Creative Flower Photography – Tip #10: “Combine Natural & Artificial Worlds”

by F.M. Kearney | October 15, 2013

© F.M. KearneyWhen I first began my career in nature photography I went to great pains to avoid including anything man-made in my photos—not an easy task living in a concrete jungle like New York City. I always felt that if I allowed any hint of urban artifacts to enter the frame it would, somehow, lessen the impact of the nature subject. Of course, this is exactly what would happen if the artifacts were only in the shot due to a careless oversight. However, if their inclusion is done deliberately, and creatively, a whole new world of opportunities can be unleashed.

It’s easy for a tiny patch of nature to be overshadowed by the city looming around it. One way I’ve found that really helps it to stand out is to shoot at night using a technique known as light painting. This is simply a process where a steady light source is used to add light to a dark or nighttime exposure of several seconds or more. Any type of light source can be used, but a flashlight is probably the most common. Also, it’s important that the flashlight emit a pure white light with a color temperature of around 5000K, which closely resembles that flash or natural daylight. Anything else will put a color cast on your subject. I use Surefire flashlights that are small but extremely powerful.

In the spring—with blooms sprouting up on nearly every street—New York City is literally inundated with flowers. One of the most elaborately decorated streets is Park Avenue. Colorful tulips adorn the median of this famed boulevard for several miles. With traffic zooming by just a few feet from them on both sides, it’s hard to believe that these flowers can even survive—let alone be as beautiful as they are. But that beauty is fleeting. They’re only at peak for about one week during the season. One spring, I took the opportunity to photograph them during this period. I selected a location in between two glass office towers that would reflect as much light as possible. Using a fisheye lens to create a tunnel effect, I positioned my tripod-mounted camera low to the ground about a foot away from the tulips. I selected a small aperture setting to ensure maximum sharpness from the foreground to the background. I then set the camera to manual and began a 30-second exposure, while constantly scanning the field back and forth with a flashlight. It would have been very difficult (probably even illegal without a permit) to set up multiple lights in the middle of Park Avenue to properly light this scene. Through light painting, a single flashlight provided all the lighting I needed.

New York City and tulip blooms © F.M. Kearney

I used a similar technique for the tulips under the Empire State Building. I placed my tripod just below one of the decorative planters in the area—once again, setting my aperture for maximum sharpness. The fisheye effect is even more pronounced in this shot, but The Empire was left undistorted because I positioned it dead center. This created the illusion that all the surrounding buildings were bowing to its majesty. The exposure for this picture was around 45-seconds to one minute—long enough to light paint the tulips and to record the numerous light trails from the passing traffic. It was also long enough to transform what was originally a quarter-moon into a full moon in the twilit sky.

New York City tulips and moon by Empire State Building © F.M. Kearney

These are examples of how light painting can provide better lighting on nature subjects within an urban environment. However, the subjects really don’t stand out that much because the lighting is fairly balanced. I deliberately underexposed the photo of the blue salvia and small pink flowers, while light painting them with a flashlight outfitted with a homemade snoot. This allowed me to pinpoint the light just where I wanted it. By picking a subject next to a busy street, I was able to utilize the taillights of passing cars as an interesting color element. Light painting a subject in a darkened environment is like putting a spotlight on it.

City street and flowers © F.M. Kearney

This just scratches the surface of the many ways in which nature and urban subjects can be creatively combined. With a little forethought and some out-of-the-box thinking, limitless possibilities will abound.

Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in a series of photo tips by F.M. Kearney on thinking outside of the box when photographing flowers. See all of F.M.’s articles in this series »

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

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