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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Shedding New Light on Common Subjects

By August 19, 2016No Comments

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

Overcast light, direct sunlight, high angles, low angles: there are probably as many ways to photograph flowers as there are flowers themselves. However, if the flowers are the sole subjects of your shot, each image might not look radically different from the others. If you’re tired of the ordinary and you want to create something truly unique, try a totally different approach.

Photography is all about light, so it stands to reason that if you drastically change the light, you will drastically change the look of your photo. One way to do this is to shoot indoors under artificial light. You don’t need a studio or any special equipment to do this.

Backlit lily (Liliaceae) In studio New York, NY

© F.M. Kearney

I’ve been working on a series of floral images using little more than a few, strategically placed, small flashlights. The image above is a lily I purchased from a local florist. I placed it in a simple plastic container and shot it in my darkened living room.

As I often do in the field, I sprayed the flower with water. Outdoors, this simulates early-morning dew drops, but indoors, it can also serve a dual purpose by creating decorative light-catchers.

Using thick rubber bands, I attached two Surefire flashlights to the handles of a couple of mini-tripods. I placed them behind the flower to create a backlight. The darkened conditions caused the flower to appear to glow from within. However, the real magic happened when I used a third flashlight outfitted with a red bezel. By hand-holding it far off to the right, I was able to create a strong sidelight, casting a vivid magenta hue on many of the water droplets.

I used to think that white flowers were the best choice when using colored lights—the white serving as a “clean canvas” for the color to shine forth. After a bit of experimenting, I found that light-colored flowers work better. The actual color of the above lily was yellow, but the artificial light combined with the flower’s natural color produced a near rainbow of eye-catching tones.

Underexposures can be an issue if you follow the basic meter recommendation. Start by spot-metering the darkest part of the flower and check your results. If any areas are blinking as overexposed, bracket towards underexposure until the blown-out areas are eliminated.

Backlit lily (Liliaceae) In studio New York, NY

© F.M. Kearney

The above image is another lily that grew on the same stem as the previous one. It’s always good to purchase flowers with multiple buds. If preserved in water and given plant food, these buds will eventually bloom within a few days, providing even more photo ops. I actually shot this lily first because it was older—as evidenced by the loss of the anthers on its filaments—and closer to the end of its life cycle.

I used the exact same technique described above with the addition of a decorative background. The background was a separate photo that I blended in via the stacking method in Photoshop. That gave me the ability to control its exact location and opacity in the final image. A full explanation of this method can be found in my August 2015 eNEWS article, “Nature to the Rescue,” which can be found at

Backlit rose (Rosa) In Studio New York, NY

© F.M. Kearney

The red and yellow rose in the photo (right) presented some challenges. I wasn’t able to get that glowing, translucent effect that I got with the lilies. The problem is that roses are basically balls of densely packed petals preventing any light from coming through. I had to wait a few days for the petals to start opening before I shot it. While I couldn’t get the translucency of the lilies, I did pick up some nice rim light on the stem. Since the center was still a bit dark, I used the third flashlight to illuminate its front and top. I put a blue bezel on the light and hand-held it directly overhead to create a soft, magenta hue on the red petals. The type of lighting you choose depends on the flower and the look you are seeking. You could choose strong or soft side or direct lighting, but there really are no wrong choices, just more options.

I had to deal with a number of issues when shooting these images. The gear you use will determine which (if any) issues you may have to face. I used a Nikon D800 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with extension tubes. The tubes provided higher magnification, however, the more tubes I used, the more vignetting I encountered—even though my Vignette Control was set to High. For the most part, the black background automatically solved that problem, except for areas where the flower occupied the corners of the frame. In these situations, I either dodged the area or simply cloned out the dark portion.

Another issue I needed to deal with was sharpness. Even with everything locked down on a tripod, the weight of the equipment necessitated the mirror to be locked up to ensure maximum sharpness.

Images of this type are meant to be more artistic, as opposed to an accurate documentation of the subject, so it’s OK to break some of the rules. Experiment with the Auto Tone and Auto Color features in Photoshop. Try different White Balance settings in Camera Raw. Use colored instead of white lights for the backlight. The choices go on and on. It really doesn’t take much to transform a common everyday subject into something quite remarkable.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit