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When Life Gives You Lemons…

by F.M. Kearney | July 8, 2011

© F.M. KearneyMy Early Morning Pass got me into the botanical garden hours before it officially opened to the public. The daylily garden, running adjacent to a narrow pathway, was at its peak. With no swarming throngs of curious onlookers to deal with, I practically had the whole place to myself. The winds were light and the skies were clear. I was prepared for a fruitful morning of uninterrupted flower photography at the New York Botanical Garden.

Everything was going perfectly, until a groundskeeper came over to warn me that he was about to turn on the sprinklers.

Say what now!?

Within seconds, my tranquil “studio” was transformed into a virtual water-theme park. Huge plumes of water shot high in the air all over the place. I quickly gathered my gear and retreated to a safe distance, then glumly watched all my plans for the morning literally get washed away. The sprinklers were placed several feet apart, leaving a few dry areas along the pathway. They were the portable, oscillating type—producing neat arcs of gently rotating columns of water. As I watched the water fall on the flowers, I started to notice a distinct pattern. If the water rotated too far in one direction, the flowers looked like they were in a torrential downpour. If it went too far in the other direction it missed the flowers entirely. But, for just a few seconds during the cycle, the water appeared as lightly falling rain. With a renewed sense of excitement and urgency, I grabbed my tripod and carefully stepped into one of the dry spots—setting up just inches outside of the water’s maximum reach. I zoomed into a cluster of blooms situated in front of a shaded hedge. This provided the perfect backdrop to offset the backlit water and flowers.

Flowers and water shower © F.M. Kearney

Shooting toward the sun can cause several problems. I had to use a flash to avoid silhouettes, and for even better lighting, I also used a reflector. With the flash mounted on the camera providing direct light, I used the reflector to add fill-light on the side. By using a long cable release, I was able to move from behind the camera and hold the reflector just a few feet away from the flowers.

Another problem is lens flare. If the camera is pointed in the general direction of the sun, but the sun isn’t actually in the frame, there’s a good chance you will be dealing with a lot of glare. This will result in images of less than optimum contrast and/or color saturation. You could try shading the lens with your hand, but since both of mine were occupied, that was not an option. In this case, a lens hood was the only solution. Luckily, I always carry a series of Cokin modular lens hoods. These are individual, ¾ inch thick square rings that can be stacked together to form a hood custom made to the length you need. The whole thing is then attached to a standard Cokin filter holder. On this particular occasion, I needed to use four rings to effectively block the glare from my lens.

A shutter speed of 1/60 second produced just the right length of water droplets to simulate falling rain.

At this point, all that was left to do was to simply wait for the precise moment in the cycle when the water was just right.

Flowers and water drops © F.M. Kearney

I was amazed at the myriad of creative compositions available in this new and unique environment. It was like photographing flowers again… for the first time. I was actually disappointed when the sprinklers were finally turned off. All that was fresh and new was now, once again, common and ordinary. I reluctantly shifted gears and returned to shooting the pictures I had originally intended. But it just wasn’t the same. Quite frankly, it was somewhat of a letdown.

The photos I got would not have been possible had the sprinklers been the pulsating type—the kind that shoots out a powerful jet stream of water and makes a flapping sound like an angry rattlesnake. The water from these kinds of sprinklers comes out in such a haphazard way, that it would look like a total mess in the photographs. Also, the spray created by the utter force of it would have coated myself and my equipment with a fine mist had I attempted to go anywhere near it.

The following year, the garden installed the dreaded, aforementioned in-ground pulsating sprinklers—forever ending any chance of a repeat performance.

When unexpected things happen, it’s important to have enough flexibility to keep the creative juices flowing. Even more important, you need to be able to recognize them as potential opportunities, rather than annoying obstacles. Remember, a lemon doesn’t always have to be sour.

Flower photography © F.M. Kearney

About the Author

F.M. Kearney is a award-winning fine art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. His work has been exhibited in galleries, and featured in numerous magazines, calendars and gift cards. He is a frequent contributor to NANPA's newsmagazine, Currents, and the weekly photography blogger for Contemporary Art Gallery Online.

Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for local New York City newspapers. Using the subway as his primary means of transportation to and from his assignments, he became quite familiar with the system. It eventually became the inspiration for his newly-released horror novel, They Only Come Out at Night. A slight departure from photography, it's a supernatural thriller set in the New York City subway.

To see more of Kearney's photography and to learn more about his book, please visit www.starlitecollection.com.

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