Closeup Night Photography

In my definition of night photography, I state that the subject must be outdoors. That keeps you from photographing a small object in a dark closet during the middle of the day and calling it a night photo.

With some subjects shot up close and lit with flash or a flashlight, there really aren’t obvious indications that they are shot at night. I mean, what’s to distinguish them from the same shot made in that closet? That’s why I’m not a huge fan of closeup wildflower photos made at night. They all look the same and there’s nothing about them that says, “This is a night photo.”

Night-blooming cactus

Night-blooming cactus on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens, f/13, 1 sec., ISO 200. Used Coast flashlight to illuminate the flower.

There are exceptions. One is the photo here. At first glance, it looks like any other closeup wildflower photo with a black background. Did I shoot it at night? If so, I just as easily could have shot it during the day by stopping down to very small aperture (f/22ish) and using a fast shutter speed (1/250ish) and using a flash to illuminate the flower. The result would have been an illuminated flower with a dark background.

Except it wouldn’t have worked with this flower. It’s impossible to shoot this flower during the day because it only blooms at night! That’s right; this is a night-blooming cactus, only showing us it’s delicate flower after dark. I photographed it along the shores of Bioluminescent Bay on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

I’ve never been a fan of black backgrounds for flowers because after seeing a few of them, they all look the same. But here is a flower that you can only see at night, and at night the background is naturally black, so this works for me. Think about it; it’s actually the flower itself that’s unnatural in this shot, the result of me shining a flashlight on it during the exposure. So while I wouldn’t shoot a day-blooming flower with a black background, I have no problem with shooting night-blooming wildflowers that way.

Same flower with a very distracting background. Read the text for tips on avoiding this.

Regardless of whether you shoot wildflower closeups during the day or night, you need to pay attention to the background. A distracting background at night is just as bad as one during the day, maybe worse. During the day, you want a nice even poster-like background, without any distracting hotspots or anything else to compete with the subject. At night, you want black. Remember, I’m talking about closeups here. Images that include the wildflower as the foreground of a wider-angle scene are different. For those, you want to make sure there is something interesting going on back there. But for closeups, you want black.

Getting a nice non-distracting black background in night closeups is not always easy, especially if the subject is not far away from the background. For this shot, the flower was only a few inches in front of a very distracting background, so I had to be very careful with the technique.

An important consideration was the light painting. I was careful to shine the flashlight so that there was very little light spill onto the background. It was impossible to prevent it totally, but I knew as long as I didn’t allow too much light on the background, I could take care of any light spill during post processing.

Back in Photoshop, it was a simple matter of using the shadows and highlights tools, along with Curves, to darken the background so that all of the unwanted light spill was illuminated. It also allowed me to tone down the hot lighting on some of the white portions of the flower.

The flowers of this cactus only bloom during a two-week period during June and each individual flower only blooms for one night. I felt blessed for the opportunity to see such a beautiful and fleeting creature of the night.

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