Plant Photography: Lighting

5.25 x 5.25 Sunflower_5104

Photography. The very word means “writing with light.” In spite of all our digital technology, light is still the most important aspect of a photograph. And light is often the difference between a nice picture and an outstanding work of art. The old masters knew this—think of Rembrandt, with the light  illuminating his subject:

When shooting in a garden, we can manipulate the subject—move the flower, pull the distracting weed—but the light is what it is. With some minor exceptions, which we’ll come to in a moment, we’re stuck with the ambient light, so it’s worthwhile to time our picture-taking appropriately.

One of the best time to take photos is in the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. Called the golden hour for its soft, warm sunlight, the sun’s low angle also serves to illuminate from the side rather than from overhead.

Your subject can be lit from the front, the side, or from behind, as these aspen photos illustrate:

When a photographer stands with their back to the sun, the subject is lit from the front, and you have “front lighting.” Front lighting is your best choice for showing fine details, and it has the most accurate color rendition. However, because it hits the subject straight on, textures are lost. Front lighting is also the easiest to expose for, as the camera will correctly read the light falling on the subject.

As you might guess, side lighting is when the sun is off to one side or the other.  It’s terrific at highlighting textures.. (It’s also the best for shooting rock formations, such as at the Grand Canyon.) Side lighting gives your subject depth, creating a 3-D effect.

Backlighting comes from having the sun in front of you. It’s a great way to highlight delicate hairs or tendrils, and gives thin leaves and petals a translucence you can’t get any other way. Try it on autumn foliage, or fuzzy seedheads.

Sunset pictures are, by definition, backlit. And if you’ve ever shot a sunset, you know that to properly expose the gorgeous sky, objects in the foreground become silhouettes. That’s great for sunsets, but what if you’re subject is a plant? In that case, you have to expose for your subject, and ignore the background. If you meter reads the whole scene, you’ll find yourself overexposing by several f-stops. Or, more simply, use a spot meter setting.

I happen to dislike plant photos with overexposed skies, so I try to have a shadow in the background, or something else equally dark, such as the back of my clipboard.

Hemerocallis 'Sweet Pea' bloomThe worst time to take photos is midday. The overhead light is harsh, contrast is high, and you get unattractive shadows. Your eyes can process many more light levels than your camera, and you’ll find that what looks good turns out to have burned out whites, black shadows with no detail, and pale, washed out colors.

Unfortunately, midday is often the most convenient time to take pictures. Botanical gardens don’t open at dawn. What’s a frustrated photographer to do? There are a few tricks that create soft lighting, even at noon.

My favorite go-to is to use a shadow—either mine or someone else’s. Or hold an umbrella or parasol over the subject. You can even buy a commercial diffuser—usually thin fabric covering a collapsible hoop, similar to the windshield sun shades we use in our parked cars. You may need an assistant, clamp, or tripod to hold your shade creator, since you need two hands to manage your camera.

What about shadows that are too dark? Again, you can buy a reflector. It’s similar to the diffuser, only the fabric is silver-colored to reflect light. Or make you own by covering some cardboard with aluminum foil.

The very best time to take flower photos is on a cloudy-bright day. That’s when a thin layer of clouds mitigates the extreme sunlight, softening it. We don’t get too many days like that in Colorado. Here are some examples of harsh, noon lighting compared with cloudy-bright light. Can you see the difference?

Plants don’t run away. You have time to check the histograms in your camera to determine if your exposure is within range, and adjust with your settings (or exposure compensation dial, if you have one). Additionally, many cameras allow you to turn on the “blinkies”—when you look at your picture on the back of the camera, overly overexposed areas will blink, indicating that there’s no data in that spot—just white. You’ll want to adjust your exposure darker until those blinkies disappear.

histogram-overexposed 1

histogram-underexposed 1

Just right:
boxed hist - correct 1

boxed hist - correct 2

The next time you venture outside, note the light. Look at how it affects your surroundings. Is now a good time to be taking pictures?

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