Oct 242012
 
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Can photographs of flowers be art?

"Portrait of a Floating Iris"

“Floating Iris” with droplets from overnight rain, now lit by morning sun

Click in image above to enlarge, and let me know with a vote if you like it (thanks).

This is a new opening to the post, published almost a year ago. Apologies to those who have checked in for new posts. I must admit, my photographic passion for getting out and about and finding images has waned a little over that time. But I do feel a rekindling of what it means to me. I need to start taking more pictures, just for the sake of it. I have gotten lazy and relied more on the convenience on a pocket point-and-shoot, or worked on a few earlier images in Photoshop (as seen in some of my flickr posts).

But this week, I saw something right by my driveway that was the catalyst for grabbing my Nikon DSLR out of the closet and firing off some shots. It was a few irises, that bloom for just a day from time to time. They had some wetness from the previous nights rare rain in Los Angeles, and now they were in full sun early morning.

So I set my camera to “burst”, and a 5 shot bracket with +/- 1 EV (Nikons have a +/- EV range, Canons have +/- 2). I did not feel like fussing with precise exposure (lazy), and planned to just pick the ones that worked. Some I shot with gray backgrounds (actually the road out of focus), and some with a hedge in shadow in the background, which came out nice and dark.

Then I went through them and chose one to work in Photoshop Camera Raw. I chose one with a dark background. First I removed the stem, then used the Camera Raw adjustments to balance the highlights and exposure, and bring down the background to almost a black. Next I tweaked the saturation and luminance for yellow and purple.

Next, I used the great range of sliders in CS6 Camera Raw for sharpening and noise reduction I learned from a great book by Martin Evening. Finally I cropped then brought the image size up in 10% increments to a 13×19 print size. And that was it. The whole process from seeing the flowers to completing the image was less than 40 minutes. For a picture I took in Chianti, I drove for two hours to find, and spent six hours in Photoshop!

This image above is the result of the 40-minute burst of inspiration. Another “portrait” of a beautiful flower I just wanted to share with you.

And now, here is the rest of the previous post from last year…..

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Flowers are a very appealing subject. They have color, form, texture and beauty. Flowers can make us happy or relaxed, and we can simply admire how beautiful they are. No wonder so many people take pictures of flowers in gardens, in arrangements, and in the wild. They make colorful pictures. But are these images art? Sure, sometimes they can be, but a picture of an already beautiful subject is not necessarily art. But it may still work very well as an item of décor, framed or mounted, then hung in the right location.

 

I enjoy taking pictures of flowers. Sometimes they end up being artistic, sometimes they are just pretty pictures. So let me share a few of my flower images, ones that I feel have at least some artistic quality.

This is where I have put creative thought and care into arranging them, working with the light, taking shots from different angles, careful composition, and sometimes a lot of work with Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture in bringing a special look.

 

When I do flower photography, I try to create studied images of flowers, and bring out a special quality or look. I treat it like I am making a portrait of a flower or sculptural look to a collection of flowers, to gain and capture an insight into the nature of the flower.

I like to think others will enjoy the end result, and spend some time looking at it, and see something new. And this raises the question of where and how I will show the image.

Each image is unique, has a different look and feel, and needs to be treated in a different way. There is no one technique that fits all subjects and situations, although there are some tips and techniques for flower photography to always keep in mind.

 

The following are a few general things to think about next time you want to do some creative work with flowers in your house or garden.

