Controlling the Light in the Gardens

Jamie Konarski Davidson
Think you can’t shoot flowers at high noon? Think again! Using a few simple tools to control the light will get you in the groove.

In the “perfect world” of photographing flowers and other garden treasures, we would have soft, overcast light. Perhaps, we could add a light rain that sprinkles “fairy droplets” on petals and leaves in all the right places and stops just before we enter the garden. For good measure, let’s add temperatures that are well out of the swelter zone. It could, and does happen, but more often than not, we get what we get when we get it. Find a way to make it work or stay home. My vote is to “make it work.”

Magic of Diffusers and Reflectors

One of the best and easiest ways to control bright, harsh and contrasty light when photographing flowers is using a diffuser and reflector. These simple tools allow you to eliminate harsh shadows (when they don’t work for your subject) and to control the level of light washing over your subject. You can also add light where you want it. This means that you can shoot at “high noon” or all day long, even on bright, cloudless days.

My set-up includes a 22” 5-in-1 diffuser reflector set and a 12” gold/silver reflector. I also have a small diffuser that I use when it works for the situation. The 5-in-1 set includes the diffuser and a reversible cover that has a gold and silver side and a black and white side. To be honest, I rarely use the cover but keep it tucked in the case. There could be a time when I need the bigger reflector to bounce light in shadowed areas; and, the black/white sides can be used as backgrounds. Most often, I use the large diffuser and the smaller reflector combination.

These images made with Nikon 70-180mm micro, f/5.6 on a tripod, with and without a diffuser.

 Photo ©Jamie Konarski Davidson

Tips on Using Diffuser & Reflector

Something to keep in mind when using the diffuser is that the position of the diffuser and distance from subject matters. The further away from the subject you hold the diffuser, less light is filtered through – creating more of a shade effect. The closer you hold the diffuser to the subject, more filtered light gets through. This means that you are in charge. When you like the look of the lighting on your subject, you’ve found the sweet spot for the diffuser. Give it a try, you can see the difference. Remember, too, that your exposure will change based on the lighting changes, so pay attention to your settings.

The small gold/silver reflector comes in next when you want to bounce light onto your now diffused subject. Most times I will use the gold side as I prefer the warmth. However, there are rare times when the silver side and more neutral tones work better. It can sometimes be tricky to find just the right spot and angle to hold the reflector. Find the area you want to light, then shoot away.

To be clear, this lighting dance is much easier when you use a tripod and shutter release (or self-timer). It can take a little practice doing the dance alone or even while handholding, but it’s worth the effort. When possible and practical, have a friend with you who doesn’t mind taking direction and holding the diffuser or reflector or both while you work the subject.

Using a diffuser to control harsh lighting and a reflector to add light back selectively makes this image work. (Nikon 70-180mm micro, f/8 @ 1/250 sec

 Photo ©Jamie Konarski Davidson

Controlling Background Lighting

One reason why I prefer the larger diffuser is that it allows me to address bright backgrounds surrounding and behind my flowers. Evening out lighting on the “star” is great, but if the background is too bright, and cloud cover is not eminent, the diffuser can help soften background light in a larger area than the 12” diffuser could. How much it can help depends on your angle to the subject and where that bright background is in the scene. Remember, in that perfect world of flower photography, the clouds would be your “no-hands required” giant diffuser. Keep in mind that sometimes the bright background can actually compliment your subject. Evaluate the scene and your goals and decide what will work best.

Foreground flowers in this image were diffused while allowing the background light to shine (Lensbaby Velvet 56)

 Photo ©Jamie Konarski Davidson

Final Tips for the Simple Lighting Kit

All the diffuser/reflector kits I have ever gotten (and I have a few), come with a loop tab on the holder case. I make things fairly simple for myself by attaching a carabiner to that loop and hook it either to a belt loop or to my camera bag so that it’s easy to access and carry. In that larger case, I add the small diffuser. And, because, well, why not … I also add macro filters/diopters, lens cleaning cloth and a retractable wire puller to deal with grasses or other blooms that poke into the frame after I’m all set up.  I can also add a small flashlight or a Litra cube for lighting. Everything fits in the diffuser/reflector case. So, this simple set-up allows me to control the light on my subject, and get closer. For me, that’s the best of both worlds, especially when I’m immersing myself in the blooms.

Without the diffuser, the petal detail (even at a shallow f/5) and colors would not work in bright sunlight.

 Photo ©Jamie Konarski Davidson

If you want to give your flowers and other garden subjects a chance to shine, adding the 5-in-1 diffuser/reflector set (22″) and the small reflector (gold/silver) is one of the best simple tools you can add to your toolbox. Having these allow you to shoot almost anything at all hours of the day in any light (including the high-noon harsh light).

Jamie Konarski Davidson

Jamie Konarski Davidson is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Jamie and our photography conferences she’s teaching at, click here.

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