The Subject Was Roses … and Other Flowers
Bob Bretell photographed this sunflower in a darkroom using a studio flash, LED flashlight and five-second exposure. Holding the flashlight in his hand, he “painted with light” by using a constant feathering motion across the center of the flower to add texture and dimension.
When ‘Sweet Juliet’ roses bloom, your heart soars. Such is their beauty that their ephemeral nature seems as tragic as a Shakespearean play. If only you could capture the velvety petals for time immemorial. You may not be able to preserve the fragrance, but you can “freeze time” in the visual realm. Bob Bretell does, and he offers gardeners and other plant lovers botanical photography instruction. He began shooting flowers professionally in 1998, when Paul Ecke Ranch asked him to help with its spring catalog. These days, he shoots for catalogs, retail displays and websites and does all the photography for the Southern California Plumeria Society. Once every three months, he presents flower photography workshops at San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas (the next one is Sept. 24); and he recently established his own online course. According to Bob, the best time to shoot flowers in San Diego is first thing in the morning, because (1) the marine layer provides a soft light that is more flattering for outdoor subjects; (2) wind, which can present multiple challenges for still photography, typically strengthens in the afternoon; and (3) flowers tend to look a bit fresher and more plump in the morning. Although the majority of his flower photography is out-doors, he will shoot indoors near a window if he wants a specific effect or the weather is uncooperative.
“That can be very effective, because you have directional light, which creates drama,” he notes. “Indoors or outdoors, if I want to add a highlight, I use an LED light or flash,” he continues. “I can position it behind the flower for a glow effect. The key is to add supplemental light in such a way that the flower doesn’t look like it has been enhanced; it still looks natural. “If you shoot in an area that is primarily shaded and you have some light but it’s kind of flat, a flash can be nice to give the picture contrast and vibrancy,” Bob says, adding that it’s helpful to have an assistant hold the flash to one side or another. To isolate a flower from its background, you can use a panel. Bob carries backgrounds in his car, “because I never know what I am going to find or what conditions will confront me,” he says. “Foamcore works best. I cover it with fabric and typically use colors found in nature — deep greens, sometimes burnt red — so that they don’t distract from the subject. I also have white for a high-key look and black for drama.”
The high-key technique (using a white background with no shadows) results in a bright, clean look popular for catalogs. “You light from different directions,” Bob explains. “You can have a key light and maybe a fill light.” For backgrounds, he uses dyed or airbrushed muslin or canvas and handmade paper. “‘Shooting through’ offers a neat effect in a garden,” Bob says. “You don’t try to take out everything that’s in the view. The subject may be a rose, but you have leaves and other things vignetting it. You make those part of your composition, but the only thing that should be in focus is your subject.” If a flower is blowing in the wind, Bob puts a bamboo stake in the dirt with clothes-pins glued back to back — one clipped to the stake and one to the flower’s stem. Sometimes, however, you may want movement.
Bob Bretell’s Top FIVE Tips:
1) Slow down and be mindful.
2) Look for the “sweet” light. Is it coming in from the side, top or back? If you are shooting a flower that you can move, such as one in a pot, change the position of the flower to the light.
3) Study the background. If it distracts, what can you do to improve it? Sometimes all you need to do is move in closer.
4) Walk around and look at the flower from different perspectives. Chances are the first thing you see isn’t going to be the best angle.
5) If you want to see everything in focus, choose a small aperture. If you want a specific area in focus, use a larger aperture.
“A handheld shot with a slow shutter speed creates a soft blur that gives a nice impressionistic effect,” Bob says. “The shutter speed must be from one-quarter to two seconds, but you have to compensate by stopping down your aperture so it’s very mini-mal — for example, one-half second at f/22. To compensate for the long exposure, I use a neutral density filter, which reduces the amount of light entering the camera. This ‘Monet effect’ is best done first thing in the morning or on a really overcast day.” Bob’s fundamental coaching involves being mindful. “Take time to study not only the light, but also the flower’s “I use fixed focal length lenses, primarily because I have my favorites. I use a 100mm macro lens, and that satisfies at least 50 percent of the floral photography I do.”— Bob Bretell