Translucence

Yellow tulip back-lit to show detail of petals
Tulip back-lit to show detail of petals

One of the ways I like to photograph flowers is to light them from behind. It brings out the translucent nature of the petals, allows the colour to glow, and shows up details that you wouldn’t see under normal front-lighting.

In the photograph of the yellow tulip above, I wanted to show the delicate lines of the veins in the petals. Without the back-lighting, they would have been pretty much invisible, but here, with the light coming through the petals, they are much easier to see.

The layering of the petals where they overlap one another creates areas of varying shade and this helps to give emphasis to the petals’ curving shapes. It also creates variations within the yellow of the tulip – more interesting, I think, than the flatter tones I’d have got if I had just lit the flower from the front.

Clematis lit to exaggerate the colour
Clematis lit to exaggerate the colour

While the yellow tulip was photographed to give a realistic image, the green clematis above has had its colour exaggerated by the lighting and it was then saturated a bit more in Photoshop. If the flower petals are thick enough, the light from behind can make the colour appear richer. However, if you give this technique a try, you’ll find that the results will vary with the strength of the light coming through the petals and how much the petals themselves allow light to pass through. If you use a flower with very thin petals, the colour may become much lighter and you could instead create an image with very soft, delicate colours – a lovely effect.

I can’t remember the name of the clematis below (this one grew in my garden in Scotland), but I hope I’ll find the same one again because these pinky-purply shades are among my favourite colours.

In this photograph, the petals on the left-hand side have the light coming through them from behind but the right-hand petals are lit from the front. That was because I wanted to light the centre of the flower to capture the detail there. As a result, the veins of the petals on the left show up very clearly, but the petals on the right have a much more solid appearance and you can see the slight magenta marking on the petal’s midrib.

Translucent purple clematis
Translucent purple clematis

A set-up like this is very easy to do if you can find a lightbox of the kind that’s used for viewing slides and negatives. These boxes have a translucent ‘opal’ top surface with daylight-balanced light tubes behind. All you have to do is lay your flowers on top and add some soft light to the front of the flower if you want to show the detail of the stamens etc. (Otherwise they would be likely to be in silhouette.) For the frontal lighting, you need to make sure that it isn’t too strong, otherwise it would drown the effect of the back-lighting. Soft, overcast light from a window would be the easiest thing to try.

If you try this back-lighting technique, remember to check that the light isn’t making your flowers hot and wilting them. You can always take them away from the lights in between shots, even give them a rest in some water for a while.

Comments are always very welcome – please feel free to add yours!

Ever So Pretty In Pink

Cyclamen persicum cultivar in pink
Cyclamen persicum cultivar – like ruffled silk

 

Some flowers have a personality all of their own.

This little cyclamen looks to me as if it (she?) is all dressed up for a party in ‘her’ best dress – in frills, flounces and soft pleats of magenta silk. She’s a real show-off, dancing around with her skirt swishing and swirling around her.

Even the details of this glamorous bloom are exquisite. The cap behind the petals has the appearance a soft fabric, contrasting with the silky smoothness of the petals. I can just imagine this as an embroidered velvet, with perhaps some tiny seed beads added into the stitch-work. (Can you tell that I’m interested in textile art?)

By the way, I just had to go and look at a botany book to find that the ‘cap’ is actually the calyx, made up of leaf-like sepals.

Close-up of calyx and petals of pink Cyclamen persicum cultivar
The velvety-looking calyx surrounded by silky, swirling petals

It seems odd then, that earlier relatives of this flower had the distinctly earthy common name of ‘sowbread’. This was because the root of the plant, despite being poisonous to both man and most animals, was believed to be a favourite food of wild boar. (I don’t know about that, but I have seen a grey squirrel run across my garden with a nice fat cyclamen tuber in its mouth.)

The name ‘cyclamen’ also comes from the plant’s root (a disc-shaped tuber). It is derived from the Greek word ‘kyklos’ (circle).

The ancient Greeks, according to Hippocrates, used cyclamen in their medicine. Over the centuries its uses have been very varied. It was used for dressing wounds and was also thought to help ease childbirth but feared as a danger to pregnant women. In medieval times, the tuber was believed so powerful that if it was worn around the neck, or its juice smeared on the belly, that it could trigger a miscarriage.

Other uses for cyclamen root have been as diverse as using it to make soap (the tuber contains saponins) and fishermen using it to stun fish. (The fishermen would grate the toxic root and sprinkle it over water where there were fish. They would then gather the stunned fish that floated to the surface. Makes me wonder if the fish became at all toxic to eat…)

Today cyclamen is, despite its toxicity, still used in homeopathy. But it is far more likely that you’ll come across one of the many cultivars as either a beautiful (but tender) houseplant or as a hardy autumn or spring-flowering plant for your garden. Whichever they are, they’re little beauties!

Pink Cyclamen persicum
The swirling petals almost appear to be moving…

Astrantia – A Pretty Flower With An Intriguing Past

Astrantia 'Roma'
Astrantia ‘Roma’ is delicate, airy and very photogenic.

In last week’s post, I said that a flower’s structure is one of the main things that makes me want to photograph it.

Astrantias are a good example of this. The shapes created by the outer ruff of petal-like bracts and the inner ‘pincushion’ of tiny flowers make it irresistible to me and my camera.

The astrantia flower offers plenty of detail to photograph. The inner pincushion of flowers has stamens that are like little threads. Just behind each minute flower is a ribbed part that looks like a miniature corn-cob – this will eventually become the seed.

Behind the flowers, the papery bracts are delicately veined with pink or green. Choosing to either bring these veins into sharp focus or to let them blur softly into the background allows for a different feel to the resulting photograph. To take advantage of this, I usually make a series of photographs. Experimenting with different depths of focus and photographing from varied angles is a very pleasant way to spend a morning and it’s ever so easy for time to just pass me by…

The shape of the astrantia flower has given it one of it’s common names – ‘Hattie’s Pincushion’. Who Hattie was, I have absolutely no idea. But it’s a sweet little flower to have as the last trace of her memory.

Astrantia’s other common name is ‘Masterwort’ and it’s this name that you find in historical references.

As ‘Masterwort’, astrantia was believed to have a number of medicinal uses. In ‘Culpeper’s Complete Herbal’, Nicholas Culpeper describes many ways that it could help his patients.

Maladies ranged from ‘all cold griefs and diseases, both of the stomach and body’, to cleansing and healing wounds, and preventing rheumatism and gout. Culpeper also suggests that it should be taken with wine to ‘extract much water and phlegm from the brain, purging and easing it from what oppresses it’.

However, I really wouldn’t recommend trying astrantia as a remedy for any of the ills that Culpeper mentions. His herbal was completed in 1653 and medicine has changed a bit since then!

Nowadays, being ‘a pretty face’ is quite enough for astrantia. It has become popular with garden designers and is easy to grow. Since astrantias prefer moist soil, I find that I need to keep them watered in my dry Suffolk garden. But they grow happily in shade and mix beautifully with other plants. (I think they’d look great combined with grasses, so I plan to try them with Stipa tenuissima next year.) For many gardeners, perhaps the best thing about astrantias is that slugs don’t seem to eat them. Yes, a plant that’s pretty much slug-proof – how wonderful!

Pink astrantia
Astrantias can be pink, red or white.