Every spring the Nichols Arboretum Peony garden bursts into bloom. Over the years, I’ve gone to this garden to photograph these incredible flowers. This year, armed with a new, low-key photography method, I’m heading back to get some great close-ups of these historic blossoms.
About the Garden
Nichols Arboretum, also known as “The Arb”, in Ann Arbor Michigan has one of the largest public Peony gardens in the world. It’s collection features 270 varieties of this classic garden perennial and totals over 800 individual plants. The view of the garden is amazing, with an estimated 10,000 blooms at peak season, making the garden one of the great draws to the Ann Arbor area.
The Nichols Arboretum was established in during the early 20th century and the Arb’s peony garden was designed by former arboretum director (1916-1934) Aubrey Tealdi in 1920. The original specimens were donated in 1922 by W. E. Upjohn, founder of the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo.
A Little About Peonies
The Herbaceous Peony (paeonia lactiflora), a mainstay of the 19th and early 20th-century American garden, can be found planted in the front yards of many old farmhouses across the mid-west. It’s late spring blooms, which can reach the size of a grapefruit, vary from white to a deep scarlet in color. While most blossoms have a single color, the most prized have a mixture of whites and creams with beautiful red or gold centers.
An interesting note about the Peony, the blossoms are large and round, about the size of a golf ball. They secrete a sweet sticky substance that attracts ants. The folklore is that Peonies need ants to “cut open” the blossoms and this is debatable. Regardless, the Peony’s pretty tricky, the ants that are attached to the nectar on the buds actually eat other insects that might damage or consume the flower. So if you have Peonies in your garden, don’t chase the ants away, they’re helping the flowers to bloom.
The Low-Key Macro Technique
In the past, I have gone to the Arb to capture landscapes or focused on individual plants in the garden. This year I wanted to try something different and armed with a new photography technique, I have gone to focus on the blooms themselves.
Recently, I came across a technique of lighting an element of a photo that makes the background completely disappear. This method is referred to as “Low-Key” lighting. This method lights the subject at the focal point and lets the background fade to black removing all distractions.
I’ve done light painting at night and in the studio using a single light to create a low-key image to focus the image on an aspect of the subject. I experimented with doing the same thing in bright daylight with a strong ND filter and a high-powered flash to create the low-key look in full daylight.
This method of low-key lighting appeals to me because I can use it to isolate flowers while they are still in the garden. No cutting off the blooms or doing something that would damage the plant. Just set up your tripod and snap away. After a bit of practice, I decided that this is the perfect technique to use in the public garden.
To use this method, you only need a camera, your trusty tripod, a good neutral density (ND) filter, and a flash. Having a wide-angle macro lens helps, but you’ll be OK with any lens that can get close to the flowers. For the off-camera flash, it’s hit or miss if you try to trigger it by hand, what really works best is to have a flash that can be triggered remotely (S1 mode on my flash) and is synced with the camera’s shutter.
For the setup, you put your camera on the tripod about 6-12” from the bloom you are interested in. With the ND filter on the lens, focus on the bloom and hold the flash just off frame, but as close to the bloom as you can get.
The idea is that when you capture the image, the intense light from the flash will illuminate the flower, but not the background or the rest of the plant. With careful placement of the flash, you can get incredible shadows and depth of texture on the blossom.
Into the Garden
With this in mind, I went hunting through the Peony garden looking for blooms that had the feeling of ballerinas and dancers.
What I love best about this method of capturing the flowers, is that you don’t have to cut them off and drag them back to the studio. These images were captured in full daylight, in a garden filled with plants and people. With total control of the lighting, you can get the shadows and highlights exactly where you want them. And finally, if the blossom is being blown around by the wind, the fact that you are using a flash to create the light stops the flower’s wiggle in its tracks.
I found that the best flower subjects are the ones that slightly stand out from the stems and leaves of the plant. They are easier to set the tripod close to and move the flash around to get the lighting correct.
With a little practice, isolating the blooms is simple and a lot of fun. I’m sure I was quite a site working my way around the garden with my tripod and flash, but the end result was well worth it.
On the way out, I stopped at some of the Azaleas, Rhododendrons, and Dogwoods that ringed the main Peony garden. The low-key method worked well on them too. It was harder to isolate the Rhodies, but the Dogwood was a great subject.
Next time you go to the garden or in the park, try this technique out. Just remember that the illumination power of the flash falls off pretty quickly so get up close and personal the blossom.
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