  1. Bright and stark outdoor sunshine make it harder to photograph flowers. You will mostly get better results on a cloudy day, or with a sheet of white thin fabric held above the flower to filter out direct sunlight. I have sometimes used sunlight for an indoor shot daylight, or bright indirect daylight for backlighting.
  2. Think about what angle you want lighting from. For photographing flowers in the ground, you need to move around. If you are photographing flowers in a vase, you can move the vase around. I like using backlighting often, as it shows some wonderful translucency in a flower, and is great for adding dimension to arrangements.
  3. Flash is hard to get a natural look with. And you cannot see what the image will look like until after you take it. Some photographers are magicians with flash. I happily admit I am not good at using flash. I much prefer to see the light and capture what I see. The most I will do is to move a vase into the light or change its position.
  4. Mostly I use a large aperture, to reduce the depth of field and blur the background. Then adjust the aperture smaller, to get just the right amount of focus. This also lets you use a low ISO, reducing digital noise (like film grain). Flower surfaces need to be as free of noise/grain as possible for  most shots.
  5. A longer zoom creates a more intimate feel, while a wider angle can get in amongst the action. Once you get in real close, then you may need to switch to macro. If you have a zoom lens, then you need to try different distances and different amounts of zoom. Working with zoom is a great way to get the perfect framing and angle.
  6. As a rule, I find more minimal subject matter to yield a more effective and eye-catching final result. Sometimes I go for profusion and complexity, but mostly simple and intimate. And this works hand-in-hand with what you see as the final output. In some cases a very large print (larger than 20” x 30”) can handle more complex details.
  7. Sometimes you are starting out to create a finished piece for particular size and location as an item of décor. You may take a range of shots, like a photo shoot assignment. Other times you have started out just capturing a flower or flowers that appealed to you, and will just run with it to see how it turns out, and where it might look good.

So here is a selection of my own images, each included to illustrate one or more points that you may find helpful in your own pursuit of eye-grabbing images of flowers, and help you get joy and satisfaction from playing in this genre.

Make the most of backlighting

 

 

 

 

 

Compare these two versions of the same shot, as a “before” and “after” crop and enhancement. The image at the left seems dull and flat. The auto exposure I used is thrown off by the brighter area above the flowers. So I need to increase the exposure in editing. Since the image is in RAW format, that will work OK. But without some adjustment, the effect of the backlighting is wasted. And you can see the vertical slats of the window covering. Even though it is out of focus, it further takes attention away from the actual petals of the flowers.

Now compare this with the picture on the right, which has a tighter crop. The brightness setting in Lightroom (or Photoshop or Aperture) has also been increased, as well as Vibrance setting. You can also just add a little saturation and luminance to yellow. Since I wanted to emphasize the two flowers in the middle, I created a hint of vignetting (darkening around the edges of the frame). Maybe I could have done a fraction less vignetting intensity, but you get the idea. You may want to click on the right hand image to see it full size in the browser.

Using sunlight indoors

In the image below, you can see that there is a direct light coming from above left, highlighting some of the petals, the pistil (or is it the stigma) and the stamens. If you look at the closer petal in the center, you will see that it is partly washed out with light, because of the high contrast from direct sunlight. Because I shot in RAW, I was able to use Recovery, and pull back the exposure on this to an acceptable level.

By placing the stamens (the rusty colored furry things) on the upper left thirds intersection, and ensuring the focus on these is sharp, they become the focal point. All the other elements seem to flow around these. Click on the image to enlarge and take a look at full size. Notice the very limited depth of field, which further focuses attention on the few areas still in focus. This also allowed for a low ISO (no noise) and a faster shutter speed (no need for a tripod, and easier to finely position the camera).

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Still on the same arrangement of lilies as a subject, I took a different angle to create another look. In this second image below, I created a stark contrast, showing the side-lit stamens against a black background. The first image is somewhat restful, whereas this one is more dramatic in its minimalism.

 

 

Effects of vignetting

Below are two versions of the same shot of a rose towards the end of its blooming. Here we see into the heart of the flower. I have cropped heavily, and used a very wide, horizontal aspect. I wanted to dramatize the profuse stamens, as well as create an intriguing and eye-catching visual that people would study, or give a good second look.

 

 

 

 

Same shot, two very different looks – one soothing and restful, the other dramatic and intense. Both are valid, and neither is better than the other. It all depends on the look you are going for. The left image could be suitable for a card with a wedding theme, and the left could look amazing as a large gallery wrap wall print. It depends on where and how they will be viewed.

