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Tips and techniques

The Wonders of Water Plants

By September 7, 2018No Comments
Water lily with Cokin diffractor filter effect.

Water lily with Cokin diffractor filter effect.


Story and Photography by F.M. Kearney

One subject I always look forward to photographing during the summer months is the water lily. Native to the temperate and tropical parts of the world, there are over 50 species of these freshwater plants. However, it isn’t always easy to shoot them creatively. Unless you have access to a natural lake or pond (and are willing to get very wet), you will most likely have to shoot from the sidelines of a reflecting pool in a local park or botanical garden. A long lens will allow you to zoom in for a tight close-up, but you certainly won’t have any options to create those dramatic macro or wide-angle perspectives that are commonly used on other types of more accessible flowers.

Filling in the dead space around a sacred lotus.

Filling in the dead space around a sacred lotus.

To break the monotony of frame-filling images, you may occasionally want to pull back and include some of the surrounding natural elements like lily pads and, of course, water. More often than not, their surfaces will be highly reflective, so polarizer will definitely be your friend. Personally, I don’t always like to rotate the filter to its strongest effect. I remove enough of the glare so that it’s no longer a distraction, but not to the point where I trade interesting shadows, or reflections of cloud details, for a black, featureless background. In the opening photo, I used a polarizer in conjunction with a Cokin diffractor filter to add a decorative flare effect. When pointed at or towards bright light sources (in this case, the sun was reflecting in the water just outside of frame to the right) this filter creates colorful streaks of light. Cokin made three different types of diffractor filters but, unfortunately, they no longer carry them. However, you should still be able to find some used ones online.

If you don’t have a powerful, long lens, excessive amounts of dead space can be an issue. This can be an easy fix simply by changing your position. In the photo of the sacred lotus above, I just moved to a spot where I could include a row of water lilies in the shot. I employed a more ambitious option in the image below.

Tropical water lily with custom-made background.

Tropical water lily with custom-made background.

I say “ambitious” because I shot this photo with a film camera in 2004 – years before I really started getting into Photoshop. I physically created the background by gluing several strips of multi-colored tissue paper on a 3 x 3 foot square cloth. My intent was to try to mimic the natural shape of a water lily, and to have a rainbow of colors extend out from its petals. On site, I shot a double exposure – one of the water lily and one of the background, which I unfurled on the ground next to the pool. I slightly de-focused the lens to give it a softer look. I also considerably overexposed the water lily to prevent the colors from bleeding through too much.

Thankfully, nowadays, digital imaging has made everything much easier. I no longer have to cart large pieces of cloth into the field. If I want to alter a background, I can do it more effectively (and without any weird looks from passersby) in Photoshop.

Water lily blend New York Botanical Garden Bronx, NY.

Water lily blend, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.

The background (or dead space) in the photo above was filled in by creating a composite of “stacked” images: File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack. This method is sometimes used to combine two or more similar images in order to remove noise or unwanted elements, but if the images are dissimilar, you can add new elements. After selecting the images, they will be displayed in the Layers panel. Make sure the main image (the image that you plan to blend elements into) is on top, then create a Smart Filter: Filter>Convert for Smart Filters. Lastly, create a layer mask for the main image, and set the foreground color to black. You can now begin painting in the background image using the brush tool. If you make a mistake and paint in something you don’t want, you can paint it out by switching the foreground color to white. I like to start with a low brush opacity of around 10-15% and gradually increase the density to my liking. Generally, I find that a lighter, slightly translucent, image works best. If the background and main images are the same density, the effect will look a bit confusing and chaotic.

Combining images in this manner takes a lot of pre-visualization. Go through your files to find images that may work well together but, just like a box of chocolates, you never really know what you’re going to get until you start painting objects in.

This technique, along with the others I’ve discussed, should give you some fresh ideas the next time you plan to photograph these beautiful water plants.


F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. As an award-winning photographer, his images have been licensed on many products and published in numerous publications, as well as exhibited in galleries in the US and abroad. To view more of his work, visit He can be contacted at, or via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.