Flower Power, Part 1

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Wouldn’t it be nice to conjure up majestic light on immaculate subjects any time of day? 5 a.m. wake-up calls to capture the sweet light of sunrise would no longer be necessary. Romantic sunsets with loved ones could occur every evening. Going to bed on a full stomach at 9 p.m. could become a thing of the past. The tradeoff is your subject matter will be restricted, but your subjects will still have allure. The shift in gears would have you limit your subject matter, but it wouldn’t be a trade-off because fabricating fabulous florals is fun and fascinating.

Flowers are like magnets. Their colors, shapes, forms and textures attract us, compel us to record them and whisper in our ears to experiment with light, the angle, grouping and more. Their beauty drives us to find the perfect specimen. Nature photographers are instinctively drawn to them, which makes them an often photographed subject. What is it that separates a good floral image from an ordinary one? Three main factors enter “the picture.” No one factor alone makes the photograph work. It’s a combination of light, controlling the background and specimen choice.

Quality Of Light In Flower Photography

As with any subject, the quality of light plays a huge role in what makes or breaks the image. Because of a flower’s small size, harsh natural light can be modified or augmented with easy-to-carry, inexpensive equipment to give the flower a more pleasing look. During mid-day when the light is hard and contrasty, it can be softened through the use of reflectors, flash or diffusion material. When skies are dark and gray, flash can be utilized as a main light to provide highlights and sparkle.

Nature photographers know that sunrise and sunset bestows warm and beautiful color and that late morning, mid-day and early afternoon light should be avoided. It’s during these times we nap, download, clean gear and answer emails and texts. Overhead light creates bright highlights and deep, black shadows. This light isn’t conducive to good photography. HDR captures can help soften the contrast, but they can’t change the modeling of the light. Highlights blow out and shadows go black. But, when we work with small subjects, we can modify the light via the use of reflectors, flash, diffusers, women’s makeup mirrors, umbrellas and more. Light can be added to the shadow areas and contrast can be softened.

Using A Reflector

A reflector adds light to dark areas of the flower and/or its surroundings. This reduces contrast between the brightest and shadowed parts. The light becomes more pleasing and even. With your eye to the viewfinder, angle the reflector so the highlight portions soften. The bounced light should be directed toward the shadow areas to open them up.

Don’t let your creativity stop here. Depending on what you use as a reflector, the contrast can be controlled to a greater or lesser degree. Mirrors reflect the greatest amount of light and also create a narrow sharp beam. The larger the mirror the wider the reflection. Foil or silver reflectors are another way to bounce back a considerable amount of light. A plain white card will bounce back the least amount but create a softer wraparound effect. To more closely convey sunrise or sunset conditions, add warmth to the image. Gold foil or warm tone reflectors work great to impart this effect.

Flash can also be used to soften the contrast. The use of fill flash has become easy in comparison to years ago. Camera bodies and flashes communicate with each other so an easily obtainable balance between the ambient light and flash output can occur.

Many flowers have multi-colored sections that range in tone from bright white to deeply saturated dark hues. Depending on the contrast between the bright and dark areas, use varying amounts of fill flash to lessen the range. My go-to setting is -1 flash compensation and I adjust from there. This fills in light on the darker parts of the flower yet has no impact on the highlights. In essence, the flash brightens the shadows while the sun determines the exposure on the bright sections. When the contrast is high, use more fill. When the conditions are soft, use less. Check the LCD and scan the entire screen to fine-tune the amount.

Using Off-Camera Flash For Flower Photography

When thick clouds dominate the sky, the skies are gray. This dull light gets reflected onto the flower and creates a flat look. I rescue the light with off-camera flash. I use up to three flashes that are triggered wirelessly. One flash is offset to the side of the flower, another lights it from down low and a third is sometimes used to illuminate the background. All the flashes read the subject using TTL and I adjust the output using the power ratio. I sometimes use a tiny softbox on the head of the main flash to diffuse and soften its quality. A good technique to incorporate for the third flash is to backlight the main flower to give it a rim lit glow effect! In the amount of space I have in the weekly Tip of the Week, a detailed how-to is tough to explain, but I encourage you to take charge and learn how to use a multiple flash system with small subjects.

My favorite condition under which I photograph flowers is bright overcast. Shadows are soft yet apparent, highlights are held in check and colors saturate. It’s simple to meter the image because the contrast range is compressed and provides evenly-lit, wonderful-to-look-at photographs. When Mother Nature readily accommodates me with bright overcast skies, I exploit these conditions and head to my backyard, open field or botanical gardens.

Using A Diffuser

When the sun is intense, bright overcast conditions can be mimicked using white diffusion material between it and the subject. Whenever it’s sunny, I always carry a small white photographic umbrella to soften its intensity. To exhaust all my photographic possibilities, I take some photos using the diffuser and some without and decide which one I like better when I view them on my computer. If you’re shooting with a friend and you don’t have a diffuser, have the person cast a shadow across the image area to produce nearly the same effect.

Be sure to check back next week when we’ll discuss ways to control the background in your flower photography.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

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