Intimate portraits of lilies

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Shooting flowers for me is a particularly daunting task. A flower has well-defined shapes and colors and I find it difficult to go beyond those to capture something truly original. I followed the guidance from my friend and photography mentor who is a very skilled flower photographer: examine and smell the flowers before doing anything. Try to capture its flagrance and essence. I did just that. I sat there for a while looking and smelling two strands of lilies, one white and the other pink. They were pretty much the only flowers available at this time besides roses and carnations. Montreal in winter does not seem to be the best place for fresh cut flowers.

The photo project made me discover the very nice perfume of lilies. I wish that I had performed the shoot in my workout room because it sure needs some of that nice flagrance!

In all honesty, it’s not that I like shooting flowers all that much but I really wanted to try out some new gear including a 180mm macro lens.

I prepare the flowers for the shoot by removing any residual pollen with a lens cleaning blower and brush. The camera is installed on a focusing rail attached to a tripod geared head. I start fiddling around with lighting and flower positioning.

It took about 3 hours to complete the first two images above. Since the subject, the camera and lights can be moved and rotated endlessly, there are so many degrees of freedom to explore. I settled for back lighting using a small softbox as main light. I thought that the result is appealing and as an added bonus, it serves as backdrop. I tried many schemes as front fill light but in the end, I simply used a white reflector.

I started by trying to shoot a bouquet of lilies but quickly realized that I was getting into still life territory, which is not what I had planned. Also, I do not have a decent looking vase or any of the other implements needed for a still life. So I butchered away the stems and leaves to retain only the best head specimens. Survival of the fittest! I got much closer with the camera and focused on the stamens as it is such a defining feature of lilies.

The first two pictures are certainly not the most imaginative shots but I like the fact that the stamens seem to explode out of the light on the white on white image. On the pink on white image, I really enjoy the internal structure of the petals brought to life by the back light. It looks almost like an X-ray picture.

After those two pictures, I took a break to watch the two Saturday NFL wild card games during which I examined the lilies some more trying to figure out an interesting angle I have not explored during the first shoot. I imagined a 3/4 back view with lighting streaming from the front of the lily as if the flower is facing directly into the Sun. To achieve that effect, a flash with a 9” reflector is set to shoot straight down onto the flower. Several reflectors serve to fill in the rear of the flower to soften the shadows that are created on any part of the petals not directly facing the main light source. I did not bother putting any kind of backdrop since the shot is taken at f/32, ISO 160 and 1/200 sec so anything not lit by the flash becomes automatically pitch black as house lights just cannot compete. Anyway, I find that the stark contrast of a translucent white flower on a black background works well. The resulting picture is the third above.

The next day before NFL wild card Sunday starts, I made a picture of the complete pink lily for posterity as it had started wilting. I made it darker with less fill light than the previous one so the thinnest parts of the petals do not merge with the background. That’s the fourth image above.

The working distance afforded by the 180mm lens is truly nice. It lets the flower breathe and eases moving things around. I think the lens and I will get along just fine! As the lilies are quite large, this project is not true macro photography, more like close-up photography. I am looking forward to explore with it the realms of larger than life photography with my new best friend!

I had not photographed flowers in many years and this little project reconciled me with the concept. Although it is like a test of patience and minutia, flower photography is quite rewarding and so very convenient for indoor shooting. This project has convinced me to stop once in a while at the florist to see what’s in store.

Equipment: Canon DSLR 5D Mk II, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 EX macro lens, RAW conversion using Lightroom 4.1

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13 thoughts on “Intimate portraits of lilies

    • Thanx Dani! I am glad I did not throw the flowers away after I was done with my first session. The ones I prefer are the last two that I made after the initial attempts.

      • Yes I did. I examined them further to see what I might have missed. I find that shooting flowers is a bit zen. One needs to be somewhat contemplative during the exercise.

    • Thanx jazzman! I just discovered that you publish a webzine on photography. I will read the available issues with great interest. I scanned through issue 4 and I see some amazing flower shots!

      • Much thanks sph3re! I hope I can feature you and your works in future issues of the magazine. I’ll keep in touch. Keep on clicking!

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