Tame Natural Light for Fantastic Flower Photography

Tips for lighting macro and close-up flower photographs

If you can see a flower, it is a source of light. With flowers, this visible light originates elsewhere — with the sun (natural light) or an artificial light source — and is reflected by the flower.

By Harold Davis, guest contributor

Understanding Light

When we look at a flower, the natural light sources that illuminate the flower and the interaction of the flower with this light visually sculpt the flower as well as establish the perceptual basis for the extraordinary range of colors in many flowers. Use the tips in this Adorama Learning Center article and gear that you can buy at Adorama, and you can turn your natural light flower photography into a blooming flower photography habit that you'll never want to break!

As a photographer, light is the medium that I use for capturing flowers, so I like to categorize the issues surrounding light when I am pre-visualizing a flower photo. I think about light direction, intensity, warmth or coolness. The truth is that the quality of light and lighting involves many variables, and is always subjective, and elusive.

Light direction means the primary direction of the light as it hits the flower. Photos that show flowers as they are ordinarily perceived, such as in a plant catalog, will likely use front lighting. Side lighting with flowers is a little less usual, and often works well if you are interested in shadows or strong contrasts between lights and darks.


Garden poppy macro flower natural light photo


After finding this poppy in my garden, I brought it into my studio. Late afternoon sunlight was streaming through a window, so after putting the poppy in a bud vase, I set it in the sunlight, positioning it so the flower was backlit. I used a sheet of translucent paper placed between the flower and the sunlight to soften the harshness of the direct light. Photo: Nikon 200mm f/4D macro lens and 36mm extension tube, both of which are available at Adorama; 1/10 second at f/36 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

I am a big fan of backlighting flowers, because it helps to emphasize transparency of the petals. Intensity simply means whether the light is stronger or weaker. This often determines the harshness of the lighting. Intense, strong lighting is good for flower images that are about exaggerated contrast. Soft, diffuse light helps create dreamy images that suit many kinds of flower photography.

How warm or cool lighting is can be defined precisely using a color spectrometer and the Kelvin scale (learn more about white balance and color temperature here ). I’m not going to go into these details here, except to note that when photographing flowers it is important to pay attention to this quality of light, and to assess how well or poorly the color of the light complements the color of your floral subject.


Papaver and shadow natural light flower photo


To photograph this Icelandic poppy (Papaver nudicaule), I placed the flower in a bud vase and brought it out on my front porch. The sun was shining strongly, creating interesting shadows against the front wall of my house, but it was also creating exposure problems. Photo: 50mm macro lens (available at Adorama), 1/140 of a second at f/32 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Before I started photographing, I used a spray bottle to carefully adorn the poppy with water drops to add interest to the composition. As I started to think about the exposure, I realized that I could not expose properly for the sunshine on the wall, the bright flower, and the deep shadows. I decided that the flower was the most important part of my composition. So I exposed for it.

Checking the results on my camera’s LCD and using the in-camera exposure histogram, I decided that the results were too bright. I took the exposure down from 1/60 of a second to 1/140 of a second, a little more than one f-stop in exposure value. When I processed the image in Adobe Photoshop, I was careful to add some detail back into the dark shadows, particularly the shadow of the poppy on the wall at the left of the photo.

Natural Light

Sanpdragons secret macro natural light macro flower photo


Hurrying outside with a jury-rigged “rain coat” on my camera and macro lens, I snapped this photo of the interior of a snapdragon while it was still drizzling. Photo: 105mm macro lens and 36mm extension tube, available at Adorama; 1/5 second at f/40 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

It is a cliché that the worst weather can make for the best photos in the field. After all, how can you photograph a clearing storm unless you are out there in the storm in the first place and have early notice that it is starting to clear?

This idea is very true for photographing flowers by natural light. Not only does rain add attractive moisture to flowers, it can also set up lighting situations in which the atmosphere is acting like a gigantic light diffuser. This soft light can be extraordinarily attractive.

Still, when I have a trip to a garden planned I understand that I don’t really have control of the weather. Also, sometimes I am at a location with beautiful flowers in the middle of a sunny day, which is not a great time for outdoor photography.


Poppy snake strong backlighting flower photo


This poppy pod was backlit by the early morning sun. I focused and exposed for the hairs on the pod, which were coated with morning dew. I underexposed by several f-stops to capture the backlit hairs and create the pattern you see while allowing the pod itself to go very dark. Photo: 200mm macro, 36mm extension tube, 1/400 of a second at f/11 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

The best idea is to take advantage of the situation. Bright midday sun can be great for images that show contrast, or where shadows are an integral part of the image. The extra light can be very helpful if there is wind, because you may be able to use a shutter speed fast enough to stop motion.

In these kinds of situations I like to come prepared with small reflectors and “gobos” (all available through Adorama).  I carry a portable reflector that is metallic on one side and white on the other to brighten areas of a flower that are in deep shadow. For “gobos,” I use small pieces of black foam core board that can be propped to keep harsh light out of specific areas in my composition.

I am a real fan of natural light. Even when I bring cut flowers into my studio, often I prefer to use sunlight for my photos because of the wonderful soft yet warm and strong light quality that sunshine can make.

Of course, when I do use natural light in the studio I work to control the light with shades, diffusers, and “gobos.”

Whatever the appeal of indoor shooting, there is great satisfaction for a flower photographer to work outdoors and understand the “real life” context of the flowers being photographed.

When all is said and done, nothing beats natural lighting, and nothing beats crawling with a camera on one’s belly through a wet field of flowers early in the morning taking advantage of the wonderful soft diffuse lighting that only nature can provide!


Freesia macro natural light flower photo


It had just rained and the sky was overcast but brightening. I went outside and found this freesia off to the side of my garden, bending down under the weight of water drops. So I setup my camera and took this photo while the light was still soft. Photo: 105mm macro, 36mm extension tube, 1/5 of a second at f/32 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.


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Editor’s note: The above content was selected from photographer and best-selling author Harold Davis’ latest Focal Press book, Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis. All gear used in this article can be purchased at Adorama.




Harold Davis is an award-winning professional photographer whose work has been widely published and collected. He is the author of many best-selling books about photography, Photoshop, and digital art, including The Photoshop Darkroom series and Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis from Focal Press. Harold's photography blog, www.digitalfieldguide.com/blog, is read by more than 25,000 visitors each month. His latest book from Focal Press is Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis ($29.95). His next book, Photographing Waterdrops: Exploring Macro Worlds with Harold Davis ($29.95), is currently available for pre-order and will be available in June 2012.


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