Category Archives: Iris

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

Inspiration is a demanding mistress

I never know when that moment of revelation is going to strike. It is kind of like an “aha” feeling—but a little bit different, both more and less. I’m plodding along, minding my own business, tending to the mundane affairs of life when all of a sudden a voice inside my head speaks to me and says, “There might be a picture here!”

I’ve learned to listen to that inner voice when I do hear it, and to cultivate it. I miss my inner voice when it is absent! But inspiration can be a demanding mistress.

White Irises by Harold Davis

White Irises © Harold Davis

Life in a household with four young kids and two working parents is full of good reasons for denying my inner voice. I’ve work to do, images to license, books to write, bills to pay, kids to pick up! Life must go on!

But it is only by giving our inner voices some time and space to work their magic that we become the people—and artists—that we were meant to be.

Walking the boys to the school bus stop I passed a clump of white irises growing wild in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. The irises called out to me, try as I might I could not ignore them. After waving kisses to the boys when they got on the bus I walked home, got my pruning shears, and found my way back to the irises.

I laid the flowers out on my lightbox, fanning out the foliage, and shot straight down. The result you see is seven exposures at shutter speeds from 1/60 of a second to 1 second, all shot with a macro lens at f/10 and ISO 100. I combined the seven exposures using hand-HDR in Photoshop and Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro.

A background made in Photoshop from scanned paper was then added to complete the composition, giving the image a touch of an old-fashioned botanical look: old and new combined in an unusual way.

Papaver and Iridaceae

Papaver and Iridaceae

Papaver and Iridaceae, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

The Papaver Rhoeas in my garden called out for some complimentary colors, so I added some store-bought Iris. I photographed the combined composition straight down on my light box, using a macro lens from a distance and eight exposures.

As usual with this kind of image, the exposures were biased to the high-key side, with the sequence starting at the darkest image (the correct exposure, according to my light meter).

I needed some depth-of-field because the Irises had some depth, but not a great deal, so I selected f/11 for my aperture. At ISO 100, the exposure sequence went from 1/30 of a second to 4 seconds.

Recombining these exposures was an issue of using layering and painting techniques in Photoshop. I started with my lightest layer, the one shot at 4 seconds, and where there was not enough detail I layered a darker exposure on top of it, painting it in very selectively.

White Iris

White Iris

White Iris, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Here’s another floral image, this one in a much more classical style than Floral Impressionismo.

I lit the white Iris from left and right, using diffuse sunlight controlled via shades and blinds. I added black foam core board to cut out any unsightly highlights. The fancy lighting term for this arrangement is that these boards were used as “Gobos”—meaning they go between the light and the subject.

Using my 85mm macro, I shot six exposures with the camera fixed on a tripod. Each exposure was at f/64 and ISO 100, with shutter speeds ranging between 1/2 a second and 20 seconds. In Photoshop, I used the 1/2 second exposure for the background, the 4 second exposure for the table and vase and much of the flower, and the 10 and 20 second exposures for a few highlights.

White Iris

White Iris

White Iris, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Since I was setup and enjoying photographing flowers on a white background, I decided to add these partially transparent white Iris to the mix.

More Iris here.

Iris ensata ‘Azuma-kagami’

I originally got this cool Iris ensata ‘Azuma-kagami’ as a bare root plant from White Flower Farms, planted it in my garden, and forgot about it. Yesterday, we saw this flower. It struck me as surpassingly beautiful, and I photographed it yesterday and today in studio.

For this shot, I photographed the Iris ensata ‘Azuma-kagami’ (I do like how the name of this flower rolls off my tongue) vertically with a light box behind it. I lit the flower from the front with a tungsten spot equipped with a diffuser and barn doors.

To make the photograph, I used my 85mm perspective correction Nikon lens. This is a really neat hunk of glass, but entirely manual. You even have to stop the diaghram down manually with a push button when you’re ready to make the exposure.

The base exposure on the Iris ensata ‘Azuma-kagami’ is (at ISO 100) 3 seconds and f/48 (one of the nice things about this lens is how far it stops down). I layered in a second, darker exposure for parts of the flower at 2 seconds (still at f/48).

Related story: Iris.

The Iris That Bloom in the Spring

It’s great to have Iris blooming in my garden again. This is an extravagantly beautiful flower. Once established, it keeps on multiplying. (A recent query I read in a gardening column was about how to slow down irises from multiplying over time. Answer: You can’t. Thin the flowers, and the ones you can’t give away it is morally OK to compost.)

You go Iris!

Iris White Leaf

View this photograph larger.

Iris Outlined

View this photograph larger.

Here’s the same Iris photographed through the leaf with a flash (scroll to the bottom), and some of my earlier Iris photos.

Enough with the Irises!

Iris Rising

A reader writes:

“I enjoy regularly reading your photoblog, and have learned much about digital photography from your book [Digital Photography Digital Field Guide], but enough with these iris pictures. Some of them are pretty, I grant you, but aren’t you getting bored with them?”

Well, I probably will never get bored with photographing Irises and other flowers, but I can take a hint. (OK, not a hint, but a big, fat nudge.) Also, maybe I am reaching a point of iris overload.

So this post will be my last Iris post for a while. And a special thanks to all the wonderful folk on Flickr who have said such nice things about my Iris set! (Click on an image in the set on Flickr to read the comments.)

If you really don’t want to see flowers, instead of looking at these Iris photos, you can always look at my stories about my recent awesome roadtrip instead of these!

Intimate Iris

Conversing Flowers

Iris Reaching

Iris Tasting

Kabuki Iris

Iris Ears

More of my Iris photos here, here, and here!

Winged Iris

Irises here, there, and everywhere. I am enjoying photographing this very special flower, it is one of my favorites.

The Iris petals in this photo remind me of wings. Very appropriate. In Greek mythology, Iris was a winged messenger for the gods.

Iris Tongue

I am continuing to photograph the irises today. They are so beautiful, and look good when positioned with a red lily for background color.

This one reminds me of a tongue. Is this attractive Iris sticking out a tongue at us?


Phyllis got me some fresh Iris (from Trader Joe’s, not our garden!) and I’ve been photographing them as they open…

Iris Sun

Iris Inside

Iris Rising