Taking good orchid photos doesn't require anything special. Lots of
people will either already have everything required, or they will be
able to buy it all for less than $50, assuming that they already have a
camera. You will need:
1. A strong light source. I'll cover the specifics below, but it can be
a continuous light or a flash, as long as the flash can be removed from
2. A tripod. This is very important! The only exception is if you're
using flash in an otherwise dark environment. In that case you can get
away with hand-holding your camera.
3. A backdrop, if desired. Dark cloth is handy—a dark towel, tablecloth,
or sheet. I've used a black T-shirt in a pinch. If you want to spend the
money, you can buy a piece of black cloth at your local fabric store.
Black velvet is ideal.
4. Something large and white. I'll discuss this in more detail later.
5. Your camera's instruction manual, unless you're already very familiar
with the camera's controls.
There are plenty of other pieces of equipment that could make the job
easier, though, and I'll mention them along the way. And of course, it
does help to have some nice looking orchids!
With most orchids—and indeed, a lot of other subjects—the most
flattering light is soft and diffused light. This may not be the most
artistic light (dark shadows are sometimes used for artistic effect),
but it's great for providing an accurate rendition of a subject, and can
also be modified for more artistic work, once you get the hang of it.
So how do you get soft light? Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing
to do with the amount of diffusion material covering the light. There is
a simple rule for getting nice, diffused light:
The larger the light source relative to the subject, the softer the
light will be.
Take a look at the diagram to the right. The first light source is a
bare flash tube, which is quite small. All of the light is coming from
in front of the ball, so the shadow cast has sharp edges.
In the second instance, a piece of diffusion cloth is placed between the
flash and the ball. When the directional light from the flash passes
through the material, it spreads out in every direction, like ripples
from a stone thrown into a pond. This makes the illuminated area of the
diffusion cloth the new effective light source, and that area is larger
than the flash tube, but more importantly, slightly larger than the
ball. This allows the light to travel around the edges of the ball and
fill in the shadow's edges, making it softer.
In the third case, the diffusion cloth is further from the flash, so its
illuminated area is larger, and that area is closer to the ball, so it
is also relatively larger. Since the light source is so large, a lot of
light can pass around the ball and fill in the shadow cast by the light
coming from the center of the cloth, making the light very soft.
So, how do you get a big light source?
In photography studios, we use softboxes, silks, and umbrellas to
diffuse light, but not everyone has these things handy at home.
You could start by using lights that are big. Fluorescent tubes in a
shop light are usually four feet long, which can create very soft
light—but only in one direction. However, if you prop or hang the
shop-light fixtures vertically and use two or more tubes spaced 2 – 4
feet apart from each other, and about the same distance from the
subject, the light should be nice and soft. Be careful, though, because
the tubes can sometimes produce hot spots and odd, linear reflections.
A better method is to use a single bright light, such as a 500+ watt
halogen work light (about $20 at your local home-improvement store,
including light stand) or even a CFL floodlight. Instead of pointing the
light at the subject, though, point it in the opposite direction, at a
large white object such as a white painted wall. The illuminated portion
of the wall—in an otherwise dark room—will become the effective light
source, and depending on your working distance, this may be 8 feet tall
and just as wide, which will give you very creamy, soft light. It is
important to distance the light far enough from the wall so that it
spreads out and covers a large area on the wall.
If you don't have a white wall, then you can hang a white sheet on a
wall—or freely from the ceiling, for that matter—and use that as your
reflector. Just keep in mind that if you use something that is not
entirely white, the reflected light will pick up the other colors
present, and disrupt the accuracy of the color in your photo. The same
strategies work with a flash. Most modern flashes have swivel heads that
can be flipped 180 degrees. This is the time to do it! Flip the head
back and bounce the flash off your white surface.
If you have a separate flash for your camera, and
don't mind spending a little money on specialized equipment, there's a
more convenient option. Simply buy a light stand ($19.99),
a swivel mount ($25),
and a shoot-through umbrella ($15).
