I recently visited the Orchids Through Darwin’s Eyes Exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Like any Smithsonian exhibit, the display is beautiful and the signage, exhibit materials and videos are very informative. The exhibit runs through April 26.
However to be perfectly honest, as a photographer, I was very disappointed with this year’s orchid show.
Each year, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Botanic Garden hold an orchid exhibit, usually somewhere on the National Mall. I visited last year’s exhibit at the Botanic Garden several times and had a wonderful time photographing the orchids. This year, I had a very different experience.
The Orchids Through Darwin’s Eyes exhibit is in a long narrow room on the first floor of the Museum of Natural History. There is no natural light in the room. Instead, it is lit by overhead and side spot lights.
Love Memory ‘Fit’ Dendrobium Orchid (c) 2009 Patty Hankins
The low level of light made photography very difficult. In 30 minutes of shooting with a Canon 5D mark II set at ISO 1600 using the Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens I only ended up with two photographs that were crisp enough for me to even edit up for the blog. I’ve been shooting at several conservatories recently with this same setup and have taken images that have can be printed up to 20″ X 30″.
World Cup No. 5 Dendrobium Orchid (c) 2009 Patty Hankins
A second problem caused by the exhibit lighting is strange color casts and reflections on the flowers. As you can see in both orchid photographs, there are white areas of the petals with green reflections that should not be there.
In addition, green leaves and stems end up over saturated in the exhibit lighting. In the photograph of the World Cup No. 5 orchid, I desatured and toned down the luminance of both the greens and yellows to get them to a point where I could tolerate the colors in the photo.
My final challenge with photographing the orchids was the height they were displayed at. I’m 5’5″ tall, and I was too short to photograph at least half of the orchids on display. Some of them were displayed at least 8 feet off the ground. It’s pretty hard to see the flowers in any detail, much less photograph them.
The morning wasn’t a total waste. After about 30 frustrating minutes at the Museum of Natural History, I headed across the Mall to the U.S. Botanic Garden, where I spent a wonderful 90 minutes photographing their flowers, included their orchids in both the Garden Court and the Orchid Room.
If you do decide to visit the Orchids Through Darwin’s Eyes Exhibit, remember that it is in one of the Smithsonian Museums. This means you (and your camera gear) will have to pass through security. The day I visited, the security guard used what looked like the end of a broom handle to poke into two of the five sections of my camera bag. I then walked through the metal detector without setting it off – which was surprising since I still had my keys, phone and ipod in my pockets.
If you want to see some spectacular and unusual orchids, or hear explanations of why orchids are different shapes and colors, then the Orchids Through Darwin’s Eyes exhibit is well worth visiting. However, if you want to photograph flowers on the National Mall this month – just head over to the U.S. Botanic Garden and skip the Orchid Exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.