Category Archives: Flowers

Using Light for Emotional Impact

Photography is the art and craft of capturing light, whether via silver halide chemistry on film, or via silicon on a sensor array. “Capturing light” is probably the key part of this definition: unlike the popular perception that we photograph people or things, it is impossible to actually render anything in the absence of light. All we can capture is light emitted or reflected (mostly reflected) by our photographic subject matter.

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Irises in a Vase © Harold Davis

Why do we care about a photo? Generally because it stirs our emotions. Emotions can be stirred for many reasons, and due to many associations (Marcel Proust’s account of emotional reminiscence stirred by an odor comes to mind). An emotionally resonant image that is technically imperfect will trump a technically perfect but banal image any time.

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Boathouse Still Life © Harold Davis

Leaving aside imagery where the pure storytelling packs a wallop, powerful photos use light emotionally. Even graphic human interest photos are more powerful when they use light to their advantage. To summarize, we capture light not things. Emotional resonance is what matters in imagery. Therefore, powerful images manage to use light to convey an emotional response in the viewer. What should your take-away from this syllogism be? I think there are three simple conclusions that all good photographers recognize as guiding principles, and strive to master:

  • If you want to be a better photographer, train yourself to see light and not objects.
  • Light inspires, directs and misdirects when it is captured as the incredible force it is. Use all of this in your work: the force, the power, the inspiration, the direction and the misdirection.
  • Uniform and moderate light is rarely as interesting as strong lighting. Think of it this way: without evil for comparison, how do we know what “good” is? Light is the same way. You often can’t really see it unless there is also darkness.

In my high-key image of Irises in a Vase (shown far above) I purposely created a highly artificial construct of light that seems almost blinding—and therefore obscures details. This image does not look the way it would be rendered in a single accurate capture, but is more emotionally compelling because the apparently overwhelming light has left only the painterly details, with enough visual clues for the viewer to interpolate the rest. With Boathouse Still Life (above) the emotional appeal is achieved because of the partial illumination. In a generally low-key image, the composition with nautical rope behind it is lit by an apparently momentary shaft of light.

Story of O © Harold Davis

Story of O © Harold Davis

In Story of O (above) the action is in the gradation of light, from the light gray in the distance to the darker gray in the foreground, and the contrast with the black outlined shape. A sense of mystery always adds to the emotional appeal of an image, and the relationship of the background gradient to the “circle” foreground is indeed mysterious, bringing several different kinds of light into play. I like to quote the American poet Randall Jarrell, who once said that “Art being bartender is never drunk.” I take this to mean that my viewers don’t have to know what is going on in an image, and maybe even shouldn’t—but as “bartender” I must. This means first and foremost learning to use and control the emotional impact of light in my imagery. Related stories: More about Story of O; more about Boathouse Still Life. Also check out Becoming a More Creative Photographer (a set of articles with exercises on

Iris Friends

These variegated iris are clearly friends. They look at each other with empathy, tendrils even apparently touching—or at least waving to each other!

Iris Friends © Harold Davis

Iris Friends © Harold Davis

Nature’s Palette

Contrary to common cliché, the colors of nature are not always beautiful. But in the case of flowers, colors are almost always beautiful to human eyes. True, flowers need to attract pollinators to survive. But in a weird and wonderful example of species symbiosis, floral propagation is also largely dependent on attractiveness to humans. Nature has a number of stratagems here. For example, some floral species smell good to us. But when it comes to flower species survival and extension via human intervention, nothing beats nature’s glorious palette of floral colors!

Nature's Palette © Harold Davis

Nature’s Palette © Harold Davis

Related image: Tulips and Anemones.

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar, 2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Check out my online Photographing Flowers course (use this link for a $10 discount).

Adventures in a higher key

I photographed these tulips on a light box using my normal shooting sequence, but when the time came to process them I did things somewhat differently.

High-Key Tulips © Harold Davis

High-Key Tulips © Harold Davis

The normal workflow is to use a bracketed sequence of exposures (intentionally biased to overexposure) to create a high-key image, which is then processed for color, and then (if desired) texturized and placed on a background.

With this image, I began with a layered process for high-key transparency. I then departed from my usual practice by throwing away the background (almost white) layer. What remained was a partly transparent (literally so, in Photoshop) collage.

To continue, I replaced the bottom layer (formerly the background) with one of the textures from the Flypaper Textures new Paper Painterly collection. Well on my way to an exciting effect that combines the impact of digital painting and photography, I then applied a normal array of filters and adjustments to the image.

By the way, this makes a great and subtle print on Awagami Kozo washi. Very pleased with it!

Hip to be square

An important part of the gentle art of photographic composition is to recognize that we are rendering a three-dimensional world, in part by presenting it within a two-dimensional frame. An effective composition makes some kind of order out of the chaos inherent in the world using this framing mechanism, and also through the references of elements within the image to the frame that limits the scope of the image. After all, complete freedom is inherently chaotic and anarchic, and the use of a photographic frame is one of the more obvious ordering mechanisms that is available to any photographer.

