Dealing With Adversity: Staying Creative During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Stargazer lily with blue sidelight
Stargazer lily with blue sidelight

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Life is unpredictable. One day, it can be business as usual, and the next day everything can be turned upside down. The Coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak has effectively done just that. Whether only slightly, or dramatically, all of our lives have been changed. At the time of this writing, only a few major US cities have been placed under total lockdown. Here in New York City, although still open, for all intents and purposes, it’s basically shut down. Walking around town is like being on the set of an apocalyptic movie. Many people are working from home and most businesses are shuttered – replacing the normal hustle and bustle with an eerie stillness and silence. The New York Botanical Garden – my oasis for nature photography – has been closed until further notice. I was looking forward to trying out some new techniques on their spring collection, but that will obviously have to be put on hold. It occurred to me that as more places are put on lockdown, many people may not be able to leave their homes for the luxury of engaging in nature photography. I was in the process of putting together an article about photographing spring flowers. But, due to the current situation, I decided to set it aside for now and write something a bit more poignant.

I’ve written articles in the past about taking pictures from home. The reasons for doing this may vary, but it’s almost always been a personal choice. Right now, however, you may not have a choice, especially if your locale is under a “Shelter in Place” order. If your local park or botanical garden is closed, go to a florist and buy some flowers. They’re small enough so they don’t require a large studio with expensive lighting. I shot the Stargazer lily (above) in a darkened room using just two flashlights. I place the lily in a container and attached a white-light, Surefire flashlight to a mini tripod and positioned it underneath to create a backlight. I then attached a blue bezel to another flashlight and hand-held it off to the right to create the blue accents.

Surefire flashlights are tactical devices often used by law enforcement. They’re powerful, compact and produce beams without dark holes in the center. Some can be a bit pricy, but they’re still much cheaper than most studio lighting equipment. I find them to be the perfect tools for this type of closeup work. I can aim them at the precise spot I want to illuminate without a lot of spill-over. Their colored bezels (filters) allow for a variety of creative effects. Unfortunately, the company has discontinued the bezels, but you can probably still find some on Amazon. The photos below are a few more examples of the versatility of these flashlights.

Lily lit from multiple angles (on left) and Rose lit to highlight water droplets (on right)
Lily lit from multiple angles (on left) and Rose lit to highlight water droplets (on right)

Purchasing flowers from a florist has its advantages. Not only can you pick the ones in pristine conditions, some even continue to bloom days after you bring them home. The cluster of lilies below gave me three days worth of photo ops.

Day 1: Blooms mostly closed
Day 1: Blooms mostly closed
Day 2: Right bloom fully open
Day 2: Right bloom fully open
Day 3: Both blooms fully open
Day 3: Both blooms fully open

These lilies were very fun to shoot. Each day I was greeted with new opportunities. All three photos are actually double exposures. I have a red and a blue bezel and I wanted to use both colors in these shots. The problem was that only one of my flashlights is capable of being outfitted with them. Since I was shooting indoors and had no wind to deal with, I could easily shoot double exposures without fear of anything being out of register. I mounted the white-light flashlight on a mini tripod and positioned it underneath the cluster to provide the main backlight. For the first exposure, I hand-held the flashlight with a colored bezel to one side. I then switched the bezels and sidelit the opposite side to complete the exposure.

Shooting from home is much different from field work. You can create any type of lighting you desire. I shot all of these photos in a darkened room so that the colored lights would have more impact. However, I could have just as easily placed the flowers in front of a white board to create a totally different effect. I recently purchased a portable light shed (sort of, a mini studio in a box). I’ve yet to use it, but it should open up even more possibilities.

Two versions of Peruvian lilies. The original and one with a textured background
Peruvian lilies (original on left) and Peruvian lilies with textured background (on right)

If you’re not inclined to get this ambitious, or if you live in an area where all non-essential businesses; i.e., florists, have been shut down, there are other alternatives. You probably have a lot of old images in your files that you’ve forgotten about. In my case, I had hundreds of old slides that I shot years ago – some even dating back 25 years! I used to shoot Fuji Velvia film and I stored my slides in archival preserver sheets, so they looked just as good today as they did when I picked them up from the lab. I’m currently digitzing them. I’ve scanned all the slides I wanted to keep and I’m now optimizing them in Photoshop. In the process, I’m coming across ways to apply new looks to old images. I shot the Peruvian lilies (above) nine years ago in the field. I placed a black cloth on the ground behind them to create a black background. It was a common technique I used quite often back then to help the flowers stand out. Although it effectively removed the distracting backgrounds, all that black can be a little monotonous. Photomorphis is a company that produces a variety of textures that can downloaded at very nominal prices. You can apply these textures to your images to create borders, moods, backgrounds and other effects. I use them to replace my black backgrounds with something more interesting (and colorful). For the Peruvian lilies (on the right), I retained a bit of the original black background to create a darkened vignette around the flowers. Of course, these texture effects can be applied to any images, not just old ones. But, I find it so much more rewarding when you take an old, forgotten image and give it a fresh new look.

With the world turned upside down, nature photography may not be at the top of most of our “To Do” lists right now. But, the techniques I’ve outlined in this article can be very thereputic – providing a brief respite from the daily dose of depressing news. Adversity does not have to stifle creativity. We’re all in this together, and together we will prevail.

Stay safe.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.