Flower portraits – more than just snap shots

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes backdrop and lighting elements. The lighting may be flash, large strobes, or reflectors, or a combination of any or all.  The backdrop colour and pattern is selected not so much as a flat surface as it is as a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground. The lighting separates the subject from the background as well as creating dimension on the subject’s face.

If asked to produce an outdoor portrait an experienced photographer might begin by selecting a neutral background or erecting a backdrop and would use either flash or reflector to light the subject. But if I asked the same photographer to give me a good picture of a plant he/she would likely just kneel down and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of merely kneeling down to document pretty plants I decided that I wanted more. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens and close-up photography, not necessarily any interest in flowers.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than just snap shots I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular colour images are thoughtful compositions filled with dramatic colours, and his black and white photographs of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

Unlike Mapplethorpe, I don’t cut flowers from my wife’s or other people’s gardens and move them to a studio setting, yet I still want to control the composition and lighting.

To do that I needed an outdoor setup with a backdrop similar to what I would use in a studio. So I went to a local fabric store and purchased a 2×2 foot piece of black velvet and had loops sewn in each end through which I could insert sharpened dowels. The velvet works perfectly and creates a very matte, black backdrop. I easily move it around and poke the dowels into the ground to position it for blocking the sun or unwanted objects behind my composition.

I sharpened another dowel; but on that I attached a little spring clamp to hold reflectors like white matt board, small mirrors, or the shiny 12×12 inch piece of tin I like to use.  It all depends upon the amount, and quality, of light I want on my small subject.

As with most close-up work one needs a tripod and I have several. My favourite for flower photography, if I don’t have to pack it around, is a Benbo, a unique tripod with a flexible main joint that allows each leg to be independently placed, so the camera can be positioned at almost any angle to the subject.

I can walk into any garden, choose a flower, visualize how I want the composition to be, position the small backdrop, arrange my reflector, set up the tripod, attach the camera, and start making pictures. That all takes time (in an hour I don’t move to very many different subjects) and it is that time-consuming process that helps me think about what I want to accomplish and separates me from the kneeling snap shooters.

The backdrop and reflector does not cost much to make, and are easy and fun to use.

I think for dedicated flower lovers taking the time to create portraits of flowers that convey mood and show a personal connection, will be much more satisfying than photographs that are merely quick records; and I urge readers to consider taking portraits of flowers rather than snapshots.

These are my thoughts for this week.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me. Email your comments and suggestions to me at emcam@telus.net or phone 250-371-3069.

John Enman owns and operates Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops, selling an interesting selection of used photographic equipment and offers professional wedding and event photography.  Check out www.enmanscamera.com.