Photographing Spring Flowers at Night… (and one Spring dog…)

Spring daffodils on the Rogue River, photographed at night with stray tungsten pathway lighting, fading twilight and reflections of nearby lights on the river… Canon EOS 5D Mark II / Canon EF50mm/f1.2L USM lens / 1/15th sec / f4.0; ISO 1250 (hand held)

SPRING HAS SPRUNG! HOLY WOW!!!! Get out in it, folks, with your phone cameras OR Digital SLR’s!!!

Even if you are not an inspired photographer of nature, imagine a world without the colors, intrigue and majesty of the natural world then try to think of ways to photograph such wonders a bit differently, in your own style. Even if you’re bag is not photographing the flowers of Spring, it’s tough to deny the joy in realizing winter’s chill is fading as spring let’s us know – beautifully so – winter is outa here! Time to get out and make pictures but also time to consider the need to attempt to make COOL and DIFFERENT photographs. If your photographs are not at least slightly different, what you’re doing is…..average. As photographers, it really does help to think a bit differently while trying to avoid “average.”

The view from our riverside room was nice but visually BOR-ING, photographically, revealing nothing interesting – at least, at first glance…

Last week during a quick trip to Oregon, I was happy to learn our motel room was smack on edge of the fabled and scenic Rogue River, YET when I looked at the view prior to nightfall, found myself disappointed to observe the light somewhat unremarkable and the scenery from our room a Mexican restaurant, alas, not much of a gorgeous natural view. There were no obvious WOW’s outside our room, at least at first glance… The lovely bride and I took a short riverside walk yet nothing of major visual interest leapt forth screaming “PHOTOGRAPH ME!!!” Oh well, I had lots of cool dogs to shoot the next day and after a long day on the road, we were hungry, so taking the path of least resistance we hiked across the bridge to have dinner at this not-so-scenic restaurant.

Do I need to mention photographing anything of visual interest is my all consuming lifestyle? The joy of seeing does not mandate every picture I make must be portfolio.

As the lovely bride and I walked back from dinner, we observed the previously unimpressive views were taking on the colors of twilight, as color from artificial lighting illuminated the river… Canon EOS 1D Mark IV / Canon EF50mm/f1.2L IS USM lens / 2 sec / f9; ISO 640

While walking back from the restaurant at twilight, it was apparent approaching nightfall had transformed our previously unremarkable view into something sweet, as lights from the restaurant, sky and stray man-made light sources reflected on the shimmering river and surroundings, a dramatic transformation from boring to awesome, a fact which required me to pause on the bridge to make a tripod-less shot of the river showing our motel to the right. (why not? I was there…) I placed my always-present camera – a Canon 1D Mark IV with a Canon L series 16-35mm/f2.8 lens – on the concrete bridge railing then pushed down hard on the camera so it could not jiggle, even during a long exposure, almost as if the bridge was a tripod. The weight of my body held it firmly in place so the longish exposures were all tack sharp.

TIP: I have made 30 second or longer semi-handheld exposures using this push-the-camera hard against an immovable object method – like a concrete bridge rail or even against a plate-glass window, if inside looking out at an inspiring view.

From our room those daffodils by the river suddenly appeared to be almost glowing in the dark, as a small amount of warm tunsten light from the pathway lighting spilled onto them, with the river reflecting color from various outdoor and indoor lights across the river. (FREE LIGHT!) I’m not so into making “straight” flower images as much as I am in interesting or oddly mixed light, as is the case here, sometimes intentionally using incorrect color balance settings. Mixed lighting defies the average white balance norm! Tungsten pathway lighting was barely spilling onto the flowers, so as the last moments of twilight faded, I dashed outside to attempt a few handheld night shots using the remarkable Canon 50mm/f1.2 lens hustled to grab an actual tripod with the hope the slight wind would not blow the daffodils too much and that the reflections on the moving river would remain.

TIP: To guard against a slight wind blurring the daffodils, try using bodies as a windshield, ie, your own and anyone who is with you can block the wind. If you approach this kind of shoot intentionally – rather than spontaneously, as is the case here – bring along lightweight matte boards or foam core – or even a reflector – to block the wind. Even a very slight wind can blur plants so be prepared to shield your floral subjects by using anything which works to prevent movement. If this fails, let them blur and see if you get cool blurs…

Once twilight faded to night, only streetlights illuminated the quickly flowing, now blurry, Rogue River behind this striking daffodil…
Canon EOS 1D Mark IV / Canon EF70-200mm/f2.8L IS USM lens / 30 sec / f20; ISO 640 (in full darkness)

During the 30 second exposure required to capture this image in a manner where the river would appear to be in motion rather than sharp, even the very light wind was a major problem. Photographing flowers in the wind can be challenging, especially when slow exposures are required for effect or out of necessity. The lovely bride and I worked together to form a human windshield on both sides of this yellow daffodil in an effort to block the wind. Patience worked out again, since after about 20 attempts to get a sharp frame, the image above was the result.

All in all, terrific results considering I was simply goofing off, getting comfortable in a new setting. As a lifelong photographer, it’s tough to feel right about any new location until I get out and photograph something cool. In this case, flowers at night calmed and made me happy, ready to shoot cool dogs the next day!

OK, ok, ok… So you’re on my blog for pet photography, NOT flowers at night, so sticking with the tough light at night topic, I’m including a photograph this experienced photographer considers remarkable. Truthfully, I can’t even believe this photograph exists since it was SO DARK my autofocus wouldn’t catch and it was even tough to focus manually, the light level was so weak. The chances of getting a sharp frame at f1.2 were just about zilch – zero. But…why not give it a shot since if I nailed the bulldog in this scenario, it was bound to be a cool snap!

An American Bulldog waits patiently for his humans to return… Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II / Canon EF85mm/f1.2L IS USM lens / 1/20th sec / f1.2; ISO 1600

This American Bulldog presented herself one evening as we sat outside a bar & grill at the beach, again at that too-dark-to-make-pictures twilight time of day. Suddenly a family parked directly in front of us then entered the bar & grill to get a meal, leaving their snow white American Bulldog in the car. It was DARK, folks, so I presumed there was no way this cool looking beast would sit still long enough for a long exposure. The longest exposure I could muster at ISO 1600 with the amazing Canon 85mm/f1.2 lens was 1/20th – shooting at the always-risky aperture of f1.2. Yikes… I knew even a tad of back focus would result in no sharp frames, since I had absolutely no depth of field. I held my breath hoping the minor illumination from the glowing neon beer signs in the windows would provide enough light.

Again, as with the river picture above, I placed my camera on a handy concrete ledge and attempted to focus on this handsome dog. Thankfully, big Bully sat motionless, watching his humans inside. I focused on the dog manually then fired off 10 or so frames before the dog decided to take a nap. Back at the studio, I was shocked to see ONE sharp frame which, once Photoshopped, ended up in my CatDog portfolio as a favorite photograph. (hard or unlikely photographs are always most gratifying)

Night photography has always been fascinating so I encourage you NOT to put your camera away at sunset. Luck really does favor the prepared photographer, as Ansel Adams said, since I was able to nail sharp flowers in the wind at slow shutter speeds as well as this unlikely American Bulldog image, again using my concrete tripod, and with a LOT of great luck!

1 comment

Jeff Maloney - April 12, 2013 - 4:37 PM

Wow, nice work. I didn’t notice any noise in the shadows. They look like clean, well lit pix. I assume the 1Ds RAW files give you a lot to work with. Inspires me to take my 5D out more often in low light.