"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
A Profusion of Irises: Backlit Blooms

A Profusion of Irises: Backlit Blooms

From Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds by Harold Davis:

“If you can see a flower, it is a source of light. With flowers, this visible light originates elsewhere — with the sun or an artificial light source — and is reflected by the flower…. [Many] flowers also emit electromagnetic waves on frequencies that humans cannot perceive as part of the flower’s strategy for attracting pollinators.

“When we look at a flower, the light sources that illuminate the flower and the interaction of the flower with this light visually sculpt the flower as well as establish the perceptual basis for the extraordinary range of colors in many flowers. As a photographer, light is the medium that I use for capturing flowers, so I like to categorize the issues surrounding light when I am pre-visualizing a flower photo. I think about light direction, intensity, warmth or coolness. The truth is that the quality of light and lighting involves many variables, and is always subjective and elusive. 

“Light direction means the primary direction of the light as it hits the flower. Photos that show flowers as they are ordinarily perceived such as in a plant catalog will likely use front lighting. Side lighting with flowers is a little less usual, and often works well if you are interested in shadows or strong contrasts between lights and darks. 

“I am a big fan of backlighting flowers, because it helps to emphasize transparency of the petals.”

I like backlighting too!

While it’s always interesting to see how cloudy days can soften shadows on outdoor photo subjects, it’s just as much fun to find strategies for getting good shots in full sun — like the backlit (or in a couple of cases, “sidelit”) irises below from one of my trips to Oakland Cemetery. There are some challenges to shooting backlit subjects, not the least of which is: the sun is in your eyes! And since I usually wear my summer disguise — 😎 — on bright days, the world through the camera’s viewfinder can be apocalyptically dark. So I’ve learned to rely on the camera’s clues: the little green box that flashes to the tune of a tiny beep when focus is achieved, the camera’s interpretation of correct exposure, and the histogram … supplemented with a few mystical guesses at the right settings for decent depth-of-field. Using the camera’s burst mode helps also, to increase the chances of getting a fully focused shot if the flower starts bouncing around in a breeze just as I mash the shutter-button. Which is what the flower usually does.

Most of these photos looked pretty lousy when I first imported them into Lightroom — as even with the best camera settings I could come up with, there were still many areas rendered too brightly, or with the background and subject blurred together because of the amount of light on both. From the batch below, here’s one example: a before image showing that the exposure settings I needed to get good color and detail for the flower made the background so bright that it draws your eye right away from the purple bloom.

When I came upon this flower, I thought it had been planted among some spider lilies or yucca — plants that often have long, bi-color leaves — then realized these were leaves of this iris variety, one of the few kinds that doesn’t have single-colored green leaves (see Dalmation Iris). Quite striking, they were, especially in a large patch of the garden, so I wanted to keep the background in a couple of photos since this variety was so unusual.

My goal for this image, then, was to reverse the effect of the bright light by muting the background and lighting up the flower. Since there’s a ton of color and detail in a photo’s RAW file, I was able to use Lightroom’s graduated filters to reduce the background highlights multiple times, then brush some increased exposure, brightness, and lighter shadows on the flower’s petals. The result ended out a lot like it looked in real life: the reflected yellow light from the surrounding leaves gives the impression that the flower is lit from behind.

Select the first image below if you would like to see before and after versions.

Here are the rest. Select any image to see larger versions; then choose “View full size” for a closer look at the color and detail.

The previous posts in this series are:

A Profusion of Irises: Sun-Kissed Shades of Orange

A Profusion of Irises: White Blooms on Black Backgrounds

A Profusion of Irises: Black (Iris) Friday!

A Profusion of Irises: Iris No. 1

Thanks for taking a look! 🙂


  1. I love iris and all the different ways that light plays with their shapes. I just spent a couple of hours playing with some photos of them. They are so beautiful that it is almost like a meditation or prayer to spend time with them.

    1. Dale

      Same! This was the first year that I visited Oakland Cemetery’s gardens while the irises were blooming, and I was really surprised that they had so many different kinds. It’s been a fun project to work through about two hundred of them, and I still have quite a few to post. The colors, textures, and shapes are just amazing!

      Thanks for the comment!

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