Category Archives: Flowers

White Poppy

White Poppy © Harold Davis

White Poppy © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss 135mm f/2 lens with 12mm extension tube, 2 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted, exposed on a light box for transparency, processed in Adobe Camera RAW, Photoshop, and with Photoshop plug-ins from Nik and Topaz.

Peony Softness

I shot Peony Softness on a light box, showing the versatility of back lighting when it comes to flower photography. This is a very different look than most of my light box photography, but also very attractive.

Peony Softness © Harold Davis

Peony Softness © Harold Davis

What flowers are these?

“What flowers are these?” a reader asks. Peonies, poppies, a few roses and some campanulas (Canterbury Bells): The bounty of the garden.

Bounty of the Garden © Harold Davis

Bounty of the Garden © Harold Davis

Peonies are in bloom

It’s the peonies time of year, and I am putting aside some time to photograph some luscious Peony blossoms!

To learn how I made this photo, check out the FAQs Photographing Flowers for Transparency and Using a High-Key Layer Stack, and also my webinar recording Painting in Transparency Using a High-Key Layer Stack.

Bounty of the Garden - Center Panel © Harold Davis

Bounty of the Garden – Center Panel © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, six exposures each at f/11 and ISO 100, tripod mounted, exposures processed using Adobe Camera RAW, Adobe Photoshop, and Nik HDR Efex Pro.

I applied the peonies photo to a background of scanned paper created using a gradient, so it is slightly lighter at the top than the bottom. For more information about this technique, check out my webinar recording Using Backgrounds and Textures.

Related story: Peonies and Poppies.

Peonies and Poppies

Yesterday in the morning I wrote and posted my Using a High-Key Layer Stack FAQ. Around lunch time I took a product development conference call. Phyllis brought in some pizza for lunch. After lunch, I drove over to nearby Kensington, California with my pruning shears and clipped a bunch of Matilija Poppies from a strip right near the old downtown. These shrubby poppies are the only genus in the Papaver family besides those in the Eschscholzia  family that are native to California.

Poppies and Peonies © Harold Davis

Poppies and Peonies © Harold Davis

Back at home I pruned some Papaver rhoeas from the garden, and added some peonies to create a light box composition. Processing the resulting high-key layer stack took me well past a sane bedtime. A very full day, with some time for the kids.

Above, the image is shown on white, and below it is placed on a scanned paper background and lightly texturized.

Poppies and Peonies © Harold Davis

Poppies and Peonies © Harold Davis

Exposure data: I do not believe the resolution I achieved in this photo would have been possible without the clarity of my Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4 lens. Nikon D800, 55mm, six exposures at ISO 100 and f/13, exposures ranging from 1/30 of a second to 1 second, tripod mounted, processing in Adobe Camera RAW, Nik HDR Efex Pro and Adobe Photoshop.


I’ve been lucky enough to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny three times in the past year, and each time they’ve been very different. The spring this year was good for tulips, and in the water garden area the wisteria were glorious.

Giverny © Harold Davis

Giverny © Harold Davis

There is a problem working in Monet’s gardens. These gardens are themselves are a work of art. Of course, they have been the most important subject of a great and world famous artist (Claude Monet himself). It’s hard not to look at Monet’s gardens, or to imagery depicting the gardens, without thinking of Monet’s great waterlily paintings.

Giverny Watercolor © Harold Davis

Giverny Watercolor © Harold Davis

In the shadow of the legendary, my best advice is to have fun—and not worry about the context or comparison too much. That’s what I did this year in Giverny. I had a blast, and look forward to processing more of my images from this very special place.

Related stories: Giverny via iPhone, White Chrysanthemums at Giverny, Dreaming of Giverny, Meditation at Giverny.

Papaver Somniferum and friends

Returning home from travels abroad in mid-May, one great pleasure was to find poppies still in bloom in my garden. The large one as big as a platter towards the top of the composition is a Papaver somniferum, the notorious opium poppy. Other species shown are Papaver rhoeas (corn poppies), garlanded with campanula. You can also see poppies in the process of popping (on the right, coming out of its pod).

Papaver Somniferum and Friends © Harold Davis

Papaver Somniferum and Friends © Harold Davis

Exposure data: Nikon D800, Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, eight exposures shot on a light box, each exposure at f/11 and ISO 100, shutter speeds ranging from 1/40 of a second to 4 seconds, tripod mounted; exposures combined via layering and hand masking in Photoshop.

Making the Botanical Photo: If you are in the San Francisco area, I am presenting on this subject on Saturday June 7, 2014 at Photo Oakland. This is in conjunction with a “Best of Botanicals” exhibition, with print sales partially benefiting San Francisco Botanical Garden. My presentation at 3 PM is free of charge, but I do expect a crowd, so plan to arrive early. Click here for more info.

Photographing Flowers for Transparency: Due to many requests, I’ve just opened a new session of my weekend Photographing Flowers for Transparency workshop, scheduled for Saturday, October 4 and Sunday, October 5, 2014. The Papaver image that accompanies this post shows an example of utilizing this technique, and is the kind of image that is created in the workshop. This is a fun and popular event. Previous sessions have been attended by photographers from all over the world, and sold out quickly. Click here for more information and registration.

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.