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Friday, June 12, 2009

Improvise Lighting for Night Subjects

The night-blooming cereus is one of the most beautiful and mysterious flowers I've ever seen. The flower blossoms are the size of dinner plates, they have a heavenly scent and one of their most fascinating qualities is that the blossoms only bloom for one night and then they're gone.

I have several large cereus plants growing in pots in my yard and you have to pay close attention as they get ready to bloom, because they only start to indicate (by a curling of the flower stem) that they're going to bloom on the night they bloom and they don't begin to open after dark. Then by dawn the huge flower heads are folded up and hanging limp from their stems.

Normally I try to keep a close eye on the plants and try to predict when they'll bloom, but this night I was taken totally by surprise when I went out to check on its progress after midnight and found this blossom almost totally open. I took this shot at 3 a.m. and because I wasn't expecting it to flower that night, I didn't have the energy to design and set up a real lighting plan. Instead I brought out an odd mix of small lighting components and reflectors and improvised a somewhat Rube Goldberg-like lighting set up. I tried just shooting with the built-in flash on my Nikon D70s for the first few shots but the light was, predicatbly, very flat and even. So I think placed a small Morris Digital Mini Slave Wide (it operates on AA batteries) behind and under the flower to separate the rear petals a bit. I also placed a silver-foil reflector (just aluminum foil on a sheet of foam board) in front of the flower to bounce some of that light back into the face of the flower.

The shots were better, but the blossom still looked kind of flat. Since the flower looked like it was at its peak and I didn't want to go find a better flash set up, I just grabbed the flashlight that I was using to find may way around in the darkness with and tilted its adjustable head to toward the flower. Because it had a fairly focused beam, I was able to point the flashlight across the center of the flower and just light individual petals. It's that flashlight that is creating the warm highlights toward the center of the bloom. It still wasn't the best lighting job I could have done, but at 4 a.m. with raccoons skittering around me and a skunk digging grubs in the next yard a few yards away, it was all the effort I was going to make.

Every year I promise myself that I'm going to design a multiple-flash set up and give these incredible blossoms the lighting they deserve, but every year the night they blossom takes me by surprise and I end up improvising again. But don't discount your ability to light things acceptably, even nicely, with whatever you have at hand--slaves, flashlights, penlights--they all provide light. Whatever your night subject is, all it takes is a little experimentation, some fresh batteries and a stick to keep the raccoons away and you'll create some really interesting night shots.

In an upcoming posting I'll introduce you to some of the coolest night photos that you'll ever see--and tell you about the fascinating guy that shoots them. Stay tuned!

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