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Tips and techniques

Urban Nature: Shooting from Home

By September 6, 2022No Comments
Backlit spider chrysanthemum flower. © F. M. Kearney

Backlit spider chrysanthemum. © F. M. Kearney

When Unforeseen Circumstances Force You to Bring the Outdoors Indoors

By F. M. Kearney

I’ve addressed a number of ways to find and photograph nature in an urban environment in this column. The success or failure of these images may depend on many factors, i.e., weather, construction, time of day, time of year, etc. Also, if, for whatever reason, you’re simply unable to travel to a local park or a botanical garden, that can be a major roadblock as well. But there is one method where you’re 100% guaranteed to capture nature photos no matter what your situation may be. It’s something that many of us have become familiar with at some point during the past couple of years, which is working from home. Of course, photographing nature indoors will limit you to small subjects like flowers, but there are many advantages. Mainly, you’re completely free to experiment with backgrounds and lighting – creating unique images that would be impossible to produce in the field.

Using Surefire Flashlights

In April of 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an article about keeping the creative juices flowing in a world that had suddenly shutdown. I mainly discussed innovative ways to shoot flowers in a darkened room using flashlights as the only light source. The opening photo of this article is a chrysanthemum I shot in my home studio using this method. I attached the flower to a small tripod, then closed the room blinds to block out as much light as possible. I then attached a blue bezel to a Surefire flashlight and positioned it beneath the flower to create a strong backlight. To prevent a total silhouette, I hand-held another flashlight (shining white light) off to the left – just skimming the surface of the petals.

Surefire flashlights are small (but powerful) flashlights that emit tight beams of white light without dark spots in the center. They’re primarily designed for law enforcement, but I find them to be the perfect light sources for this type of close-up photography.

PHOTO A: Carnation with multi-colored background. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO A: Carnation with multi-colored background. © F. M. Kearney

Using Props

Another advantage to shooting at home is the ability to use props. While browsing around an arts and crafts store, I came across jars of decorative filler beads and gems. They’re often used to decorate flowerpots, but they can also be used as perfect background elements for flower portraits. In Photo “A,” I placed some gems behind a carnation. The gems were clear in color and looked like diamonds or crushed ice. To add more color to the photo, I shined a flashlight with a red bezel on the gems on the left, and a flashlight with a blue bezel on the gems on the right. My main light source for the carnation was another white-light flashlight (using no colored bezels). I don’t actually have that many flashlights, but I was able to take advantage of another benefit of indoor shooting. Since I had absolutely no wind to deal with, I could shoot a double exposure without the slightest worry of subject movement. Using a single flashlight, I was able to light the background in two different colors simply by switching the bezels and the position of the flashlights in between exposures.

Using a Digital Light Shed

The results I was getting at home were ok, but all the photos had a very similar dark-theme to them. In an effort to lighten up the mood and to get more variety, I purchased a digital light shed. These sheds have made creating studio-quality work at home easier than ever. They’re essentially collapsible, portable studios that can be folded up and carried anywhere. The creative possibilities with these little “studios in a box” are endless. The shed I have is made by Impact. It’s a 24 x 24 x 36” enclosure that can be lit from any angle. It even comes with black and white fabric sweeps for seamless backgrounds. Those are great for ordinary-looking backgrounds, but I wanted something a bit more colorful. I found a fabric online called Organza Rainbow. It’s an elegantly beautiful material that morphs into a rainbow of colors as it moves and interacts with light – almost like a prism. It’s mainly used to make fancy party dresses, but, just like the Surefire flashlights, it’s especially ideal for photography!

PHOTO B: Peruvian lily with Organza Rainbow fabric. © F. M. Kearney

Photos “B” and “C” are a couple of images I shot with this amazing fabric. In Photo “B,” I cradled a Peruvian lily in it, and in Photo “C,” I used it as a backdrop for the chrysanthemum. As I normally do with most of my flower portraits, I sprayed them with water to simulate dew drops. A large droplet reflecting the colors of the fabric unexpectedly formed beneath the chrysanthemum. Luckily, I was able to shoot it before it fell.

PHOTO C: Chrysanthemum with Organza Rainbow fabric. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO D: Gerbera daisy with clear gems in background. PHOTO E: Gerbera daisy with blue beads in background. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO D (left): Gerbera daisy with clear gems in background. PHOTO E (right): Gerbera daisy with blue beads in background. © F. M. Kearney

As I mentioned earlier, a light shed offers a variety of photographic options. In Photo “D,” I used the white fabric sweep with clear gems in the background of a Gerbera daisy. I then applied a soft-focus effect in Photoshop to give the image a soft, romantic feel. For Photo “E,” I placed a set of small books in a tier formation underneath the black sweep with blue beads on top. Shooting wide open at f/2.8, I was able to render them as perfectly rounded orbs of light.

I used two floodlights as my main light source for Photos “B” through “E.” Since the shed is made of translucent material, and essentially a soft-light box, I didn’t have to worry about diffusing the light. (NOTE: If you use floodlights, it’s a good idea to turn them off in between shots. These lights get very hot and may wilt the flowers.)

Versatility of a Light Shed

I purchased all of the flowers I used in this article at a local florist – giving me a large variety of subjects to choose from. However, depending on where you live and the time of year, your florist may not have a very extensive selection. If that’s the case, and you’re short on subjects, you can always take advantage of the shed’s versatility by dramatically changing the look of a single subject. I reused the yellow, Gerbera daisy in Photo “E” and created a totally different look in Photo “F.” I placed it atop a black cloth and turned off the main floodlights. Once again, I used the double exposure technique, along with multiple Surefire flashlights and colored bezels to create the image. I applied a soft-focus effect in Photoshop – mainly to obscure the texture of the cloth.

PHOTO F: Gerbera daisy with black fabric and colored lights. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO G: Digital Light Shed setup. © F. M. Kearney

There are times when shooting indoors is your best (or only) option. COVID restrictions aside, the weather always plays a big part in outdoor field work. This past summer was absolutely brutal! I don’t mind being out in the cold, because you can always dress for it by wearing multiple layers or using heat packs for your hands and feet. There’s not a whole lot you can do when the temperature is over 100 degrees and your brain is on a slow simmer. Personally, I find it difficult to think (let alone think creatively) under such conditions. Thankfully, the light shed was invented. Unlike a traditional studio, you don’t need a lot of room – just a small tabletop will do. Photo “G” is the home studio I use when shooting outdoors just isn’t practical. In this image, the Organza Rainbow fabric is serving as a multi-colored sweep. Shooting indoors with a light shed might take some getting used to, but the creative opportunities are well worth the effort.

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. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).