Creating Inner Glows

By using lighting creatively, and with a little care, we are able to create the effect of a flower itself actually glowing from within. This first image really has only one edge of a leaf in focus. And that is the edge that is highlighted. So it seems to be glowing. This effect is further enhanced by using a subtle vignetting to darken the corner areas and edges just slightly.

Notice how there is a busy range of leaves and petals all criss-crossing. If they were in focus, and the flower was evenly lit, then it would simply be a messy picture. This is one example (along with the image above) that breaks the rule of using softer lighting for flowers.

Click the image to enlarge and see details and effects more clearly.

 

The image at left, cropped to landscape aspect, has some Photoshop cheating. Look closely – you can see shadows, from sunlight above. But selectively brightening and saturating the center area gives the impression that the light is coming from below, and the flower is glowing. The heavy cropping top and bottom give a dramatic intimacy. Worth clicking to enlarge and get a stronger sense of the created inner glow effect.

 

I call this Tulip Cupola. Compare the experience of this single tulip, with the image towards the beginning of this post. By having the sunlit backlighting illuminate the petal at the front, it seems that the light is coming from within, rather than the side in the first image. A little Photoshop work (or Lightroom or Aperture) adds selective brightness, recovers some burnt-out highlights, and enhances this effect. Heavy selective focus with a larger aperture further builds the effect of inner glow.

 

Alternative Views of Subject 

Our final section and three different images of the same calla lily subject, show how we can create a very minimalist and almost ethereal feeling from a single, simple subject by varying the angle of the shot, the cropping, and the amount of noise reduction. These are images I shot many years ago with only a 5 megapixel digital camera, but by over-processing them, I created effects that are visually quite appealing (at least in my opinion).

In this first image, I have heavily cropped, leaving only minimal elements and a hint of what the subject is. Notice only the tip of the center yellow stalk and the edge of the leaf below are actually in focus. I have used very soft and diffuse natural lighting.

If you click on the image to enlarge, you will see that parts of the image have quite a grainy look. Normally you would try to avoid this, but here I feel it adds to the artistic quality and appeal.

 

And in the final two images, the first on the left has been heavily de-noised, and almost stylized. It is taken from above to show the geometric spiral form. Cropping to this landscape format tightens the view and focuses the attention on the central form, whilst retaining the sense of the edges at the sides.

This could quite decorative framed with a broad white mat and placed on, say, a bathroom wall.

 

This second image of the full flower, complete with the little curly bit (I am an artist not a botanist, Jim) has been softened, and noticeably vignetted for dramatic effect. It would look good in either a white or black mat frame, in a nook somewhere, or above a low cabinet.

So there you have a collection of one artist’s thoughts and examples of flowers as art in photographic interpretation. I take and work my images to please my own sensibilities. I try and learn from or be inspired by other artists and photographers. I hope you have gained some of this from my post. Please take some time to view other posts, and let me know by voting or Liking, or by comments, what you think, and how this may have been helpful to you.

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  2 Responses to “Photographing Flowers as “Portraits””

  1. I am commenting as a amateur photographer, looking and reading i found it very interesting. like your self
    i get a lot of self satisfaction photographing flowers. you have gone in to grate detail with the image and
    the way you explained what and how you did things with or with out using photo-shop. i have throughly
    injoyed your work.all of my photography is done from my wheel chair BUT i try not to let it spoil what i
    injoy.THANK YOU.

    • Barry, thank you so much for your generous comment. It made my morning and touched my soul. Giving people ideas and tips, and perhaps a little inspiration, is what my passion for this blog is and my work is about. Photography is a wonderful medium for exploring beauty in nature, and expressing that visually through one’s own eyes. I would enjoy hearing more the photography you do. Hope 2012 presents some beautiful floral works of nature for you to capture. Best, Jim.

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