Most DSLRs these days can trigger the flash when it's off the camera,
via infra-red signals. So in most cases, special triggering devices like
Pocket Wizards are not necessary. Simply attach your flash to the
cold-shoe on the swivel mount, the umbrella to the swivel mount, the
mount to the light stand, and start experimenting. To get the softest
light, get the umbrella as close to the blooms as possible, while
keeping it out of your picture.
Alternately, you can use a light-tent. A variety of sizes are now
available, many of them very affordable. Several articles on B&H
Insights already describe their use, so I won't repeat the information
here. Light tents will not be usefull for large specimen plants or those
with tall spikes of blooms, but they'll be perfect for small- and
If you use either a plain-white or plain-black background be careful
about your exposure settings.
When you're using a black background, your camera's meter will often
over-expose, making the background grey, rather than black, blowing out
the highlights of your bloom. With a white background, the opposite will
occur; the white is under-exposed and becomes grey, while the bloom is
lost in muddy shadows.
How do you correct this? Use exposure compensation! This might sound
technical, but it's nothing more than adjusting a slider to make your
picture darker or lighter. Pull out your camera's manual and look up
exposure compensation, if you don't already know how to use it. Most
cameras allow you to adjust up or down in half steps, some of them in
The nice thing about digital is that you can experiment until you get it
right, without worrying about wasting film. If your frame is dominated
by the black background, you'll usually need to subtract about 2 f-stops
(-2 on your camera's exposure-compensation scale), and if the frame is
dominated by white, you'll need to add two (+2). After you're done,
don't forget to return this to zero, or all of your future pictures will
be over- or under-exposed!
If you have a DSLR, exposure compensation is
usually much easier. All of the Canon EOS cameras (except for the Rebel
line) have a large thumb dial on the back of the camera (shown here on
60D) so you can quickly add or subtract
exposure. Nikons usually have an exposure-compensation button easily
accessable near the shutter-release button, which is used in conjunction
with the main control dial.
Once you get the lighting and exposure right, the rest is pretty easy.
Here are some final tips to help you get the best results!
If you can, shoot RAW, and take a photo of a
reference (like the white object) to set the color balance. If you're
taking JPGs, then it's very important to set the white balance in your
camera. Use the instruction manual and your white surface to do so.
Better yet, use a color reference card, like an X-rite
Color Checker Passport, to get your
1. Keep your black background at least a couple of feet behind your
subject. This does two things: It throws it out of focus, so that dust
or texture doesn't become a problem, and it makes the background darker,
since less light will be reaching it.
2. Always use a tripod! It's critically important when you're not using
flash, but it can help even when you are. Not only does this give you
the flexibility to use longer exposures, but it allows you to get your
body out of the way so that you're not blocking the light!
3. Use a remote shutter release, either radio or cabled. If you don't
have one, set your camera's self timer! This will ensure that your
camera is absolutely still when the shutter releases.
4. If you're using an SLR, use a smaller aperture (a larger aperture
number, e.g., f11 instead of f5.6), but not too small, or your lens may
start getting slightly blurry. Avoid the highest and lowest apertures.
5. Introduce additional interest by misting your bloom with water.
Droplets can add an interesting texture, and help indicate the scale of
6. Take photos from unusual angles. This is a good idea with any type of
photography, but it's something that is sometimes overlooked with
flowers. Also, try experimenting with lighting from different angles
(bounce the light off of a white ceiling instead of a wall, or use a
wall that's next to the subject, instead of in front).
When you know how to use them, many of today's advanced point-and-shoot
cameras will be able to produce photos equal to—or better than—the
quality of those used in this article. Most of the photos in this
article were taken with a six-year-old, 7-megapixel point-and-shoot
However, if you want to take advantage of the
exquisite quality available from today's DSLRs, you might consider using
a macro lens as well. For Canon's APS-C bodies, their 60mm
f/2.8 macro lens is extraordinarily
sharp. If you have a Nikon, their 60mm
f/2.8 micro lens is also outstanding.
Both lenses allow you to focus much closer to your subject than any of
the photos presented here, allowing you to express your creativity and
capture greater detail.
Good luck, and feel free to let me know if you
have any questions. You can check out Gore
Photo and Light
and Matter to read and see more of my