Special Tulips © Harold Davis

Special Tulips © Harold Davis

My use of the word “framing” here refers of course to the borders of an image (or print)—and not to the external frame that is put around or over a work of art. Our concept of “framing” derives from the shape of the image that the camera captures. This is very strong when you consider traditional film photography: a 35mm negative is framed in a 1.5 to 1 proportion, and a medium format negative is generally square.

With digital, there is less reason to be bound by the internal framing of the capture device. A photo can be cropped in many different proportions, with the only practical constraint the available resolution if one is “throwing away” pixels. You can even create images that extensions of the capture size, such as panoramas or David Hockney-style photo collages.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed looking at square imagery, but it isn’t a compositional format that has come naturally to me. An art world client specifically asked me to create some square compositions from my flower photos, and I was pleased to see this work out with the image of Special Tulips shown above.

Botanique benchmark: I am excited and happy that a collector has agreed to buy the fifteenth copy of Botanique. This is the last copy that was priced at $1200, and the price is now $1950 for numbers 16-20. Thank you very much everyone who has supported this project, and a big shout-out to the original sponsors on Kickstarter (where pricing started at $600!).

Photographer as Poet

When people learn that I am a professional photographer, it is not unusual for them to ask me next what kind of photographer I am. The answer is trickier than it might seem. According to Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer, there is no such thing anymore as a professional photographer (because everyone has a DSLR). If you are primarily a wedding photographer you have a specialty (although it is less lucrative than it used to be). It’s possible to specialize in landscape and nature photography, but not too many photographers make a good living from it.

Peonies mon amour (with inken) © Harold Davis

Peonies (with inken) on washi © Harold Davis

But what about me?

I like to say that I am a “Photographer as Poet.” I photograph what I am interested in, and I figure out a way to market my work after I’ve made it. “What I am interested in” could mean just about anything or anyone. Photography is just the first step in my image making.

My images are more like poems than short stories—they have an internal cadence and structure.

I feel strongly enough about this “Photographer as Poet” thing that I’ve had a Japanese inken made for me (it’s a stamp, like a Chinese chop) that says “Photographer as Poet.” Here it is:

Harold Davis - Poet as Photographer

My inken is used as a decorative element and signature on some of the prints that I make.

Which brings me back to what I do. One of my collectors put it this way (and I think it rings true): I am an artist using techniques including digital painting, with digital photos my as my raw material (pun intended). The results usually don’t look like traditional photography. I like to use new technologies to refer to art of the past, and to mix-and-match genres. One example is the botanical image of peonies above, printed on a high-end inkjet printer on Awagami washi.

This could almost be traditional art, but it is not quite, of course. Nor is it so self-referential as to be coy. I want my poems to be enjoyable on their own, without any comprehension of the complex traditions that relate to their making, and without any need to notice the genres I’ve mixed and the conventions I’ve bent or broken in the process of creation and composition.

Related story: Rose after Delauney and O’Keeffe.

Awagami Video with Botanique

I’m really pleased to note a new professionally-made video from Awagami about photographers who print on Awagami washi that shows my Botanique. The video can be played below, embedded from Facebook. The video is in Japanese with English translation in subtitles. Botanique is shown in the video at about the 50 second mark. 

Rose after Delauney and O’Keeffe

At a recent lunch with my brother he reminded me how we both benefited from a classical education in the arts when we were young. I may not have got much of this stuff via formal education, but I sure was exposed to every layer of visual art history as a child thanks to my parents. Mostly, by seeing the stuff in person—from the paintings on the walls of the Caves of Lascaux to the museums with the “moderns” and everything in between.

To quote the dearly beloved and recently deceased Pete Seeger on the difference between education and experience, “Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.”

I’m not sure how this fits with being dragged through every museum imaginable as a wayward kid—probably more in the experience category—but even as a bored child it was hard not to fall hard for the impressionists at first encounter.

Rose after Delauney and O'Keeffe © Harold Davis

Rose after Delauney and O’Keeffe © Harold Davis

Anyhow, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I went to work on the photo of the pale rose (far below), but I do know enough to recognize the palette and patterns of the great geometric painter Sonia Delauney along with the sensuousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe floral—when they pop out at me in an image I’ve created.

You’ll note that the original image is rotated 90 degrees. The other effects come from a series of LAB adjustments—inversions and equalizations—applied using a variety of blending modes.

Within each rose © Harold Davis

Within each rose © Harold Davis

For a couple of other examples of this kind of thing, check out Mandalas from a Glass Bowl, Broken Arrow and Creating LAB Patterns, and also see my article on, Using LAB Color Adjustments.

Meanwhile, I must report that there is a certain goodwill towards the world that comes about from consorting with one’s fraternal sibling when both brothers are “of a certain age” with receding hairlines and cares and children of their own, and fondly reminiscing about some of the unique aspects of our culturally rich—and radically eclectic (or maybe eclectically radical)—upbringing.

