"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (1 of 2)

Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (1 of 2)

From “Learn to See the World Around You” in Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“If you pay attention to the world around you, you can’t help but fall in love with nature. The rhythms, the beauty on a vast and a minute scale, the triumphs of life: It’s all laid out around us, and if we choose to be in touch with all this richness on a deeper basis, we’ll be better photographers. Learning to see is, after all, about learning more about yourself as you connect with the natural world around you.”

From “The Nature of Sunlight” in Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“Natural light exists in two forms: as strong, direct sunlight, known as specular light, and, if softened by clouds, diffused light. Both types of light are sourced from the sun. With nothing standing between your subject and the sun, the light is direct and produces sharply defined edges. Emotionally, this direct light expresses vitality, hope, and joy. People go out to sit in the sunshine because being bathed by the light of the sun can bring a feeling of happiness. Our existence depends on the sun, and emotionally we know that, so sunlight inherently expresses life. Sunlight is bold and aggressive. It can be wonderful for dramatic landscapes, and for times when you want to create strong contrast in a photograph. Yet sunlight is not appropriate for every subject. You wouldn’t express the peacefulness of a forest in the high contrast of full-on sunlight, but you could use that light on a landscape of sand dunes, or to capture the intense glow of backlit flowers or leaves….

“Working with light, it’s important to recognize some differences between how we see light and how the camera sees it. Our eyes can read a greater range of contrast than the sensor in our camera can. As we scan a scene, our pupils are constantly opening and closing to adjust for the amount of light so that we can see detail in everything. We are looking here, then there, and the eye is constantly adjusting to the light and shadow present. The camera can’t do that. It simply grabs a moment in time, the one you’ve chosen, and tries to capture as much range of light as it can, but that can be a big compromise. Because of this, a scene might look good to our eyes, yet the results may be a disappointment. The more you realize this difference, the better you’ll become at analyzing the contrast of light in any situation and deciding how you’ll manage it.”

From Hydrangeas by Naomi Slade:

“In the garden, hydrangeas are handsome and versatile shrubs. They excel in a woodland setting, particularly if you choose cultivars with lighter-coloured flowers, and they can make a spectacular specimen in a mixed border….

“Hydrangeas work well with complementary herbaceous plants… and also with evergreen shrubs that have an opposing season of interest, such as azaleas or sweet box…. And, while in full floral spate the hydrangea will steal the show, in the depths of winter, the denuded shrub, with its charming, skeletal flowers, adds useful structure and interest to the garden.”


Continuing with a “Winter Shapes” theme (see Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (1 of 2) and Winter Shapes: Japanese Maple Leaves (2 of 2)), I assembled some closeup photographs of hydrangea “skeletons” from two recent photoshoots. As with the Japanese Maple photographs, this first of two posts features those from a sunny day with sparkly backlighting, the kind of lighting I often seek out when photographing flowers and plants.

It can be especially effective to work with backlighting that’s filtered through nearby shrubs or trees, so that background brightness doesn’t swallow the subject entirely while it creates interest through blends of blurred light and shadow. I usually take multiple shots of scenes like this from different positions and camera settings, since — as Tharp describes in “The Nature of Sunlight” above — the camera tries to gather as much light as it can, which may be too much for subjects as small as these hydrangea remnants. It’s also true that since I’m facing the light source when taking photos like this, the camera’s viewfinder is awash with light and it may be difficult to see the viewfinder’s rendering — so I have to rely more heavily on what the camera is telling me about the exposure than I do with more direct lighting. It took me a while to get used to that — largely ignoring the viewfinder image but paying attention to the aperture, shutter speed, and histogram instead — but once it became a habit, it gave me more creative control over what I was trying to accomplish.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


    1. Dale

      Thank you! I was really pleased with my results on these. And I shot them a few days after packing up all the glittery Christmas baubles, so they reminded me of Christmas decorations all over again!

      Thanks for commenting!


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