"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10)

From More Than a Rock: Essays on Art, Creativity, Photography, Nature, and Life by Guy Tal:

“I’m actively working on a number of themes these days. Some involve a specific subject matter, others result from a fascination with specific locations… and some that at this time can only be described as abstract or immature concepts….

“I realized that I need a new word to describe these ongoing efforts and decided on ‘explorations.’ An exploration is sparked by a desire to understand something, to learn about it, to spend time with it, to tell its story (or mine) without defining a specific outcome in advance. Like a project, I know it will often result in something useful (images, portfolios, books, ideas, personal satisfaction, etc.), but until I know what it is, I find ample and sustained reward in merely being engaged in something that interests and fascinates me: a journey that is more important than any preconceived destination.”

From Lilies by Naomi Slade:

“With legions of yellow and orange lilies available, the dedicated lily lover might consider themselves well served by both plant and colour.”


If you’ve come around here now and then, you’ve seen that I often use Lightroom brushes on my photos to paint the backgrounds black as a way of accentuating each image’s main subject. I usually do that as an after-thought; that is, when I’m working through my images in post-processing, I decide that the background is a distraction and opt to get rid of it — sometimes partially, most of the time entirely. There are, of course, different ways to create dark backgrounds when shooting; but many of them aren’t really suitable for outdoor photography using natural light… especially for a shooter like me who likes to take only one lens on each shoot, and leave my flash gear or other supplemental lighting at home.

While working on the white lily photos I featured in two previous posts (see White Lilies (1 of 2) and White Lilies (2 of 2), though, I started wondering if I would have taken the photos differently if I was shooting them with the intention of removing the backgrounds afterward in Lightroom. Would I, for example, use different camera settings? think of lighting in a different way? compose the subjects differently?

To produce pitch-black backgrounds in Lightroom, I reuse a brush preset I created with these settings…

… which will change all brushed areas in the image to their darkest possible values, with saturation and noise set as shown to blur and soften any blips of light or color that still want to peek through the darkened background elements. After completing a “first draft” on a set of photos — adjusting exposure and colors, removing spots, and sometimes cropping — I use a Lightroom brush to outline around the edges of the subject like this:

The outline brush is feathered — as you can see above from the soft edges of the fluorescent green masking — since the shape of the subject varies throughout and its boundaries consist of curved lines and contours. Think of this like painting a wall where there is floor molding of a different color: one of the first things you might do is pick a small brush of suitable size (and bristle density) to paint a thin line of the wall color just above the molding. If you use a brush that’s too large, you’ll likely slop paint onto the molding you’re trying to protect, and have to remove it. If I zoom into a section of the photo I’m working on, you can see something similar near the top of the bloom…

… where the green mask covers part of the petal. I remove that with Lightroom’s Erase brush, and zoom in along all the edges of the flower to remove the mask from any other areas where it’s bled onto the subject.

I then use the same sized brush but without feathering to outline the subject one more time…

… and finally use a larger brush — also without feathering — to paint the rest of the background, effectively converting it to all-black. Turning off the feathering for these last two steps is like using a wider paintbrush in our wall-painting metaphor: you can cover a larger area quickly with more paint and fewer strokes (or mouse movements!).

Here’s the transition through the three steps, first with the mask showing and then with the mask turned off. Turning the mask off and on repeatedly as I apply it lets me see my progress and make sure that I’ve covered everything behind the flower.

The most time-consuming part of this workflow is the first step — outlining the subject with the feathered brush — so I tackle that right off the bat and then finish the rest of the background like a guy slinging finger-paint on poster paper. I’ve experimented a little with doing the same thing in Photoshop instead of Lightroom; and while it’s sometimes easier to mask the subject then flip the background black in Photoshop — the most detailed masking in Photoshop or Lightroom seem to require about the same amount of effort. So I stick with Lightroom, and don’t have to add Photoshop to my workflow to get these results.

With all this in mind, I altered how I took the photos for this series of posts to allow for what I’ve learned about making it easier and more accurate to convert their backgrounds to all-black. Selecting and masking around the subject works best when it’s as in-focus as possible, with good contrast and sharpness between the foreground and background. Since the amount of light and color that reaches the camera’s sensor is determined by a combination of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings — the exposure triangle — I wanted to figure out if different exposure settings would improve my ability to remove the backgrounds.

So I started with an assumption that a higher ISO setting would give me more flexibility in choosing shutter speed and aperture, and experimented with ISOs in the range of 800 to 3200 to see what worked best. ISO 3200 introduced a bit too much grain into the photos; and while I could remove a lot of it in Lightroom, the images ended out softer than I wanted with porous edges around the subject that were difficult to mask. ISO 800 or 1600 provided a good balance between sharpness and grain, so I took about half of the photos at ISO 800 and half at ISO 1600. Either setting gave me what I wanted: a few extra stops of available light with an aperture setting that increased depth of field so that the flower blossoms were well-focused from front to back. Shutter speed settings didn’t matter that much; I only needed a high enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake and stop the flowers from dancing in a light summer breeze. Any shutter speed greater than 100 worked good enough.

I took all of the photos with the same lens — a Sony 18-250mm zoom lens — whose great advantage is that (though it’s not technically a macro lens) I can get as close as 18 inches from a subject, and get decent focus even when zoomed to 250 millimeters. This lens works well at Oakland cemetery’s gardens since many of the planted areas are set two or three feet above ground level, or the flowers are blooming where I can’t get close enough to use a macro lens. Finally, since I was going to remove the backgrounds anyway, I could take the photographs from different angles, and could disregard random plants, trees, sticks, or stones that might distract from the subject.

There will be about 100 photos in this project, which is why this post is “1 of 10”. Over the past few weeks, I’ve tried to take a few pictures of ever lily variety I could find at the gardens and ended out with photos of a couple dozen different kinds — colors ranging from yellow to orange, pink to red, and magenta to purple. As I overheard someone telling her friends as they passed me hunched over a batch of lilies: “There’s so many flowers here! It’s like going to the botanical garden, but it’s free!”


If you read this far: bless you! Below are the first ten photos; more soon!

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! 🙂

A Profusion of Irises: Sun-Kissed Shades of Orange

From The Reason for Flowers: Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives by Stephen Buchmann:

Historically, flowers have been admired and used decoratively, adding their scents and beauty to our lives. But nineteenth-century women, especially those living in France and England, were caught up in a formalized culture of flowers, often painting elaborate floral scenes. Some claimed that the symbolic meanings given to flowers were an unstated universal language to be studied and used….

“Articles, pamphlets, and entire books on the symbolic language of flowers first appeared in Paris and other French cities around the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15)…. The most important event that codified the language of flowers was the publication of a Parisian book in 1819 by Madame Charlotte de Latour, a pseudonym. Most scholars agree that the author’s real name was Louise Cortambert (1775–1853), the wife of geographer Eugène Cortambert. The Latour book, Le Langage des fleurs, listed flowers by their seasons, and meanings that single blooms or a mixed bouquet would convey between friends or lovers…. 

“Orange-colored flowers signified hope….

According to Wikipedia, there are over thirty shades of orange — and these iris blooms I found in some filtered sunlight at Oakland Cemetery seem to show off many of them. The first gallery positions the irises in their natural surroundings; for the second gallery, I removed all the backgrounds — which gives the swatches of sunlight on each bloom an extra little glow.

Select any image in either gallery to see embiggened versions. You can then choose “View full size” to get a closer look at the color and detail.

The previous posts in this series are:

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! 🙂

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