Story and photography by F.M. Kearney
One of the hardest parts of creative photography is trying to figure out how to make an ordinary subject look extraordinary (or, at least, a bit more interesting). It’s not so easy to know when to stop and take notice of something that most people would simply pass by without giving it a second glance—that is, if they ever glanced at it in the first place. I experienced something like that during a recent visit to the New York Botanical Garden. I was there to shoot the roses, but I arrived before the rose garden opened. To kill some time, I passed through the hydrangea area, which was in full bloom. I had seen hydrangeas many times before, but I never considered photographing them. Nothing really special stood out about them. Since I had the time, I decided to stop and give them a more serious look. I spent several minutes surveying them from many angles before the seeds of inspiration slowly began to sprout.
The first series of shots were closeups of a single bloom, as seen in the photo above. Unlike the other blooms, the tiny flowers at the tip formed an almost perfect circle. I wanted them to be the center of focus, while everything else in the rear gently morphed into a billowy field of white. I composed a head-on shot using a 70-200mm lens set to 200mm at f/4. For closer magnification, I used an extension tube—something I prefer over a macro lens. Besides being a much cheaper alternative, extension tubes provide a greater working distance from the subject. In other words, the front of your lens isn’t practically touching the subject, which makes it much easier to light through conventional methods.
Lighting is important for closeups. Although a conventional flash can be used, you may not want to use it in the conventional manner. The flash heads of most camera-mounted flashes can sit anywhere from four to six inches above the lens. At that height, its light would either be too low to clear the front of a long lens, thus casting a shadow onto the subject; or too high and miss the subject entirely. It’s best to use the flash off-camera connected via a TTL cord. Not only will you ensure that the subject is properly lit, but you now have the freedom to light it from the best possible angle. A camera-mounted flash is only going to provide flat, frontal lighting, but a handheld flash can be positioned almost anywhere for dramatic side-lighting. For this shot, I held it slightly to the right for more shadow definition and to highlight the “dewdrops,” which I added myself with a few sprays from a small water bottle—a handy tool to keep at-the-ready when you don’t feel like getting up at the crack of dawn to capture the real thing.
The photo above was one of the shots from my second composition. I slightly offset one bloom behind another and used a bit more depth of field to render the entire foreground bloom completely sharp, while keeping the one in the rear soft. However, since both blooms were the same color, I wasn’t getting the appropriate degree of separation between the two. So, I placed a red gel filter on my flash and handheld it very far off-camera to the left. I aimed it at the bloom in the background and reduced its power output to create the illusion that the bloom was catching a few rays of warm sunlight (as opposed to simply being hit with a red light). The foreground bloom remained in the shade. Unless you’re going for an effect such as this, the use of a flash really shouldn’t be noticeable. These differences in lighting and depth of field created just the right amount of separation I was seeking.
I’ve gotten into the habit of using a tripod for about 99.9 percent of all the photos I shoot. If you enjoy the unencumbered freedom of going tripod-less, and your camera or lens has an anti-shake feature, you might be able to get by without one. But keep in mind that holding a camera with a big lens and an extension tube attached in one hand, and a flash in the other, can become very tiring.
These are just two basic, in-camera ways to make a subject stand out. Your options are virtually unlimited when you consider what can be done in post-processing. But, regardless of how spectacular some effects can be, they should not be solely relied upon to produce a compelling image.
I was happy I took the time to see what others might have missed. It’s good to know that when roses aren’t available, it sometimes pays to stop and smell (or shoot) the hydrangeas.
F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.