In addition to photography, a major hobby of mine is flower gardening on our 3-acre property. We also maintain a season-pass to Longwood Gardens; one of the premier horticultural sites in the world and only about an hour’s drive from us. Between my own garden and Longwood and the merging my two hobbies, I have hundreds of pictures of flowers of course. In fact, after a while it gets a little boring to snap yet-another flower portrait, so I try to find new methods and better techniques to make these images a little more compelling.
We went to Longwood last weekend, and I decided that my photographic objective for the trip would be to use a hand-held off-camera flash to take my shots. Shooting in natural light is fine, but unless the sun is feeling especially dramatic that day, the effects are often “flat” with too much illumination in the background. Although background distractions can be softened with lens bokeh and a relatively large aperture, the challenge then becomes maintaining your entire subject in adequate focus while getting that creamy-smooth background that is so appealing. I know that some people carry black cardboard cards or black tee-shirts to mask the background, but that still leaves you at the mercy of whatever illumination there happens to be. Photography is all about Light and (IMHO) learning how to control and manipulate light is the key to great images. If you have all the time in the world, you can just hang out until the natural light cooperates (which it will, eventually) or you can create your own light.
I’ve shot with on-camera flash before of course, and even “macro-flash” (those units where the flashy-part is attached to the lens, like you see on CSI shows), but I was still not satisfied with the results. In both of these samples I had my camera on a tripod and I used an off-camera hot-shoe-cord to connect the flash. The flash head also had a white bounce-card attached to it to help soften the light a little too. In the case of the rose I hand-held the flash about 90-degrees from the lens axis, about a foot above the flower and it was probably about 3-feet away. I used a low ISO-200 and a fairly narrow f11 aperture on the Sigma Macro lens. The 1/80-sec shutter was manually selected to be 2-stops darker than ambient. This is what produced the apparent-but-dim lighting in the background while the flash is what makes the flower itself “pop” from the image. In a case like this where I want to be in control of what comes out I use manual settings for both camera and flash so that “auto-mode” doesn’t take over and try to second-guess me. As I recall, the flash unit was at 1/16-power on this.
Here is another shot of an orchid using a similar technique for the original picture. In this case I held the flash almost straight above the flowers. In both cases there was a substantial level of ambient light, but by creating my own “key” light and using ambient as fill and a dim background light I was able to create the image that I saw in my mind. I used an “official” Canon hot-shoe cord for these, but the same results could be had using a long PC-sync cord and inexpensive flash unit. The one thing that you can’t do however is get results like these with a built-in flash. You can buy a decent (if “manual”) flash unit for less than $100, and I strongly recommend that as one of the first photo accessories for anyone. The built-in flash on most cameras really don’t look very good 95% of the time.
I would add that both of these, and especially the orchid, were processed through NIK Color Efex Pro-4 software. I have said before, and I’m sure that I will say again – I really like those NIK products.