Story and Photography by F.M. Kearney
Most nature photographers go out of their way to avoid the harsh, unforgiving contrast of direct sunlight. The resulting blown highlights and blocked up shadows have ruined many potentially great photos. This type of lighting may work for certain landscape images, but for floral portraits, the soft, even light of an overcast day is generally preferred.
No doubt, harsh light is often given a bad rap. But, on some occasions, if managed correctly, it may provide you with some unexpected delights. Such was the case one day while photographing a cluster of Korean chrysanthemums. It was early morning and the sun was slowly rising behind a group of trees. I was rushing against time to take advantage of the flat light, but it was a futile endeavor. Within minutes, the sun began seeking out every opening it could find between the branches – casting dappled light all over the garden. What looked, at first, like an absolute mess, gradually morphed into a sea of interesting possibilities. With rifle-like precision, the sun was highlighting key areas of individual flowers.
I had to work quickly to capture this unique, fast-changing light. And, when I say fast, I mean fast. I literally had just seconds to get some of the shots. In most cases, no sooner after I had gotten set up, the light would change – totally transforming the scene. This type of frustration is why I hate shooting on partly cloudy days. But, even when the sun is playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds, there’s usually more time to compose photos than I had here.
These are some of the shots I managed to get before the sun completely rose above the trees – flooding the entire area with unmanageable, high-contrast light. To prevent the shadows from going a little too dark, I used an off-camera TTL flash set to a slightly reduced power output. I also sprayed the flowers with water – creating artificial dew drops that glistened from the light of the flash.
Before dismissing a scene as “ruined” by direct sunlight, stop for a moment and take a closer look at exactly what’s being lit. Sometimes, nature provides its own spotlights in just the right areas. Although somewhat frustrating to capture, the results can be quite rewarding.