Techniques

Creative Flower Photography – Tip #7: “Colorize the Background”

by F.M. Kearney | September 1, 2013

© F.M. KearneySeveral years ago, while standing in line at a camera store, I began thumbing through the pages of a book about photographing flowers. I came across a section showing a studio set-up of a single rose wrapped in blue tissue paper in a cone-like fashion. The finished photograph was a close-up of the rose with a decorative blue background.

Since my “studio” is the Great Outdoors, I thought of ways I could employ this technique in the field. Most of my flower shots are done in botanical gardens. Since the groundskeepers probably wouldn’t appreciate having their blooms wrapped up like FTD bouquets, I decided to place the paper on the ground behind the flower. This, in fact, worked out much better. Due to the close proximity between the paper and the flower in the book illustration, you could clearly see that the material was tissue. In my improvised version, with the paper several feet away, it became nothing more than a soft color wash.

Soft color wash using paper © F.M. Kearney

If you want to take it a step further, try using Mylar paper. Mylar is a highly reflective material, often used as an elegant gift box liner. When crumpled up and reopened, its wrinkles reflect light like a glistening, crystal chandelier. The effect is most pronounced in direct sunlight. For a multi-colored effect, I’ve created customized backgrounds comprised of several randomly-sized and colored pieces of both types of papers. I glue them to 3X3 square foot pieces of cloth that can be easily rolled or folded to fit almost anywhere.

Mylar paper effect © F.M. Kearney

Flower with distinct water drops © F.M. Kearney

Daffodil with color effects © F.M. Kearney

For best results, I use each type of paper in only certain types of light. Tissue paper works best in the shade or on overcast days, but Mylar does its best work in direct sunlight. If it’s used in any other type of light, no highlights will appear at all. This can be a real headache if you’re shooting on a partly sunny day—when the sun is constantly playing “peek-a-boo” behind the clouds. There can be, however, too much of a good thing. Large concentrations of highlights can produce distracting “hot spots.” If that happens, I simply smooth out the paper to reduce some of its reflective surfaces.

It’s important to keep in mind that you’re just dealing with the background. These stunning effects can very easily dominate the photo, and draw attention away from the real subject. If you’re not careful, they can even become downright distracting. I come in very close on the flower, so that the background covers little more than the outer fringes of the frame—using extension tubes for greater magnification if necessary.

If color isn’t your thing, you can use a black cloth to create a simple black background. This will truly make your subject stand out and add an air of elegance to the shot.

You can also top off these effects by using a soft-focus double exposure technique, whereby, one image is shot in focus and the other one is completely out of focus to create a dreamy, romantic look. If the background is a little too close to the flower and in danger of being recognized as paper, this will definitely blur it to the point where its mystique remains intact. Lastly, for best results, you should use a lens with a focal length of at least 200mm or more. You won’t get the degree of softness you need with anything shorter, and the effect will look more like a mistake (as though you bumped the camera during the exposure) than a deliberate attempt to soften the image.

These techniques will help to transform your flower images into what I like to refer to as, “Fantasy Florals.”

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh 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 www.starlitecollection.com.

2 thoughts on “Creative Flower Photography – Tip #7: “Colorize the Background”

  1. I’ll be kind and just say yuck. I’m sure you have done some great work and that these images represent none of it. For me, they look contrived (and are), represent a distraction from the beauty the natural world offers, and appear over saturated and other worldly (in a “there is no god I may loose my lunch” kinda way)
    Of course, I am just one old geezer with old school opinions.

    • I employ many different techniques to photograph flowers. Some methods are natural and may appeal to you and some are artificial and may not. Obviously, this method does not. However, when you say they look contrived…well, that’s sort of the point, hence the term “Fantasy” Florals.

      I too, consider myself old school, but I can also appreciate the beauty in some of the most over the top HDR images out there. I don’t have a problem with them as long as they’re created purely for the sake of art and not an accurate representation of the natural world. Keep in mind that there are markets for almost all types of photos. I’ve had my Fantasy Florals published on greeting cards and calendars and shown in solo gallery exhibitions — venues that would not be at all interested in my more natural-looking images.

      I think it’s important to be flexible, but more importantly, you sometimes just want to have fun and take a break from reality.

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