photography-101:-using-the-sun-to-enhance-spring-flowers

By F. M. Kearney

In last month’s issue, I discussed using bodies of water as a way to enhance your photos. In this issue, I’ll discuss using an even more popular element of nature … the sun. If you’re old enough, you probably remember those exposure guides that came in every box of film. They included illustrations and suggested exposure settings to use with that particular film under a variety of lighting conditions. Most of the illustrations showed the sun at the photographer’s back. In fact, you’ve probably been told that you should always face away from the sun. That might have been a good rule to follow in the days of film, but digital sensors are much better at handling high-contrast situations. Images that would have been impossible to capture on film are now commonplace due to digital technology.

Low-angle view of the sun rising behind a field of daffodils © F. M. Kearney

After a long, cold winter, and with COVID restrictions being lifted all over the place, you’re probably itching to get outside and take advantage of the glories of spring. Beautiful spring flowers are the perfect subjects to shoot at this time of year. One of the problems with photographing flowers in an urban environment, however, is the inclusion of unwanted objects, i.e. signs, fences, buildings, etc. I shot the opening photo of this article early one morning in the New York Botanical Garden. The daffodils were in full bloom and growing in an open field – far away from any signs of civilization. This type of unrestricted access opened up an array of opportunities and compositions. I chose to shoot at a low angle and towards the rising sun. Not only was I able to avoid any unwanted, man-made objects, the inclusion of the sun made the photo much more dynamic. But it wasn’t the most comfortable of angles, because I had to lay flat on my stomach atop wet, dew-coated grass. Luckily, I always carry a large black cloth in my bag that I use to create instant black backgrounds for my floral portraits. On that occasion, I used it as a tarp upon which to lay on to avoid getting soaked. Having such an item on hand can be quite useful if you think you might be taking a lot of photos like this. If space is tight in your bag, just carry a large piece of plastic. It will fold up smaller than a piece of cloth and weigh next to nothing

Shooting At Low Angles

Getting an ant’s-eye-view nowadays isn’t all that difficult. A lot of camera models have flip viewscreens, which can be adjusted to easily see at very low angles. If your camera’s viewscreen is fixed (like mine), you can purchase a right-angle finder. This is a separate device that screws directly onto your camera’s eyepiece. It looks like a tiny periscope and allows you to view the scene from above the camera. It’s not quite as convenient as a flip-screen, but it will definitely make composing low-angle images much easier.

I shot the photo below from a slightly elevated position. I was able to see more of the field, while still keeping the sun in the frame. Of course, the best way to ensure that you get the sun in the frame is to shoot early in the morning or late in the day when it’s low on the horizon.

I was able to get the sunburst effect because I shot both of these photos at f/16 with a 28mm lens. The strongest effects are achieved at small aperture settings (larger f/stop numbers). To emphasize the effect even more, try placing the sun partially behind an object, like the edge of a building or a fence. In these cases, I used the flowers themselves and tree branches. That simple technique not only accentuates the effect, it protects your eyes and your camera from the full force of the sun.

Another sure sign of spring are cherry blossoms. Since they grow on trees, it’s much easier to include the sun in the photo. I shot both of the images below at f/8, but the sun looks dramatically different in each. The sunburst effect is evident in the photo of the cherry blossom tree on the left, but in the close-up of the Yoshino cherry blossom branch, the sun is rendered as a round orb. The focal lengths I used are what accounts for the different looks. I shot the tree at 70mm and the branch at 200mm. In addition to using a small aperture setting, it’s best to use focal lengths between 14-35mm to get a strong sunburst effect. It’s possible to get that effect with longer focal length lenses, but it won’t be as distinct. If you look closely at the edges of the orb you can see the faint outlines of a sunburst.

Japanese Cherry Blossom tree (left) and Yoshino Cherry Blossom branch (right) © F. M. Kearney

Slightly elevated view of daffodil field © F. M. Kearney

Other fun flowers to combine with the sun are daylilies. I like to place the sun at the tips of their pronounced stigmas (below, left) – giving the photos a sort of whimsical look.

If you’re not going for a “magic wand” type of photo, there are many other interesting locations in which the sun can be placed when shooting daylilies. The photo (below right) is one of many different compositions I shot with the sun beaming through various parts of these two blooms rising above the field.

