FIELD TECHNIQUE: One man’s trash

Story and photography by F.M. Kearney

Snow-covered saucer magnolia blooms.

Snow-covered saucer magnolia blooms.

The groundskeepers were a bit perturbed, but I was ecstatic.

Four inches of snow had fallen the day before. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy except it was April 8, 2003. These four inches brought the total amount of snow received in the New York area to just under 50 inches, placing the 2002-03 winter among the top 20 snowiest winters in the city’s recorded history.

I had become used to the multiple snowstorms that year, but this one, coming so late in the season, caught nearly everyone by surprise. Strange things tend to happen when nature doesn’t behave as expected. Last year’s (2015-16) mild winter in the Northeast had cherry blossoms blooming in December. In 2003, everything bloomed on schedule, but the earliest blooms were met with a surprise sucker punch from Mother Nature.

I went to the New York Botanical Garden that April fully expecting to capture unique and unusual images. I wasn’t disappointed. Winter’s parting “gift” had deposited a healthy coating of the white stuff on the saucer magnolia buds along Magnolia Way — an area normally festooned in a sea of pink at this time of year. Snow-covered pine cones are common, but snow-covered magnolias aren’t something you see every day. I set up my tripod amidst the frosted blooms and began shooting a series of seasonal contradictions.

The final storm of that season was stubborn indeed. It was slow to move out, leaving most of the next day under heavy cloud cover. I usually prefer this type of flat lighting for most subjects, but sometimes the lighting is a little too flat for my taste. For closeups, a flash is helpful in boosting color saturation. While most photographers understand the benefits of using flash on sunny days to open up dark shadows, it can be just as beneficial in overcast conditions by adding a little “pop,” i.e., contrast to the scene. When it comes to snow and/or ice, there’s the additional benefit of providing a glistening effect.

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Regular flash: Output set to -0.7 stops

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Flash with red gel: Output set to -1.3 stops.

A flash also allows you to do some creative experimenting. The image on the top was shot using regular flash. I placed a red gel filter in front of the flash head for the image on the bottom. This added a trace amount of reddish tint to the branches and blooms. The key word here is “trace.” I significantly reduced the flash output, which is important whenever using flash outdoors in daylight and especially when using colored gels if your goal is to maintain a natural look. I reduced the output to -0.7 stops for the image on the left, but to avoid an overpowering crimson hue, I needed to cut back a full -1.3 stops in the image on the right.

For all three images in this article, I held the flash off-camera at an angle using a TTL cord. This prevented the less flattering direct flash look. White balance should be set to “Cloudy” on overcast days to prevent a bluish tint in your photos. This tint might be difficult to detect in some images, but it becomes evident if white snow is in the shot. 

While I was shooting, a couple of grounds-keeping officials came by to survey the damage to the magnolias. They admitted that although the scene might look like a photographer’s paradise, the late frost was definitely going to cut the magnolia season short. I tried hard to mask my glee in their presence, but I couldn’t help thinking: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. (Or, in this case, a great photo op!)


F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com.