Flowers as Portraits   

Easter is about a month away and I expect a few readers will be getting flowers from someone or giving flowers to someone. Those flowers will be a great photo-opp.

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes a backdrop and lighting equipment. The lighting, from small, or large flash units, is controlled by an array of modifiers that can include reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. And the backdrop is chosen not so much because it is a flat surface but because it is a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground.

The lighting illuminates the subject and separates it from that background as well as creates depth and dimensional form.

When producing an outdoor portrait most experienced photographers will begin by placing their subject in front of a neutral background or sometimes erect a backdrop and use either flash, or reflectors, to control the light on their subject and create depth and interest.

However, if I asked those same photographers to make me a good picture of a plant they would likely just kneel down next to some pretty flower and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of doing just that to lazily document some plant that caught my eye, I decided that I wanted more from my images. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than flat, lifeless documents, I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular and thoughtful compositions of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

When I photograph people I try to be both creative and flattering with my lighting, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded when trends change.

I have come to think the same way about photographs of plants. Flowers, of course, are so much easier to photograph than people, especially potted plants. Select a good location, turn the pot until the pose looks good and add light. Plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

Photographing a plant in the garden or in a pot should be more than quickly pointing a camera at that flower in a garden or a windowsill and releasing the shutter.

Put that boring iPhone away, and take the time to make it more than just a repetitive, unimaginative record. Don’t be in a rush; take time to develop a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it, and above all, be creative.







Photographing an Orchid in the Bathtub.


My favorite flower photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe once said, “ The more pictures you see, the better your are as a photographer.”

My wife placed a potted orchid in the bathtub. I walked by that evening thinking that was a good place to water her latest plant and never gave it another thought that night.  While I wandered about making coffee and breakfast the next morning, I realized that lone orchid sitting on top of an upside down plastic barrel in our bathroom tub was a photo opportunity in the making.

I could see the light beginning to come through the frosted bathroom window and the slight beginnings of a glow on the flower. I knew within an hour or so the sun would move to that side of the house and continue in that southern path for the rest of the day.

When my wife had come home with that flower some days ago she had suggested I make a few photos of it for our monthly calendar

I had been taking staff portraits for a client and I hadn’t put equipment away yet so I thought I’d setting up a small studio and take pictures. However, as I looked at the soft diffused light coming through that frosted window and realized the continually changing quality of the natural light would give me a fun and leisurely project that could last all day.

All I needed to do was set up a natural light studio in the bathroom.

My Orchid studio

I began by erecting a black velvet backdrop behind the flower just below the window.

The light came through a window above and behind the orchid. The bathroom was bright, but not enough for a balanced image, so I positioned a white reflector front right between the tripod-mounted camera and the tub. I’ll mention here that I tried white, gold and silver reflector coverings and decided on white.

My camera’s ISO was set at 100, the aperture at f/8 in the morning, and f/16 until late afternoon. That left exposure control with the shutter and after my initial meter readings in the morning all I had to do was keep testing by releasing the shutter and checking my LCD as the light factors changed throughout the day. This project was about capturing the quality of light as much as it was about making a good portrait of my wife’s orchid. All I had to do was make regular trips to the bathroom, sit on the floor instead of the toilet, and take pictures as the light changed.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe excelled at this style of plant photography and he was my inspiration for this. Many of his artistic and sensuous flower photographs were carefully positioned next to a window so he could create wonderful flower photographs using both natural light and studio lighting.  My photography usually includes some type of artificial light, so this project was a change and fitted perfectly into my goal this year to expand and move my comfort zones.

By the end of the day I had taken over eighty images to choose from. I selected out and selected out again until I had one that worked best for me. I wanted the image to be more about a creative form than about the orchid and cropped severely to force that view. All and all, it was a successful day and a great photograph for this month’s calendar.

I appreciate any comments. Thanks, John

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