Giving a daylily a “bright idea” (left) and strategically placing a sunburst behind a cluster of daylilies (right) © F. M. Kearney

Precise Placement of a Sunburst

When trying to place a sunburst within a small opening of a flower is important, it can be very difficult when looking through your camera’s viewfinder. The problem is that the image in the viewfinder is how the scene looks with the aperture wide open – regardless of its actual setting. In other words, if your lens is set to f/16, the image in the viewfinder will look as though it’s set to f/2.8  (or whatever the widest setting on your lens happens to be). Of course, when you take the picture, the lens will automatically close down to the “taking aperture” (f/16), but you’re actually viewing the scene at f/2.8 through the camera. Why is this important? Because a sunburst looks drastically different at f/16 than it does at f/2.8. This makes it very hard (if not impossible) to accurately judge the size and strength of the sunburst, or if it will even be visible at all through the opening in the final image. In the days of film, I used to use the depth of field preview button to get a more accurate view of what my camera was seeing. Depressing this button momentarily closes the lens down to the “taking aperture” – it’s actual setting. This will darken the view, but it will show you exactly how your final picture will look. Its main purpose is to show you the amount of depth of field in your image, but in this case, you can use it to see the true shape and strength of the sunburst. This makes it infinitely easier to precisely place it exactly where you want. Most digital cameras have Live View, which accomplishes the same thing, but without the darkened view. Whichever method you use will be a tremendous aid when attempting to precisely position a sunburst.

These methods aren’t just limited to flowers. They’re extremely helpful when you want to shoot a sunburst through a small opening of any object. Tiny holes often develop in leaves as they start to deteriorate in the fall. Capturing a sunburst (or multiple bursts) through these openings can add a lot of interest to your photos. These methods are an invaluable asset in helping you achieve that goal. In the next photo, I was able to capture several bursts through the holes in these Linden leaves by using the depth of field preview method.

Tripod, or No Tripod

I think most professional photographers would agree that a tripod is one of the tools needed to ensure the sharpest possible image. I would estimate that about 99% of the photos I shoot are done with my camera securely mounted on a tripod. With the exception of the cherry blossom photos, all of the other images in this article represent the remaining 1% of the photos I shoot hand-held. The reason is based on practicality. Sometimes, the use of a tripod is just not practical. In some cases, it could even be a hinderance to your creativity. Simply getting the sun in the shot is one thing, but when attempting to align it so that its beams shine through a tiny, moving opening is quite another matter. Even on the calmest of days, flowers (and especially leaves on a tree) are constantly swaying back on forth. The slightest movement will be the difference of capturing a sunburst, or no sunburst at all. Imagine the time-consuming process of having to repeatedly pick up and move a tripod-mounted camera a millimeter here or a millimeter there! After just a couple of photos, you might be ready to pack it in for the day. By hand-holding the camera, you can make these minute adjustments instantly. Also, since you’re shooting toward the sun, your shutter speed should be relatively fast – negating the need for a tripod anyway. The slowest shutter speed I used for any of the hand-held photos I used in this article was 1/60 second. I should also mention that I shot them with a 28mm lens, as opposed to my 24-70mm zoom. The 28mm lens is less than half the size of the zoom lens and just a fraction of its weight – making it much easier to work with when shooting hand-held. I keep it just for the purpose of taking these types of photos.

Metering the Scene

Getting the correct exposure for scenes like these today is much easier than in the days of film. As I mentioned earlier, digital sensors are much better at handling high-contrast situations than film. But, to ensure consistent results, there are a few techniques you should employ. Auto-exposure systems tend to become unreliable whenever the sun is prominent in the frame, or shining through the small openings of a flower or a leaf. Therefore, you should set your camera to manual exposure and meter the scene without the sun in the shot. As long as the overall lighting does not drastically change, this is the exposure you should use for all the photos you shoot of that particular scene. This is especially important when shooting sunbursts through tiny openings. As flowers or leaves gently dance around in the wind, varying amounts of light will shine through – causing auto-exposure meters to go haywire. Locking your exposure in on manual will solve that problem.

Getting Better Lighting

Since you’re directly facing the sun, it’s also necessary to use additional lighting sources. I use a flash with a warming gel attached to the head. This prevents my subject from becoming a silhouette in the strong backlight of the sun. The warming gel gives the harsh, white light of the flash a more orange tone to better match the warm, ambient early morning or late day light.

If you’re shooting with a high-end digital camera, you should have a feature which further enhances your sensor’s ability to handle high-contrast situations. Nikon has something called Active-D Lighting, which enables me to capture more detail in the shadows and highlights. Its strength can be set to Low, Medium or High – allowing me to get far better results in difficult lighting situations than I ever could with film.

Lastly, I’d like to give a word of caution. Shooting toward the sun with a wide focal length is fine because the sun is very small in the frame. Using a long lens, on the other hand, can be a little risky. To protect your eyes, you should use a fairly strong neutral density (ND) filter. It will considerably darken the view without affecting the color balance. If you’re shooting on manual, be sure to take your reading with the filter in place.

Spring flowers are a joy to photograph. Try including the sun and let your creativity shine!

Multiple sunbursts captured through the holes of linden leaves © F. M. Kearney

F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).

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