Flowers for the vernal equinox

To celebrate the spring equinox yesterday, here are some Tulips and Anemones shot on my light box for translucency (a white ranunculus peeks through on the upper left as well!). You can recognize some of these specimens in Kaleidoscope of Flowers. As you can see, I am enjoying our California spring!

Tulips and Anemones © Harold Davis

Tulips and Anemones © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar, 2 seconds at f/16 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Kaleidoscope of Flowers

Spring has come, and I know it’s true because I have anemones and ranunculae to add to my tulips on my light box for back lighting. Fun to create a composition that seems almost like a kaleidoscope image—but the colors are made of flowers!

Kaleidoscope of Flowers © Harold Davis

Kaleidoscope of Flowers © Harold Davis

Exposure information: Shot on a light box with a Nikon D800 and Zeiss Otus 55/1.4. Seven combined exposures, each exposure at f/11 and ISO 100, with exposure times between 1/60 of a second and 2 seconds. Camera tripod mounted; Harold ladder mounted. Exposures combined and processed in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), Photoshop, Nik HDR Efex Pro, Nik Color Efex Pro, Topaz Adjust and Topaz Simplify.

Related image: Tulips in a Crowd.

Best Of Botanicals: National Juried Photography Exhibition

Best Of Botanicals: National Juried Photography Exhibition

A Benefit for San Francisco Botanical Garden

Call for entries. Entries are due: April 3, 2014

From classical to contemporary, from desert to rain forest, from bud to decay, the natural form of flowers and plants has been contemplated by artists, philosophers, scientists . . . and everyone.

  • This is PHOTO’s second benefit for the San Francisco Botanical Garden. A percentage of sales will go to support the work of the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park.
  • PHOTO is part of Oakland Art Murmur located in Oakland’s Uptown Arts District. The exhibit will be seen by thousands of visitors during the June and July First Friday art walks, and during regular hours for the duration of the show.
  • Best of Show Award: $1000
  • Harold Davis will speak on “Making the Botanical Photo: The Digital Print As an Artifact” on June 7. He is the recipient of many photo awards, a Moab Printmaking Master, and the author of numerous bestselling photography books, including “Photographing Flowers: Exploring Macro Worlds.” Click here for more information about this presentation.
  • Exhibit dates: May 22 – July 12

Click here for the complete Call for Entries, click here for exhibition info, here to enter work for the juried exhibition, and click here to view the PDF card for this event!

Three Flowers for Phyllis © Harold Davis

Three Flowers for Phyllis © Harold Davis

Flowers Squared

I have been thinking about square compositions, for example, with these Nautilus Shells. So why not create some square versions of my light box flowers? This is actually harder from a composition viewpoint than it might seem, but here are a few I have come up with!

Tulips 3 Squared © Harold Davis

Tulips 3 Squared © Harold Davis

Tulips 4 Squared © Harold Davis

Tulips 4 Squared © Harold Davis

Tulips 5 Squared © Harold Davis

Tulips 5 Squared © Harold Davis

Otus and me

I shot this photo of tulips in a crowd with my new Otus. Otus’s more formal designation is the Otus 1.4/55and is, in the words of the manufacturer Zeiss, quite possibly the absolute best lens in the world today. According to Dxo Labs, on a full frame DSLR, the Carl Zeiss Otus 1.4/55 “is categorically the highest performing standard-type prime in our database.”

Tulips in a Crowd © Harold Davis

Tulips in a Crowd © Harold Davis

Subjectively, Otus is a big honking prime lens with a smooth-as-velvet manual focus—and a wonderful, bright and cheery quality when you look or photograph through it. As I noted in The Way of the Digital Photographer, a lens is to a photographer as a paintbrush is to a painter. I am lucky to be friends with Otus, and to have Otus as my photographic “paintbrush.” Thank you, Zeiss, for the honor!

Click the image or on this link to view it larger.

Tulip Pano

This tulip panorama was shot on a light box in three segments. Each segment is made up of six exposures, so there are eighteen exposures in all. In post-production, first I combined the exposures and then stitched the segments together. My idea was to create a cheerful image that promotes health and happiness to the viewer. It makes a nice print on Moab Slickrock Pearl. You can click here, or on the image, to view it larger.

Tulip Pano © Harold Davis

Tulip Pano © Harold Davis

If you like this image, you may be interested in some other Tulip imagery I created at the same time!


I have been working on a series of Tulip imagery that I shot almost a year ago, and haven’t had the time to process before now. These were shot on my light box in a bracketed high-key sequence, so combining the RAW captures takes craft, effort and creativity—which is what it is all about, after all!

Tulip 1 © Harold Davis

Tulips 1 © Harold Davis

The tulips themselves came from the organic farmer’s market in North Berkeley that takes place each Thursday in the “gourmet ghetto.” I am looking forward to the coming of spring so that there are more wonderful flowers to shoot straight from the growers.

Tulips 2 © Harold Davis

Tulips 2 © Harold Davis

Once I have three or four of these Tulip images processed, I am looking forward to printing them. There is a brightness and optimism that they show that is very heartening—maybe these images even have healing qualities!

I think the series will make nice prints, possibly in a group or as an installation.