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Handling Natural Light: Telephoto Macro Flowers in the Evening Light

Learning how to read the light is an essential photography skill! In this series of articles on “Handling Natural Light”, we look at how photographers analysed the ambient light to achieve images with beautiful lighting. Yukie Wago, known for her purposeful use of light and bokeh in her telephoto macro shots of flowers, shares how she achieved uniform tones in this light, airy image of cosmos flowers. This was achieved although the sun was in front, a condition that usually results in harsh contrasts. Why not try it out on your next visit to the park? (Reported by: Yukie Wago, Digital Camera Magazine)

Close-up of pink cosmos flower against creamy bokeh created from other flowers and sunlight

EOS 6D/ EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM/ FL: 300mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/2.8, 1/320 sec, EV -0.3)/ ISO 250/ WB: Cloudy


The story behind the shot

A shooting condition that could easily result in harsh contrasts

The above image of cosmos flowers was shot during the golden hour on a clear autumn evening, with the sun shining in front of me. Such shooting conditions usually result in strong contrasts, but I wanted to create an image that had a softer feel. The key to this was to reduce the contrast in the shot so that the tones are uniform.

I describe more about my lighting, exposure, and editing decisions below.

Note:  I also set the white balance to ‘Cloudy’, which results in a slightly warmer colour tone that makes the atmosphere feel cosier but isn't too overpoweringly orange.


Analysing the light and exposure

Marked diagram of light direction and shadow areas

Light direction: Side lighting from the front left side of the frame

What I wanted to do:

- Ensure that the sunlight shining on the cosmos flower at (A) was not too strong, which would result in harsh shadows.
- Lift the shadow areas at (B), which are created by the trees behind. These would become darker when the light falling onto (A) is reduced.

Reading the histogram

Histogram of image

The peak of this histogram is in the centre, which indicates that many of the pixels in the image are mid-toned. The cosmos flowers are at (A) while the shadows created by the trees are at (B). They are both very near the centre.

Exposing the shot for (A) would increase the number of bright pixels, which would make the image too bright and lose dimension. To keep the fine balance, I had to reduce the exposure slightly and ensure that the ISO wasn’t too high, and then lift the shadows in B when post-processing the RAW image.

Tip: While deciding on your exposure, you should also consider how you intend to edit your shot. It will help your final image look more impressive!


Putting decisions into action

For (A): Preventing strong contrasts in the main subject

Step 1: Move slightly to the side to avoid facing the sun head on

Field of cosmo flowers with strong backlight

The shooting scene.
Circled: Light shining through the trees

First of all, I composed my shot so that the scene wasn’t directly lit by the sunlight. Such direct backlight would have resulted in harsh contrasts, and could also cause flaring. Instead, I shifted so that the sun was to the side—in this case, the left side.

Step 2: Look for places where the sunlight is weaker

Even though it was shining from the side instead of head-on, the sunlight was still too strong. I thus found an angle where the cosmos flowers were lit by the light that was filtering from between the leaves. This light is softer, gentler, and makes the lighting on the flowers more even.


For (B): Lifting the shadow areas

Close-up of shadow areas and bokeh before post-processing

Close-up of shadow areas and bokeh after post-processing

When I post-processed the RAW image file, I did the following:

1. Lift the shadows. (For this image: All the way to the maximum)
2. Reduce the highlights to neutralise the strong sunlight. (For this image: About -50%). This also prevents blown highlights in the bokeh circles that were formed from the light.

These steps completely removed the harsh contrasts, resulting in the light, airy atmosphere.


What other ways are there to photograph plants with a telephoto lens? Find out in these articles:
Telephoto Lens Techniques – Creating Multiple Layers of Bokeh
Photographing Flowers: How to Create Brilliant Bokeh Circle Spotlights with a Macro Lens
Which Lens to Photograph Flowers With a Large Foreground Bokeh?

More tips and ideas for photographing photos here:
Flower Photography: Useful Techniques and Camera Features
How Do I Photograph Flowers More Dramatically?

Also see:
Handling Natural Light: Train Platform in the Morning


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Yukie Wago

Yukie Wago

Based in Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture, Yukie Wago started shooting with film and toy cameras. Her journey shooting flowers and other living things began when she got her first DSLR camera. Since then, she has become renown for her unique style, which involves shooting with a telephoto lens while deliberately incorporating light and bokeh, ultimately creating pictures reminiscent of scenes from fairytales and fantasy movies.

Instagram: @yukie_wago