“Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the sun moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds; and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over….”
There are tiny hard fruits already on the plum trees.
The purity of the apple blossoms is incredible.
As the wind dies down their fragrance
Clusters around them like thick smoke.
All the day they roared with bees, in the moonlight
They are silent and immaculate.
From “Millennial Spring” by Charles Goodrich in The Ecopoetry Anthology, edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street:
The plum tree in full blossom —
slower than this
does not go.
I took the photos below on a mostly cloudy day in late February, which worked out well because whenever the sun came out, these new plum blossoms reflected the sunlight too much. With the sun filtered through the clouds, however, the flower petals showed off their truer color, even if it’s only slightly more colorful than pure white.
I had this sense — while standing beneath the plum tree, as one does — that I was surrounded in a cloud of plum-colored mist: even my hands holding the camera took on the purple/pink hue that bounced about the branches, leaves, and flower petals of this delightful tree. The leaves especially — as you can see in the pair of larger matching photos below — exhibit one of the richest colors to be found in late winter or early spring blooms. The last photo in this series — where some of the color from the rest of the tree is apparent in the background — might give you the same sense I had under the tree: that I could stand there all day, and just be like a plum!
“Take a look at a handful of your favorite photographs and become aware of the path your eye takes. Generally it will begin at one point and follow the same path around the image before returning to the starting point. That is the hierarchy of visual mass in your image….
“Notice how your eye doesn’t do much more than give passing notice to the background. It does this because it takes only a glimpse to perceive that the background holds nothing of interest.
“Your eye will tell you naturally how the areas of pull, or mass, are distributed in your image. Now the point to all this: is this the way you want people to look at your image? If my eye goes to a bright triangle of light in the lower-right corner and kind of gets stuck there, is that where you want my eye to go? No? Then you need to do one of three things — exclude that white corner with a crop, diminish the pull of that white corner with a vignette, or provide me with an area of greater visual mass to pull my eye from that spot….”
“A white background allows you to show off the delicacy and transparency of your flower subjects…. A black background is also great for flower photographs and it is perhaps the most dramatic setting for floral imagery. On black, you can still photograph with the aim of displaying delicacy; yet it also provides opportunity to bring out the drama in flower coloration.
“When photographing flowers on a white background, I normally overexpose and aim for a rightward-biased histogram. The opposite is true when I photograph flowers on black: I underexpose and aim for left-biased histograms. Some underexposure deepens the black background and adds to the saturation of colors in the flowers.“
As the first quotation above explains, we often discount the content of a photo’s background when looking at it — giving it attention, perhaps, only if the background creates additional context for the photo or adds compelling shapes or color elements. A photo of a flower singled out from other flowers or plants in the background is perceived differently from, say, a photo of a flower in front of stone or concrete structures, where the stone provides color and texture that contrasts with the typical delicacy of the flower blooms. My third post in this year’s daffodil series (The Daffodils are Here! (3 of 4)) shows some examples: in the first gallery on that post, I positioned the camera intentionally to include parts of the nearby statues (partially out of focus) to create such a contrast, whereas most of the other photos feature only foliage in the background — and in those images the background provides mainly a perception of color (green!), with the background forms providing some shapely uniformity that is largely irrelevant.
Still, I often reconstruct parts of a photo’s background in Lightroom, using spot removal or healing brushes to replace distractions — especially since, when photographing outdoors, I have little control over light and some excessive highlights will often break through the darker areas, appearing as bright blobs that our eyes might latch on to. Since patterns of color and shape often repeat in nature photographs, it’s fairly straightforward to remove a distracting blob by replacing it with a leaf, or even eliminate larger objects (sticks, for example) that have captured too much light by replacing them with a batch of leaves, grass, or other elements so that the background ends out more consistent in appearance. I’ll also typically mask the entire background behind the photo’s main subject and add the appearance of additional bokeh by reducing noise and decreasing texture and sharpness, to give the background a smoother, softer appearance and further differentiate it from the subject.
With black backgrounds, of course, I don’t need to do any of that, for the obvious reason that nothing in the background will show through anyway. I still make decisions about what elements of the subject to include in the photo: in some of the photos below, I’ve kept stems or leaves, in others I’ve left them out. That depends on how much of the subject and immediate surroundings are in focus — like in the first yellow daffodil below — since the black mask will cause anything that’s blurry or out of focus to be more obviously so. So, for example, if in that same first photo the stem was blurrier, I would likely have excluded it from the final version of the image, or made it so dark that it appeared to fade to black.
How much of a photo is in sharp focus also helps me determine whether or not it’s suitable for this black background treatment: if individual blooms in the white daffodil clusters below were out of focus, I would typically decide such photos were unsuitable for this treatment. And since I’ve previously used masking to defocus the background of the original photo, it’s simple to flip the background I’ve already masked to black and check to see if the subject — especially around its edges — is adequately in-focus to look right as it contrasts strongly on pure black.
In the second quotation above, Harold Davis describes how you can use underexposure to create more saturated colors. This is very true, and works especially well for colors like yellow, orange, white, or green, where even slight underexposure deepens the colors and captures more texture in the shadows. It’s less effective with colors that are already highly saturated — like reds or purples — which will often need some saturation reduction in Lightroom to keep them from offending your eyeballs. I almost always use exposure bracketing so that the camera creates three images from each scene: one at my chosen exposure, one overexposed, and one underexposed, so that I can then choose the one with the level of color saturation (and focus) that I like the best. With flower photography, the underexposed photo is almost always the version I’ll end out using, whether I’m keeping the background intact or removing it entirely.
