Understanding Light to Create Impact in Flower Photography
Understanding light and how to use it to create impact is one of the most important elements we can learn in our pursuit of photography. As George Eastman so aptly put it, “Embrace light. Admire light. Love it. But above all, know light.” In flower and macro photography, as in all genres of photography, it is important to understand the quality, direction and color of light, how to create depth and drama with light, and how to manipulate light. While we can’t control the lighting conditions Mother Nature provides us, we can understand light and how it affects our image so that we can make the most of the conditions we are given. We can photograph in all kinds of light. It’s important to stop thinking in terms of “good light” and “bad light.” If we embrace the idea that we can always find something to photograph no matter the light or the weather, we will open up many more opportunities for photographing and extending our creativity. We need not be limited to photographing during the golden hour of early morning or early evening.
Direction of Light
It is best described as the light coming from directly behind the photographer and falling on the front of the subject. Front light falls on the subject evenly. Front light tends to make flowers or plants look two-dimensional and flat. It doesn’t accentuate texture, but can rather highlight blemishes and flaws within the subject. We can certainly work with front light but it may take some post processing magic to bring the image more fully to life, as well as a little extra effort to remove imperfections.
It is one of my favorite types of light to work with. Side light reveals texture and can make flowers look sculptural and three-dimensional. Side light offers more depth and complexity than front light. The combination of light and shadow creates that sense of three-dimensionality. We can get the most beautiful side light around sunrise and sunset when the sun is lower in the sky and has a beautiful warm tone.
Back light occurs when the subject is between the flower photographer and the sun and the light fills the subject and causes it to glow. This kind of light is powerful, fun and creative to use, but it doesn’t work for all kinds of flowers and plants. Tulips, crocuses and poppies are great flower subjects for back light – their cup-like structure, overlapping petals and strong color make them perfect for capturing stronger light and making the flower to glow. Cacti, succulents and other plants be great subjects to back light.
It is the kind of light I encourage photographers to experiment with – sometimes it will work and sometimes it may overwhelm your subject, but be open to playfulness. Beware of lens flare with back light. A lens hood will help with flare.
Controlling Quality of Light for Flower Photography
Harsh Midday Light
Bright sunlight can be harsh and unforgiving to subjects, resulting in images with too much contrast, burned out highlights and loss of detail in the shadow areas. If you are limited to shooting in bright midday sun, you have a number of choices. You can embrace it and find subjects that work well in more contrasty light like the ferns below. Brighter light is a wonderful time to switch your camera to black and white mode and explore using stronger light in black and white photography to create drama and higher contrast.
Another option is to work in shaded or wooded areas on bright sun days. The flower photo above was created on full sun days in wooded areas. Tree cover provided soft diffusion for my subject.
Lastly, use a diffuser to soften the light for flower photography. We’ll talk about diffusers in depth at the end of this article. I never leave home without my diffusers. They are an essential piece of equipment for any flower or macro photographer. Compare these two dahlias below. The first is shot in mid-day, full sun. It is contrasty and has some blown out areas and dark shadows. The second dahlia was photographed at the same time but using a diffuser to soften the light and spread it more evenly.
Bright Overcast Light
This light is described as a day with a thin layer of clouds overhead. The clouds act like a giant diffuser in the sky, softening the light coming through them. This is one of my favorite types of light to photograph in. The diffusion of the clouds results in beautiful soft light, perfect for flower photography, with no harsh highlights or deep shadows. Beautiful detail can be captured in the flower. Getting that bright overcast light after a rain storm is even better. It’s the time when the rain stops, the sky brightens and flowers and plants are covered in rain drops – perfection!
Full Overcast Light
It is considered undesirable by many photographers but I personally prefer a full overcast day to a bright sun day. On full overcast days flowers will be missing that hint of light that a bright overcast day gives. I know that I will have to work a little harder in post processing to bring the image to life. I can add brightness to my image and selectively add a pop of light to the area I want to draw the eye to, as I did in the center of this lotus flower.
Overcast light is often preferable for photographing aquatic flowers – it helps reduce glare on the lily pads and water, darkens the water and produces rich, saturated colors. Aquatic flowers are farther away in aquatic displays and one can rarely get close enough to use a diffuser to soften the light, so bright overcast or full overcast are preferable.
Color of Light
Light can differ in color or tone. The color temperature of light is dependent on the time of day and the weather conditions. Color temperature is a numerical system for measuring color from warm to cool. It is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). Light with a higher reading on the Kelvin scale has a bluer or cooler tone, whereas light with a lower reading has a yellower or warmer tone. It may seem illogical that color temperatures with higher numbers are cooler, but consider the fact that a blue flame is actually burning at a higher temperature than a yellow flame. Warmer golden light is found around sunrise or sunset. It is often referred to as the golden or the magic hour. Cooler light is found before sunrise and after sunset. The color of light can be associated with mood or emotion and you might find that you have a preference for warmer or cooler tones in your photography.
Using a Diffuser & Reflector for Flower Photography
A diffuser and reflector are important and inexpensive tools that are essential when photographing flowers or any macro subject. A diffuser is a collapsable disc covered in translucent white material and the reflector is created by zipping on additional reflective fabrics over the diffusion disc. In the field I carry a small 12-inch diffuser/reflector that has the transparent diffuser and zip-on reflective surfaces in silver, gold and white. The smaller size is ideal for photographing smaller areas and is easy to balance if I am handholding my camera. If I need to cover a larger area or am working on a tripod, I also carry a larger 22-inch diffuser and reflector, often referred to as a 5-in-1 or a 7-in-1 reflector. This means it contains the translucent diffuser along with 4-6 zip-on reflective surfaces. Both the 12-inch and the 22-inch bend and collapse to fit into a small, easy-to-carry pouch that will easily fit in your backpack or hang from it. Some diffusers/reflectors come with handles that help you hold the diffuser/reflector, especially handy when there is wind present.
So what do diffusers and reflectors do and how can we use them to control light for flower photography? In most cases we want to photograph flowers and plants in soft, even light. A diffuser allows us to photograph flowers in bright sunlight by softening the light. By placing the translucent disc between the light source or sun and the flower, we can soften the light to eliminate the harsh contrast of highlights and shadows. The diffuser will soften the light and also spread it more evenly. Even in overcast light, you might want to further soften your light with a diffuser. Study your subject carefully to see if the light is too strong or you are seeing blown-out highlights that might need diffusing.
A reflector can be used to direct light into the flower to add impact and brighten deeper recesses within a subject. Hold the reflector so that it directs the light back into darker areas of the flower, adjusting until you find the best position. It may take a bit of experimenting – bending and tilting the reflector until you see the light hitting your subject in the right area. White will give the most natural look, silver a brighter, cooler light, and gold, a warmer light. Holding a larger diffuser or reflector will require you to be on a tripod unless you have a friend willing to hold it and diffuse or reflect the light.
In the field take the time to slow down and study the light falling on your subject. Make note of the quality of the light, the direction it is coming from, and the color of the light. Take notice of what is happening to the light in your background. How can you use that light to help tell the story of your flower photography and, if possible, use that light to direct the viewer’s eye to a visual focal point within your subject? Post-processing can be an important step in completing this process or directing the eye and furthering your vision, but it’s important to do as much as you can in the field. Be willing to take risks with light and be open to experimenting when photographing flowers. Remember, there is always something to photograph in any light conditions. Some of my favorite flower photos came from situations when I thought the light was too strong but I used it successfully to create a story or more drama in the image. A spirit of exploration and willingness to try new things may lead to mistakes, but it may also lead to delightful surprises.