Taking Pictures of Plants: Getting the Lighting Right
One of the easiest ways of photographing plants is when they are lit from the front, but varying the direction of the lighting can produce far more interesting pictures. Overcast days with a light or heavy cloud cover produce soft indirect lighting, which is particularly appropriate for taking white and pastel-coloured subjects.
If the natural lighting is not ideal, it can often be modified or enhanced in several ways, especially for close-ups. For example, light can be deflected on to a subject in shadow by using a reflector. A silver one gives more natural lighting than a gold finish which produces a warm cast. I use circular Lastolite reflectors, but a piece of cooking foil wrapped around board isjust as effective.
The development of dedicated electronic flash guns which meter the light directly oft the film plane means that photographing a non-static plant in poor light on an overcast day is no longer a problem with slow-speed film. Fill-flash is also invaluable when using a long focus lens for taking high-level subjects lit by dappled lighting, which light bounced from a reflector cannot reach. Because I very rarely choose to light a plant from the front, I use the Nikon SB-24 flash connected to the hot shoe on the F4 camera, by means of a flash sync cord. In this way, I can hold the flash out to one side, above or even behind the plant. Fill-flash should not be used for taking moving subjects with an exposure longer than 1/2 second, because this will result in an obvious ghost image in which the subject continues to move after the short duration of the flash.
While direct sunlight can add depth to a general view by creating shadows and can produce dramatic effects by rim-lighting a solid subject or trans-illuminating large, coloured petals or autumnal leaves, it is far from ideal when you are photographing white or pastel-coloured flowers. If the sun persists, the intensity of the light can be reduced by holding a white diffuser between it and the subject (a sheet of muslin will do) to soften both the light and the shadows in a similar way to a light cloud cover over the sun.
Many blue flowers are notoriously difficult to reproduce authentically – as we see them — on colour film. The reason is that they reflect some far red and infra-red wavelengths that we cannot see, but which some colour films reproduce. I have previously photographed bluebells using a variety of colour transparency films.
These trials showed that the blueness was enhanced by indirect sunlight (where plants grew in the shadow of trees or when open-grown clumps were taken on a cloudy day) and by using flash for close-ups. Indeed, it can be preferable to eliminate direct sunlight falling on blue flowers by casting a shadow and then adding some sparkle by using fill-flash. While a blue colour-correcting (20CC blue) gelatin filter placed over the lens helped to enhance the blueness of blue flowers, it did produce a cold, blue-green colour to all green stems and leaves included in the frame. I found the most natural colours were achieved using Ektachrome 100-Plus film with available light.