Catch the Light to Improve Your Flower Photography


I was in my backyard the other day and happened to notice the late-afternoon sunlight coming in behind my Japanese maple. I’d been outside for about an hour and hadn’t really paid much attention to the tree. But when the sun got low enough, the leaves and tiny buds just began to catch fire. It was really striking.

It’s amazing what the right light can do, isn’t it? Here are a few tips for making better flower and garden photos by getting the lighting just right.

Exploit Backlighting

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Let’s start with that Japanese maple. Strong backlighting and translucent subjects like leaves or flower petals are a great combination, because the light makes them appear to glow from within.

Exposure is straightforward as long as you keep the light source (the sun) out of the frame, but you can experiment with using exposure compensation if the shots look a bit too dark. Try adding a stop to a stop and a third of additional exposure.

In the photograph above, the background was somewhat dark behind the leaves, so I didn’t have to use compensation; the darker background fooled the meter into thinking the subject needed more light. Had the background been brighter (a bright grassy lawn, for example), then I might have had to use compensation. Just experiment or bracket your shots and you’ll find out what works.

Add Flash

Like a lot of photographers, I shoot most of my flower and garden photos either very early or very late in the day. The light is much gentler at those times, and there are fewer glare and contrast issues to deal with.

In particular, I love the light in my front garden late in the day. That part of the yard gets the late-afternoon and setting sun, so the light is not only soft but also warm. Some of the prettiest flower shots I’ve ever taken were made in my own front garden simply because I’m often there late in the day (and I always keep a tripod and camera nearby).

The only problem with shooting late in the day is that the light is disappearing fast (as opposed to early morning when the light just keeps getting brighter), and so sooner rather than later you run out of good light.

The light is often prettiest just before it disappears, but because it’s so dim I have to shoot wide open and often at very slow shutter speeds that I’d prefer not to use. Since I use a tripod most of the time, the slow speeds aren’t a problem in terms of camera shake, but if there’s the slightest breeze the flowers wave back and forth continually — a real problem if you want sharp photos.

The solution for me is to turn on the built-in flash. The flash fires at such a brief duration that it’s like using a much faster shutter speed — it freezes the motion and, if I am shooting handheld, usually eliminates any camera shake. In addition, because your camera will pump out more flash if you set smaller apertures, you can use a smaller f/stop to get a bit more depth of field (and usually you need all the DOF you can get in close-ups).

Because most digital cameras are very good at balancing flash in daylight, you’ll get surprisingly good results that don’t look artificial at all. I used my Nikon D90 with a 105mm Micro Nikkor in the image below, and I had to look at the EXIF data to see if the flash had fired or not (it had).

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If you find the flash is too harsh (particularly if you’re using an accessory flash which is more powerful), consider using a small light modifier like Lumiquest’s Pocket Bouncer to soften the light. I use the Pocket Bouncer a lot in close-up situations, because all I’m trying to do is bring up the intensity of the light a bit without destroying the quality of the existing light.

So if you’re out in the garden or in a park and the light starts to fade, try popping on the flash and keep shooting a while longer. I think you’ll find the results are surprisingly nice.

Embrace Contrast

One of the most difficult issues in getting a good exposure is contrast. The problem is that both digital sensors and film have a limited dynamic range — the range between the brightest and darkest tones.

When you go beyond that range, you start to lose detail in either the highlights or the shadows, depending on which exposure decisions you make. If you expose for the bright areas, you end up with shadows that are pure black with no detail. If you expose for the shadows, you get whites that look washed out.

Does this mean you can’t shoot in situations with a lot of contrast? Of course not. In fact, you can exploit the contrast limits to create bold, beautiful images.

Since there’s usually not that much visual information in shadows anyway, I tend to expose for the brightest areas where I want detail, and I let the shadows go dark.

That’s exactly what I did in this shot of daffodils. I took a reading in matrix mode with the flowers in the center of the frame, and then I shot at that exposure. I knew that the flower stalks and the greenery around the blossoms were going to go dark, but I like the way the lighting spotlighted the bright, yellow daffodils.

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I shot this photo in the late afternoon, just before the sun disappeared behind a hill. That late sun is very low angle, of course, so it helped with the spotlighting effect. The light, while fairly intense, was also warm, so that helped, too.

Next time you’re faced with a shot where the contrast seems impossible to expose for, try taking a reading from the brightest object where you want detail and let the shadows go dark. The result can be dramatic.


4 Responses to “Catch the Light to Improve Your Flower Photography”

  1. A great reminder that we only need our backyards for great photos. Excellent job with the photos and the tips.

  2. Good article, thanks for writing it! I have been looking at flowers I pass and sometimes the light is just right -- if I'm lucky I've got my camera, if not, oh well! I really like the backlighting one at the top -- those are my favorite.

    robert

  3. Using flowers as reference for my paintings, this is such a helpful tip. Thanks so much.

  4. Hi i read your blog often and wanted to say all the best for 2010!

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