Camera equipment and settings
I have photographed the Queen, or Night Blooming Cereus, for many years, starting at Tohono Chul’s Bloom Night. I have enjoyed learning tips from other photographers and sharing my knowledge with others to help them get that “perfect shot”. I’m often asked how to photograph the blooms, so here are some tips that might help you.
It doesn’t really matter what camera you use. I have seen great images taken with an iPhone and poor ones taken with the latest most expensive professional camera.
I have used a Canon 6D for a long time, but mainly use my Fuji mirrorless cameras now (X-T2 and X-T4). They are much lighter weight and therefore easier to hold in one hand, while I hold a light in the other.
- I usually shoot RAW with auto white balance (or you can set custom white balance to match your lights).
- ISO - I try to keep the ISO low, to avoid grain. Many newer digital cameras can operate at higher ISOs without any noticeable problems. In general, I try to keep ISO under 400.
- Shutter speed - a couple of things will determine what shutter speed I use: if I am hand-holding the camera or if it is windy. It’s often breezy in the evenings, so a faster shutter speed is needed to prevent blurry subjects (unless you like an ethereal look – then use very slow shutter speeds while using a tripod and let the flowers move during the exposure).
- Aperture – The size of the lens opening affects both the amount of light and the depth of field. I used to shoot wide open (f/2.8) to get shallow depth of field. This allowed me to highlight only one spot of the flower. However, I found that if either I or the flower moved, my focus was not on what I had intended. I reserve the shallow depth of field for the macro shots and often use f/8 to get a little more in focus.
Here are some sample images with settings I used for each:
f/5.6, 1/125, ISO 400, 73mm
f/5, 1/80, ISO 250, 35 mm with macro extension tube
I don't usually use a tripod - mainly because I often work around the flower to get different angles, and when I photograph at Tohono Chul during Bloom Night, there often is not enough room to set up a tripod. When photographing my own flowers and if I am creating a timelapse, then I will use a tripod for the camera and probably a light stand for the light.
Different lenses create different effects. Your vision of how you want your image to look will determine which lens you will use. I love using a 35 mm (50mm equivalent) because it is so light and very sharp.
- Wide angle lens will give you more depth of field, and you can include more background to give a sense of place. However, if there are wire cages around the plants, then you might want to use a less-wide lens.
- Telephoto – longer telephoto lenses (i.e. 55 – 200 mm) will compress the scene, allowing less depth of field, which can make flowers appear closer than they are. This can be used to great effect if you want to show several flowers with one as the main focus in front and others out of focus in the background. But, you might need to use a higher shutter speed to avoid blurry images. Another option would be a mid-range telephoto (i.e. 24-70 mm).
- Close-up/macro – Getting in closer to the subject isolates a part (the stamen, a leaf, the bud tip). Be careful with aperture – if you use wide apertures (i.e. f/2.8 or wider), then there will be very little in focus. Consider using a narrower aperture such as f/8 to get more than just one stamen in focus. I added a macro extension tube (MCEX-11) to my 35 mm, which allows me to get very close to the flower to get macro shots.
- Fixed lenses (i.e. 50mm) – often have wider apertures (f/2.8 or wider) and are very light.
f/2.8, 1/125, ISO 400, 23mm w/ macro extension tube
I have used flash to light the flowers, but I prefer a constant LED panel light, so I can see the effect of moving the light. It’s helpful to have one that has adjustable power and color temperature. A bonus is adjustable colored lights, if you want to play with different looks. It’s best to have a diffusion panel to create a soft, even light. The larger the light and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the shadows will be.
Key points about lighting:
- Use off-camera lighting – whether that’s flash, flashlight or LED light – just don’t use your on-camera flash.
- Only light what you want to see in your picture. Angle the light away from the background so it’s not visible behind the flower. Also, try to avoid having anything close to the flower directly behind it.
- Bring the light close to the flower to provide enough light and to create softer shadows. Using a diffusion panel on the light (or just a single layer of white t-shirt) also is suggested.
Here, I am holding a light for another photographer.
- Lighting to get a white flower on a black background – underexpose the background until it goes black, then add your light. When I use the light panel, I usually have it at or near 100% to get the most light output, then I can keep my shutter speed high enough to hand-hold the camera.
- Lighting to get a bloom against the sky or sunset - the bloom probably won’t be fully open yet when the sun sets, but getting the darker or colorful sky as a backdrop can be very dramatic. Underexpose the sky by 1 stop or more (to your liking). You will probably need to use a flash to get enough light when doing this. I like to isolate the bud against the sky so there are no other structures or distractions behind it.
f/8, 1/320, ISO 200, 80mm (100 equiv.)
- Lighting for a time lapse (several pictures over period of time to show the flower opening up).
- You must use a tripod for the camera, and for best results, have the light on a stand as well. It is important to set up so you have constant settings and lighting throughout the time lapse.
- Use a flash with a diffuser, set to manual, starting at 1/8 power. Attach to a light stand with an adjustable bracket so you can angle your light exactly where you want it. Set the light as close to the flower as possible without it being in the picture.
- Use a flash trigger or cable attached to your camera.
- Since the flower will start to open before it gets dark, if you want the background to be similar during the entire time lapse, then you will need to set the shutter speed very high to cut out the ambient light. Then, the only light source will be your flash. It will need to be set to High Speed Sync (HSS) if the shutter speed is set higher than the camera's sync speed.
- As it gets darker outside, the light from your flash will be constant and you should get the same exposure over time. You can decrease the shutter speed (the shutter speed affects the ambient light, not the flash output) to equal the sync speed, so the flash is not working so hard to put out the same amount of light.
"The Transformation II" f/8, 1/500 - 1/1000, ISO 200, 35 mm (53 equiv)
Camera and flash set up for time lapse.
- Back light, side light, up light - Try moving the light around the flower to get different effects or to highlight various parts of the flower. Similar to photographing people, having the light straight on to the subject isn't very flattering. Try holding the light 45 degrees up and 45 degrees over to get nice light fall-off and interesting shadows. Lighting from directly overhead can also be very dramatic.
- Using more than one light - Two lights can be used at the same time (this is where teamwork and collaboration with another photographer comes in handy). Use one as the main light (see above) and the second as an accent light from behind or below the flower. This second light could also be a color to add some interest.
"Delicate Dancer" f/8, 1/60, ISO 800, 55 mm
Look for leading lines and consider the rule of thirds when composing your image. Look at the branches of the cereus plant - do they bend in an interesting way? Would a certain perspective add more interest to your image? Do multiple flowers complement each other with repetition of pattern or shape? Consider having your camera parallel with the flower to see the details of the stamen rise above the petals. Try to find what makes that flower unique and highlight that with lighting and or composition.
"Suspended" f/13, 1/60, ISO 200, 50 mm "Jewel of the Desert" f/8, 1/13, ISO 800, 60 mm
I hope this information has been helpful to you. Now go out and capture beautiful images of the Queen!