CLASSICAL PHOTOGRAPHY by Jess Isaiah Levin, Raleigh, NC

l250eddings, portraits, seniors, corporate events, fine art prints.

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April 25, 2009

Direction and "shape" of light can make all the difference

One of our very old house plants (spathiphyllum floribundum, if I'm not mistaken) decided to bloom this spring, so I grabbed the opportunity to do some close up portraits. The last time it bloomed (three years ago) I had done some shots that isolated it but didn't show much character. My first thought this time was to try to show it the way we experience it, that is, with the trees visible through the glass patio door that is right behind it. I used a 24-70/2.8 zoom with a 25mm extension tube to focus very close. This gave me the size relationship I wanted between foreground and background. These two shots were taken only 100 seconds apart, but the light outside has changed in color and character because of rapidly moving clouds. The only other difference is that I stopped the lens down from f/8 for the first shot to f/11 for the second. You can see that the out of focus highlights show the reduced diaphragm diameter, there's a little more definite shape to the trees, and the window screen makes a sharper pattern. I felt that the screen was a good connection between foreground and background, and even a nice textural composition element in itself.

f/8 prayer plant

f/11 prayer plant

Three days later, with my subject still looking pretty good, I had just enough time to do a quick series with a different set up. I put a soft white screen behind the plant, and used a 135mm with the same 25mm extension tube to get somewhat greater magnification without getting too close. I found an angle and perspective that I liked, and then changed nothing except the position of an off camera flash. I held it at a steep angle to the side, and diffused it through a sheet of white paper for some of the shots. (That's what I mean by "shape of light", by the way. A broad source yields a soft and gradual transition from light to shade, while a narrow, focused source creates sharp shadow transitions.) A tungsten chandelier provided some fill. Look how much the color and texture of the background changes just from what proportion of the flash is allowed to hit it, at what angle, and in what ratio to the fill light:

2-up comparison of plant portraits

Here are other shots from the series, evoking different sensations for me, and I hope for you. In all, the only change is in the placement of one of the two light sources (the flash). What a difference a little light can make!

horizontal prayer plant

Yes, I also rotated this image 90 degrees in relation to the twins above. The actual position the leaf took that day was just a little more vertical than in this image. I like this version for the way the bloom is primarily lit from above, but the background caught more of the light below (and shows more of the tungsten gold right where it contrasts with the highlighted edge of the leaf).

Here's a softer approach (again the light is the only difference):

And here are the rest:

dramatic prayer plant


I really do try to think of plant photographs as portraits!

Next: a quick tour of four towns

All images on this site © Jess Isaiah Levin