Barbara Ellison
Barbara Ellison

From photographing the Kentucky Derby to Presidential inaugurals, she has enjoyed the challenge of capturing the special moment and making it everlasting through her creative prints. As a Pro-market representative for Canon USA since 1989, she continues to educate the imaging community.

Creating Botanical Portraits: How to light subjects

June 26, 2015

Photography is light. And when your subjects are small, botanical items, creating your image starts with viewing the light falling on the flower. Using the light as a creative tool, you can establish a mood for the botanical portrait. Perhaps you want to convey an ethereal look by using soft natural light – you can add drama to the portrait through the use of a Speedlite. Your choice of lighting may be dictated by how you are going to use the flower image, as part of a blended work or as a straight shot.

Photographing the garden in the morning is often the best time for reproducing that soft, gentle light. I walk around my garden in the early morning, not only to see what is in bloom, but also to examine the available light for creating a portrait. If the plants are in the sun, this is the time for creating that ethereal look, accenting the delicate nature of the flower through light.

With the low sun behind the flower, you can backlight the petals to create a beautiful glow. When shooting a strong backlight, your front of the flower will be underexposed. You may want to direct light onto the front of the flower to show detail and color with a reflector. With it held at an angle to the sun, light will be thrown back towards the front of the flower while still maintaining the beauty of the backlit portrait. In the case of the bird of paradise, I used a gold reflector to mimic the early morning sunlight and to warm up the flower. Be aware that the color of the reflector not only changes the amount of light, but the quality and color of the light that falls on the flower. For example, a gold reflector on a red flower will make it appear orange.

Photographing flowers without direct sunlight can produce pleasing results. People do not look best in bright sunlight and neither do flowers. By simply moving into a shaded area, you can avoid the harsh sunlight on the subject and maintain the best color saturation. If there isn’t a shaded area nearby, you can create one by holding a black reflector or board over the flower. Your color will pop and the flowers will appear fresher.

Photographing after a light rain shower will not only give you those lovely natural raindrops on the petals, but will produce a feeling of “fresh flowers” as well. Morning fog is also a natural diffuser, adding a sense of mystery to your portrait, and cloudy days are perfect to avoid harsh shadows.

If you need to photograph that special flower in bright sunlight, you can choose to use flash to fill the extreme shadows. Using the Canon Speedlite 430EX II as a fill flash, I was able to add some light and detail into the shadow on the petal while the sun remained my main light source. Adding some light shadow can be helpful to create the roundness and depth of the petals, so you may want to dial down your flash to create true fill and not balance light. 

Sometimes gardens are overloaded with too many plants, making it difficult to isolate that special flower. You can use the Speedlites to create the needed illumination of the flower outdoors, while eliminating unwanted or distracting backgrounds. This method of creating the light can be done with Speedlites on or off the camera body. In some cases, you can even use your on-camera pop-up flash.

The method is simple: Find an isolated flower with nothing directly behind it; set your camera on manual, low ISO (100-200), and shutter speed on your flash sync speed (1/125-1/250). Stop down your aperture to f/16-22. Keeping your camera level, shoot straight out to the flower. Do not point the camera towards the sky or the ground. Given the flower location and the proper settings, you can create an image that looks like it was shot with even light in the studio against black velvet. If the flower is too dark, move in closer. Remember, the flash is your light source – the ambient light is barely recorded. 

Similar to a portrait of a person, proper botanical lighting is essential. Take time to examine the light. You can turn your floral image from a snapshot to a work of art.

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