Just before the holidays I got a call from a good friend of mine asking me if I could help him photograph some orchids that he just bought in the Florida Key’s. This is right up my alley so I didn’t hesitate to pack the car up with all of the gear and head over.

He had seen some flowers that were featured in different art trade magazines and he liked the look. The vision that he had was simple as far on how to execute the shoot. The look was a flower in front of a black background. I was in luck as my company color is black; I had a black tablecloth that I use for trade shows. The rest of the look was going to come from the lighting itself. After we had the game plan, it was time to start assembling the equipment to create the look that he wanted.

I like to build my sets from back to front. This way I’m not tripping over the flash units trying to get to the background. I started by assembling my portable background stand. This has served me well over the years; it’s light and compact. I set up the two support stands and assembled three of the four sections of the cross bar. I threw the black tablecloth over the cross bar and our background was complete.

Next, we put a table a couple of feet in front of the background and placed the orchid on the table. Since we wanted nice wrap around light that would get in all of the nook and crannies of the flower, I decided to go with a couple of shoot through umbrellas. I set up two air cushioned light stands and attached my new PocketWizard Flex units to them. These new units have been a blessing and a curse at the same time. It has been a learning curve using these. I have had some issues with them not firing, and after a few calls to PocketWizard and firmware upgrades, I think all is well. Gotta love new technology. On top of the Flex’s I placed a Nikon SB800 flash unit. These were set to 24mm without the diffuser since these were going to go through the umbrella.

I set the camera on my tripod and fitted it with an electronic release. Some photographers don’t like being “tethered” to a tripod and there is nothing wrong with this. I’m in the camp that if there is a way to get sharper images using a tripod, I’m going to use it. I attached a 24mm f/2.8 prime lens to the camera. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know how I love my primes. At this point everything is set in place and we are ready to go.

My photographer buddy and I came up with an acceptable exposure. We ended up using ISO 200 at 1/250, f/5.6. He was at the controls and I was his assistant. After a couple of frames he noticed that the stem of the flower was not lit. This is Murphy at his best. I can’t wait to meet that guy sometime in a dark alley! Luckily, I had a few more SB800’s in the bag. I set up another light stand with the Flex and flash as described above. Since all we needed was to add a little light to the stem, I zoomed the flash head out to 105mm and pointed it straight at the stem. We took another frame and we had to reduce the power to the floor of 1/128 power. There was also another issue; there was light spilling on to the leaves of the orchid, which was creating areas of overexposure. As they said in the movie Cool Runnings, “No problem Mon!” I reached in my equipment bag and pulled out a snoot that I made out of a cereal box covered with black duct tape. Who says you need to buy the most expensive gear to make this work? We took another frame and it was better, however we were still getting some spill. One more time I reached in the bag and pulled out a grid that I had made out of some black coroplast. This is the plastic material you see along the side of the road that says something like, “Garage Sale”. It’s basically plastic cardboard. I popped the grid in the snoot, and whamo it was perfect.

He wanted different angles of the flowers to use for his upcoming project. As he fired away, I was in charge of turning the flowers and adjusting the lights as necessary. Here is a lighting diagram of what it looked like:

 Lighting Diagram

 Production Photo

Here you can see the actual set up. This might be overkill for a job like this, but we were really pleased with the outcome of the photographs. Everyone asks me, what is the correct exposure/lighting set up? My answer is always the same, “The one that you like.”

All right, how about some actual photos? Here is the first orchid that he photographed.

 Purple Orchid – Howard Spielman © 2011

We had to play around with the white balance to ensure that that proper purple was going to register. We ended up using the cloudy white balance. This warmed everything up and we were able to dial it in afterwards with post.

 White Orchid – Howard Spielman © 2011

This one we had to watch our highlights. We wanted a proper exposure, but wanted to make sure that all of the details were there. We switched our white balance to auto as that gave us the proper whites.

 Yellow Orchid – Howard Spielman © 2011

This was set up the same as the purple version. That’s what I love about using manual everything, once you have it all set up; it stays the same, frame after frame, flower after flower.

For those of you who are macro nuts, I switched lenses on the camera to a Nikon 105mm Macro lens. If you like shooting macro, you have to get this lens (or the 200mm version). We placed the camera about 4” from the flower and this is what we got:

 Purple Orchid – Macro – Howard Spielman © 2011

As far as post goes, there were minor tweaks to the white balance and a slight contrast adjustment. The total time fixing in post? 30 seconds. I would rather spend the extra 10 minutes getting it right in the camera verses spending hours in Photoshop fixing it. This is where mastering your gear and technique will really pay off.

At the end of the day, it was a successful shoot and he produced some really nice photographs for his project. Do you need all of this stuff to reach the same result? May be not. I have another photo buddy that goes into the great wilderness and takes a piece of black felt with her and shoots flowers as she comes across them with the same fashion. She has won numerous awards for her photography. So which way is better? As I said before, “The one you like.” is the correct way.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Great pictures of the orchids and a nice lesson on studio lighting, to boot!

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