“By the late nineteenth century a wildflower became an economic resource, as daffodil flowers could now be sent to local markets. Daffodil production became a by-product of fruit-growing — the grass below the trees would be cut in late summer to make it easier to pick windfalls, which ensured that there would be reduced grass competition when the flowers emerged in spring; they would also be easier to pick. After World War I, Toc H, a Christian service organisation, promoted the picking of daffodils to cheer up hospital patients, and also began to sell daffodils at hospitals to raise money. Commercial picking also took off, especially since flowers were usually available for Mothering Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent), traditionally the beginning of the gardening season in Britain.
“During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, the income from picking daffodils actually became quite important, as it was the only independent income for agricultural labourers in the area, doubly welcome for it being at a time of year when there were few other sources of income. Others joined in too, especially Gypsies and casual workers from the Midlands….
“The flowers became an early tourist attraction, with a special Daffodil Line train running between the villages and the nearby town of Newent.”
I may rustle up some of these on black backgrounds, but unless I come across some not-so-far-photographed variations, I think I’ll move on to selections of other spring photos in my backlog: plum, apricot, and cherry blossoms; baby dogwoods (puppywoods?); batches of red, wild, and lady tulips; some early white irises; and a few other species that are so fresh out of the camera I haven’t identified them yet. Spring is very much springing!
“The Narcissus wondrously glittering, a noble sight for all, whether immortal gods or mortal men; from whose root a hundred heads spring forth, and at the fragrant odour thereof all the broad heaven above and all the earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea.”
“The flower thus praised by the ancient Greeks is believed to have been the Tazetta or bunch-flowered narcissus, which, besides being the most widespread of the genus, is also the one longest associated with man. Centuries before even the time of Homer, flowers of this species were used by the Egyptians in their funeral wreaths, and have been found in tombs, still wonderfully preserved after 3000 years. This was the flower, originally white, which was turned yellow by the touch of Pluto when he captured Persephone sleeping with a wreath of them on her hair; a legend which nicely accounts for the fact that there are yellow ‘polyanthus‘ species closely resembling the white ones….
“N. poeticus, the poet’s narcissus, was also known to the (slightly less) ancient Greeks, and was probably the flower ‘whose Beauty they deduced in their wild Way, from the Metamorphosis of a celebrated Youth of the same Name’ — a story fabricated by the later poet, Ovid; both species were mentioned by Theophrastus, about 320 B.C….
“Pliny says that the plant was named Narcissus because of the narcotic quality of its scent — ‘of Narce which betokeneth nummednesse or dulnesse of sense, and not of the young boy Narcissus, as poets do feign and fable’….
“The Furies wore narcissus flowers among their tangled locks, and are said to have used them to stupefy those whom they intended to punish. Some lingering wraith of this tradition may account for the belief that the scent of the narcissus is harmful, which persisted at least till the nineteenth century; the scent of the jonquil and the tazetta was particularly distrusted, and in close rooms, was considered ‘extremely disagreeable, if not actually injurious, to delicate persons’. It was said to cause headache, or even madness.”
This is the third of four posts featuring photos of daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s Gardens, that I took in February. The first post in this series is The Daffodils are Here! (1 of 4), and the second post is The Daffodils are Here! (2 of 4). For this post and the last one, I’m uploading photos of those that (mostly) fall into the tazetta or poeticus variations — some of which produce clusters of flowers on a single stem, all of which have white petals and display miniature orange or yellow (or orange AND yellow) “trumpets” at the centers. These are always my favorite daffodil varieties, and I was surprised just two days ago to see that there are still bunches of batches blooming, despite them having gotten off to an early February start.
I must be gone: there is a grave Where daffodil and lily wave, And I would please the hapless faun, Buried under the sleepy ground, With mirthful songs before the dawn. His shouting days with mirth were crowned; And still I dream he treads the lawn, Walking ghostly in the dew, Pierced by my glad singing through, My songs of old earth’s dreamy youth….
“The numerous wild species of narcissus are mostly centred about the Mediterranean, the great majority being indigenous to the Iberian peninsula, which is regarded as the centre of distribution of the genus. They may be divided for convenience into half a dozen major and some minor sections: the Ajax group, of daffodils with long trumpets; the short-cupped Poeticus group; the bunch-flowered Tazettas; the Incomparabilis, intermediate between Ajax and Poeticus; the Poetaz, between Poeticus and Tazetta; the Jonquils, and the various small rock-garden species such as triandrus and bulbocodium. Double forms occur in all these groups (except, perhaps, the last) and are in many cases of great antiquity….
“Our own wild daffodil or Lent Lily belongs to the first group, and was once so plentiful near London, that in 1581 the market-women of Cheapside were reported to sell the flowers in the greatest abundance, and all the shops were bright with them.”
I first thought that the unusual flowers in the last six images might be a tulip variety — but after some digging around on the internet, I concluded (hopefully accurately) that it was a daffodil known both as Derwydd daffodil or Thomas’ virescent daffodil. This uncommon variant is a form of double daffodil — a daffodil that produces multiple rows of overlapping and clustered flower petals — and often features green, rather than yellow, as a dominant color.