us all get acquainted with the garden and the growing process as well as provides a variety of programs, shows and plethora of information to the public. Volunteers help plant, disbud, de-leaf, water, deadhead, and dig out approximately 500 clumps of dahlias.
The Dahlia originated in Mexico and was used by the Aztecs for medicine, religious ornamentation, and food for the animals (the tubers). The genetic make up of the Dahlia has an uncanny ability to cross breed into many varieties. Some dahlias are as small as a quarter and some as large as beach balls. There is even a Dahlia that looks like my morning hairdo.
You can use every technique and piece of camera equipment available to you when capturing the essence and emotion of the Dahlias. I love working with individual blooms. Most often I choose to photograph with a 400 mm lens. I add an extension tube between my lens and camera so I can focus at a closer distance.
I want to provide enough depth of field to give detail to the petals (f/5.6 – f/11) but allow for the background blooms and leaves to be quite out of focus. I look specifically for a light colored dahlia with a dark colored one in the background. You have to work at positioning your camera and tripod so that a specific colored back ground dahlia falls in the right place.
Using a close up lens you can isolate a detail or portion of a bloom that creates a creative composition. This is when you hope for no breeze so you can use small apertures (f/22 – f/32) to optimize depth of field. Most macro lenses will allow you to get life-sized images. Using a 100, 180, 200mm close up lens keeps you from having to be right on top of your subject. This is especially helpful if your subject is a bug or butterfly on your dahlia.
Although the growers don’t like the drizzly days because the water spots the dahlia petals (etc), we photographers appreciate the natural water drops. The Dahlias are stunning right now. But if you can’t get to the SF Golden Gate Dahlia Garden today, you have several weeks left…when there will still be many blooms.