A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being part of an educational day. We did a quick review of the different camera modes such as program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual. The folks that I was with were mainly birding, nature and landscape photographers. One of the requests we had was how to photograph flowers. Also, I was challenged by another photographer not to use flash or any other “expensive” photograph piece of equipment. These photographers are experienced in their own right. I think they just wanted to see if they could make me and my Nikon sweat a little. This took some thought. As most folks know, I love me some good ole’ flash. As I was pondering how I was going to do this, it all made sense. The rule is that the larger the light source in respect to the subject, the softer and more wrapping the light. A light source could be anything, as long as it emitted light.

I headed for the recycling bin. I wanted to create something that ANYONE would come up with, or else I wasn’t going to hear the end of it. (Did I mention that half of the crowd were Canon users? The Nikon vs Canon ribbing was all in good fun.) I like Diet Mountain Dew. I buy the 24 count “cube” at Wally World. This was a perfect shape to create a homemade light box. Since the size of this packaging is much bigger than that flowers that we were going to be photographing, this would put out soft light for our subject. I cut the top out and the bottom out. On one side that I cut, I taped a piece of copy paper. This was going to be my “diffuser” panel. The other end would remain open to allow a desk lamp to be inserted inside. Now my $6 softbox was made, not to mention that it came with 24 cans of soda or pop depending where you live. I had a desk lamp already so we will count that as free. The popular look right now is flowers with black backgrounds or this is also known as “low key” photography. Since all of my marketing materials for Premiere Graphics are black, I had a tablecloth that was black. One of the members of the class went to Joanne Fabrics and got some cheap black fabric material for like $3. To hold the background up I used a piece of foam core, but I could have used anything. If my noodle is serving me correctly, we have a total of $9 invested in this set up so far. I have never had ANY piece of photo equipment cost less than $100. This was going to be interesting. Now it was time to set this up.

 flower photography low key black background set upSet up for low key photography – Spencer Pullen © 2012

Like the tablecloth? Hey, I like grilling and smoking pork as well what can I tell you. To set this up, I started in the back as I normally do no matter if it’s a flower or a person. I draped the black material over a piece of foam core and supported it with a can good. In the center, I placed a flower in a vase. The flower and I weren’t on really good speaking terms that day as it wanted to keep moving all over except where I wanted it. This is that Murphy guy messing with me again. I stuffed a piece of paper towel in the base and that did the trick. Here is where the magic comes from, side lighting. Since I’m not allowed to use any “expensive” equipment like a $40 light stand, I went back into the pantry and found some more can goods to prop the Mountain Dew (Pepsi better write a big advertising check for this exposure) softbox up to the proper height. I placed the desk lamp in the center of the box and turned it on. So far, so good. Lastly, for the camera set up. OK, I have to use what I have for this one, I mean come on, I created this set up for under $10, so if you don’t have this exact camera equipment, you can improvise with what you have. I’m a big fan of tripods, so I have my NIKON (I can see all of the hate mail coming now) mounted to a Manfrotto tripod. Mine is aluminum, as I couldn’t afford the $800 price tag for the carbon fiber. Also, I beat the crap out of my equipment. I’ve had this tripod for almost five years and it still looks new. On top of the tripod is a ball head. I really like these as I can make quick adjustments. I have also fitted the camera with an electronic cable release. This ensures that there won’t be any camera shake during the exposures. For a lens, I used my 18mm-200mm. I was advised that not everyone would have a macro lens so I had to use something that most folks may have. Again, if you have a “kit” lens such as a 55mm-105mm, by all means give it a try it should do just fine.

Just a note, what you are seeing was the test set up. The actual flower photos are from the class. At the class, since I wanted everyone to see how it was done from start to finish in real time, I tethered my camera to the laptop and ran it through Lightroom. I should work for Adobe as I think after people saw how you can easily tether through Lightroom; people were on the phone with Adobe. This will be a nice kick back along with that Pepsi advertising check that I’m sure will be coming. At the class, I set everything up as you see it above. With the camera now tethered, I took a shot. It was “OK”. I was also shooting RAW files so there were a bit flat as there wasn’t any in camera processing. The advantage of tethering is that I now have a 17” monitor to check focus vs that little 3” that is on the back of the camera, and your client can see what you are doing in real time.

For this photo I was shooting in manual mode. When using a constant source like a desk lamp, you will be working with longer exposures. In this case I was at ISO 100, f/5.6 at .5 second. I’m on a tripod so I don’t care how long the exposure is going to take. I wanted to blur out some of the background stems and petals so that is why I used f/5.6. Here is the resulting photograph.

flower photography low key black background Low key flower photograph – Spencer Pullen © 2012

There was something missing from the photo. It needed a little pop to help set it off. Another instructor had brought some flash lights. I took a flash light with a white paper bag rubber banded at the end and swirled it around the flower during the long exposure to in effect “light paint” the shadow side of the flower. This helped, but then my colleague who was running the flash light said why don’t we try one from the bottom up? Sounds good to me, pixels are free. Rather than painting the area, she left it in one place and that is where the glow came from. Again, from an educational standpoint, everyone in the room was seeing this come together in real time because we were tethered to the computer which was hooked up to a projector. This actually speeded up the hands on portion of the class, as they were able to recreate the same effect at the other stations that were set up with the same equipment.

That was the easy part, now it was time for some high key photography. This is where you want a white background. In the photo below you can see how I moved the box directly behind the subject and now I’m using it as a white background. How did I light the flower itself? I used the ole’ flash light trick again. This can be difficult depending on what your working conditions are like. If you don’t have enough light “horsepower” you will “miss the key” or have a dull gray background instead of white. This can be adjusted in post, but why not do it in the camera if possible?

 flower photography high key white background set upSet up for high key photography – Spencer Pullen © 2012

During the class, they were done giving me a hard time and they wanted to see how this was done with flash as some did have flashes. I took a piece of white foam core and put it on the end of the table. I set a flash to light the foam core, and this time I even got to use a light stand! I put a second flash with a shoot through umbrella to act as the main or key light for the flower. This is really the best way to do this type of photography, as you really need the background about two stops over your subject’s exposure. Here is the resulting photograph.

 flower photography high key white backgroundHigh key flower photograph – Spencer Pullen © 2012

As you can see from the photo, I was able to “hit the key”. That white background was all done in camera, no post needed.

Over all it was a great day. After the lecture, we had a couple of hours of hands on and this is where it’s gonna stick for most folks. Sitting in a class and trying to visualize how to do things from a set of slides is not very productive if you ask me. People need to get out there, move dials and switches and see what happens, this is how we learn and how some of the most amazing photographs that I have ever seen and taken were created….by accident.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


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