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Flower Photography > 2 - Light

Let's look at light from three perspectives:

1) Size of the light source

2) Direction of the light

3) Color of the light

Light Perspective #1 -

Size of the Light Source

The best light for photographers is a sunny day.

The best light for flowers, and most other subjects, is:

• From an overcast sky.

• In the shade.

• The sun with haze (summer) or high clouds (winter).

All of the above are large light sources.

Large light sources produce low contrast light.

Flowers, on a sunny day, are illuminated by a small-sized light source.

Small-sized light sources produce high-contrast light.

On a sunny day, photographs of flowers will often have:

• Highlights that are distractingly too bright.

• Shadows that are frustratingly too dark.

What You See Is Not What You Get

Your visual system, your eyes and brain, can handle high-contrast light with ease.

The highlights are not too bright.

The shadows are not too dark.

A camera sensor isn't as good as your visual system.

What you see is not what you get.

A flower in high-contrast light looks great to your eye, but not nearly as good as a photograph, most of the time.

Example

In the photograph of Eucalyptus dives flowers, below, the:

• Bright area is overexposed.

• Shadow area exposure is just right.

This is the way camera sensors "see" the world.

It's hard to get a bright area and a shadow area to look equally good in a photograph.

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Below, the flowers were photographed in shade, a large-sized light source.

The shadows of the stamens are soft-edged and bright.

Shade is cyan colored (blue/green).

Warming up the color of shade light will be discussed below.

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Qualifier

Above, this writer qualified the high-contrast-light-is-bad statement, by writing most of the time.

Here's an example where direct sun doesn't detract from the flower.

The flower isn't overexposed, as in the close-up above, and the fruits and leaves are stealing the show, perhaps.

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Three Solutions

If the contrast of direct sun is detrimental to your photograph, do the following.

Solution #1 - Expose for the Highlights

If you're photographing with high-contrast light, such as direct sun, use exposure compensation.

Adjust the exposure setting so the highlights are not too bright.

Use a minus value.

The shadows may become too dark.

But, dark shadows are usually less distracting than too-bright highlights.

Most often, too-bright highlights "hurt" the eyes of the viewer more than too-dark shadows.

Example

The goldenrod below looks much better with the exposure compensation set to minus 2.

The zero setting is what the camera light meter deemed was the best exposure.

Nope.

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The next two solutions remedy the situation by reducing the contrast of the light source.

The highlights won't be too bright.

The shadows won't be too dark.

Solution #2 - Larger Light Source

You can reduce the contrast of the light by using a larger light source than direct sun.

As mentioned, use:

• An overcast sky.

• Shade.

• A sunny sky with haze or high clouds.

There are two more ways to get a physically large light source.

Scrims

You can also use a scrim, cheese-cloth-like fabric on a frame, to turn direct sun into the equivalent of overcast sky light.

Experiment with fabric on a hula hoop or on a frame made from PVC pipe, and then buy a collapsible scrim.

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Light Tents

Light tents are most often used indoors.

Don Danz made the light tent below.

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The physically-large-light-source concept is at its maximum with a light tent.

When using a light tent, multiple lights are placed outside the tent.

The subject, inside the tent, is illuminated by light from every direction.

Here's a photograph that Don Danz made using his light tent.

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You can use light tents outside if the bottom is open, like the Don Danz's light tent above.

Use sunlight and the sky, rather than lights, of course.

An alternative is a large white plastic waste basket, with an opening cut for the lens.

The viewer won't know it's a waste basket in the background!

Solution #3 - Add Light to the Shadows

There are two ways to add light to the shadows.

Reflectors

You can use a reflector to brighten the shadows.

A reflector can be white cardboard or a collapsible reflector.

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Flash

Flash may be used to fill in the shadows.

If the flash light is too bright, use a minus value with flash exposure compensation (most cameras).

You want the shadows to look like shadows.

You don't want the shadows to be too bright.

The flash light may look odd if it's color is too different than the color of the ambient light.

Most often, the light from the flash is too blue.

If so, place an amber-colored filter on the flash.

Light Perspective #2 -

Direction of the Light

If you're photographing with direct sun, the direction of the sunlight is important.

Sun Behind the Camera

If the sun is behind you, the light is largely shadowless.

Without shadows, the flower may have less shape and texture.

However, you won't have to worry about too-dark shadows.

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Sun Behind the Camera

Sidelighting

If the sun is to one side or the other, the shadows will delineate the shape and texture of the flower.

As mentioned, you may need to fill in, brighten, the shadows with a reflector.

In the photograph below, the sun is above and to the right.

The shadows created by the side-lighting highlight:

• The grooves in the petals.

• The stamens.

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Sidelighting

Backlighting

Backlighting is when the sun is behind the flower.

The sunlight passing through the flower's petals is beautiful.

The backlighting may also create bright highlights on the edges of the petals and leaves.

These bright edges separate the flower from the background.

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Backlighting

Two Cautions with Backlighting

Caution #1 - Flare

With backlighting, use a lens hood to minimize flare.

Flare creates haze and odd-looking translucent shapes in the frame.

The sunlight enters the lens, bounces around where it shouldn't, creating flare.

You may have to the shade the lens with your hand or a black board.

Occasionally, flare may be desired, as it can create a romantic or impressionistic effect.

Caution #2 - Tricky Exposure Situation

Backlighting may confuse your camera's light meter.

It may base the exposure settings on the bright background, making the flower too dark.

Use exposure compensation to correct any missteps taken by the light meter.

Light Perspective #3 -

Color of the Light

Time of Day

We tend to like warm light, yellow, orange and red.

So, photograph early or late, when the light is warmer.

Example

Here are two photographs.

One was taken just before sunrise, the second, was taken a few minutes later, just after sunrise.

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White Balance

For the best color, set the white balance (WB) on your camera to the appropriate setting.

If you use automatic white balance (AWB), the camera may "see" these early or late scenes as being too warm.

If it does, the warmth is reduced.

Instead, set the white balance to Sunlight or to the sun icon.

If you're photographing on an overcast day, the light is bluish.

That's a good color for blue flowers.

But the blue light will reduce the color of yellow and red flowers.

Set the white balance to Cloudy or to the cloud icon.

Similarly, set the white balance to Shady or to the house-with-a-shadow icon.

The cyan (blue/green) light in the shade, is warmed up.

Automatic (AWB)

Measures the color of the light and attempts to correct it.

Sun Use on a sunny day at midday.
Cloudy Removes blue from overcast weather
Shade Use on a sunny day to remove cyan (blue/green) in the shade

Example

The rocks were used below, as it's easier to see the color of the light when looking at a gray subject, versus a colorful flower.

The rocks were photographed on a sunny day, in the shade.

They're illuminated by cyan-colored light from the cyan-colored sky.

With the white balance set to automatic, the rocks were still too cyan.

The shade setting corrected the color.

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Now, let's look at the second important supporting actor, background.