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Flower photography can mean different things to different photographers. Whether it's a sprawling field of orange poppies, a pattern in a field of tulips, a juxtaposition of a new bud with a freshly opened blossom, or a close up of stamens, each presents a series of challenges. The key challenge is to come up with something both technically and aesthetically fresh. Key factors that come into play to meet this challenge are proper use of depth of field, lighting, and composition. For this week's Tip, I target the concept of light as each of the other aspects are unique and reserved for their own write up.
A big benefit of photographing flower close ups is a great image can be made any time of the day. The majority of great nature images are shot at sunrise and sunset but because you'll be working with a small subject, you have the luxury to shoot at noon and augment the light with flash, a diffuser, or reflector. The use of each of these tools will net a different effect of the same flower.
Diffuser: Bright overcast conditions are great for flower photography. The light is soft so detail is retained in the whites in addition to the shadows of the background. In bright overhead mid day sun, this quality can be mimicked using a diffuser. Commercially made collapsible ones are portable, convenient to use, and come in different sizes. They cleverly fold into a disc and are very light. A less portable but more custom way to go is to make a frame out of small diameter PVC pipe and sew white rip stop nylon around it. The advantage is it can be made any size you need. Rip stop nylon is available at fabric stores and has a great diffusing quality.
Reflector: Reflectors are used to bounce bright light back onto your subject to fill in the shadow areas. This softens the contrast as light is added to the dark portions of the flower. Doing so brings the highlights under control as the contrast range is lessened. White reflectors bounce soft light, silver ones create more of a pin point source, and gold ones cast a warm tone. Each has its own advantage. Its use should be dictated by the effect you want to create. Interesting effects can be had combining a reflector and diffuser.
Flash: Flash can be used as a main or fill light. If your intent is to use it as the primary light source, use the hot shoe mount type to provide enough power to override the sun. But I find a flash to be more useful as a source of fill to soften the contrast of mid day sun. Most good flashes allow you to control the amount of fill to vary the contrast effects from just a hint to completely canceling out the shadows. A key to using flash is to get it off camera. Doing so, the flash can be placed to the side or even behind the flower. A dedicated accessory cord maintains auto exposure and makes it quite easy to attain extraordinary effects. Some camera/flash combos use an infrared triggering system, but if the sun is bright, the signal from the camera to the flash can't be detected. The use of a radio transmitted device, such as a Pocket Wizard, is recommended.