How To » Fiddleheads in focus
Spring is an exciting time for nature photographers. Flowers turn fields into kaleidoscopes of color. Trees don a fresh mantle of bright green buds. Birds and beasts fill the air with their courting calls. With so many things competing for our attention, one of the most ephemeral sights of spring is easily missed. This particular marvel hides in boggy areas or deep in the forest and only lasts for a short two weeks: freshly sprouted ferns, colloquially referred to as fiddleheads.
"Fiddlehead" is a specific term describing tightly coiled edilble young fern fronds. As the name implies, fiddleheads are shaped just like the head of a fiddle or violin. Just as mature ferns vary in size, shape, and color, so do their shoots. I have found fiddlehead-shaped tendrils smaller than my pinky nail growing out of sphagnum moss in the Adirondack Mountains. In contrast, I also have found species over six feet tall in the highlands of Costa Rica. Although they vary greatly in size, one thing is for certain—if ferns grow near where you live, then you can find their tender shoots erupting in the spring.
In summer and fall, note the locations of some large bunches of ferns. Most ferns tend to prefer shady, damp areas such as bogs and dense forests. In New England, I start looking in late April, visiting the same spot at least once a week. Before you know it, a tiny forest will have sprung up seemingly overnight. As the ferns mature, their tendrils unfurl and they lose their unique namesake fiddle shape. This transition can happen in as little as two weeks.
The best thing about photographing ferns is that you don't need any special equipment. You can shoot them with a wide angle lens, showing them as part of their environment. Using a telephoto perspective, you can isolate individual fronds, focusing on their attractive curving lines. Because of their narrower angle of view and shallower depth of field, longer focal length lenses are also helpful in eliminating background clutter.
Macro accessories will help you get closer to smaller species. I prefer a 105mm macro lens which focuses to a 1:1 (life:film) reproduction ratio. At that magnification, you can begin to see the tiny growing leaves curled up like miniature green chambered nautiluses. Other macro accessories, such as diopters or extension tubes, can also help you achieve the desired magnification.
I head out hunting for macro subjects like these on overcast days, when the clouds act like a giant soft box. This light eliminates harsh shadows and distracting hot spots in the background. Since fiddleheads start out only a few inches tall, a tripod that can get you close to ground level is an asset. To preserve your clothing, I recommend bringing along a tarp or old towel to lay or kneel on while photographing in muddy bogs or alongside streams.
In addition to being such an interesting photographic subject, fiddlehead greens—the fiddlehead of the Ostrich Fern species (Matteuccia struthiopteris)—are delicious (note that other types of fern fronds should not be eaten, so don't pick them unless you are confident in your identification). Eaten fresh in a salad, sautéed, or steamed, . the taste is somewhere between asparagus and okra. If you can't find them in your local market in springtime, several companies on the internet now offer everything from frozen fiddleheads to fiddlehead soup stock. This spring, try your luck hunting these miniature marvels.