Tips for photographing roses 10: getting colours right

Tips on photographing roses 10 Getting colours rightI have watched (with real concern) as professional photographers struggled to reproduce colours accurately when taking pictures of cut flowers under studio lighting.  They’ve carefully calibrated their cameras, lighting, reflectors and computer screens. They’ve taken shots of test colour cards and used comparison software to prove that the colours will be reproduced accurately then, immediately afterwards, have taken a shot of a crimson rose that was well out by eye compared to the living flower.

When that happens, I suppose there’s not much you can do except blame the rose. I’m only teasing, though I can share a ‘strange but true’ observation: one variety of crimson cut rose, photographed in different studios by different professionals, would consistently err towards yellow, appearing a brighter red, if the rose had been grown in California and would be more blue – a darker crimson – when the same variety was Kenyan grown.

To avoid panic in the cut flower world, I should explain that I’m talking about hints of colour, not a major change, but it’s something you’d notice if you were to compare the pictures side by side.

I could speculate that it’s connected to the sheeny, velvety character of the petals, or perhaps the supply of micronutrients or water as the bud is developing, or even exposure to different amounts of sunlight – but it would be pure guesswork. I’d love to know the science of it.

But setting aside the vagaries of nature, accurate colour representation can be tricky, even for professionals. This really was a bit of a nightmare ten years or so ago, when photographers were transferring over to digital from film, with varying degrees of eagerness or reluctance. The technology was fairly new and everyone was experimenting with techniques and equipment.

Things have settled down since, but in my view, some colours of flowers still present a real challenge to the average photographer. Even green foliage isn’t always straightforward: I’ve seen this appear too yellow, too blue or even too grey.

I’ve often been told that you can easily bring colours back by playing around with the camera settings, or using photo editing software. It probably is easier to adjust digital pictures today than it’s ever been, but I’m not completely convinced.

Perhaps very talented and experienced people really can use software to create a rich crimson silk purse out of a bright magenta sow’s ear, particularly when they have some living plant material to use as a reference.

But for many of us, especially when we’re using less sophisticated software, or if we are less adept at manipulating images, a tweak to move the colour of a bloom in the right direction often makes any problems with the foliage worse.

I’ve found that pale to mid pinks pose least problems and, as pink is by far the most common colour of rose, I contend that you’ll see a lot more good pictures of pink roses than any other colour!

If accurate colour is important to you and you’re consistently disappointed with your results, the first step is to read up on your camera’s light balance settings and experiment.

After you’ve taken a shot, it’s optimistic at best to think you can correct a wildly inaccurate JEPG image. Photo geeks shoot in RAW. That sounds like wording on a T-shirt, but if you want to try to manipulate the colour afterwards, and if your camera supports this, give it a go. The files will be much larger and retain more detail.

White roses have their own challenges. You may find that the camera seems to pick up and accentuate a hint of colour in the flower – warm, creamy-white roses can appear surprisingly yellow or even beige in a photograph. This seems to be variety specific: Rosa ‘Patience’ (a cut rose) will tend to appear a little more yellow no matter where it is grown; Rosa ‘Crocus Rose’ ( a shrub rose) moves towards apricot or beige.

An aggravating factor is that the camera’s metering has a natural tendency to underexpose close ups of white flowers, turning them grey. In contrast, overexposing will mean you lose the detail and get a bright, white blob. This is a case when taking several shots at different exposures (known as bracketing) can make all the difference.

Try taking shots under different light sources too. If you can illuminate a white rose from the side rather than straight on, the contrast of light and shade will help bring out the detail in the overlapping petals and help prevent that white blob effect. I’ve found that when shooting roses in cut flower arrangements or bouquets, it’s sometimes easier to get accurate colours if you work outside in the natural light of an overcast day, or in light shade, rather than inside under artificial lighting.

In practice, sadly for most amateurs, a high end Nikon or Canon DSLR is probably the safest choice for garden or nature photography when accurate colour representation is particularly important – assuming you have the means, the gravitas and the muscles to carry this off.

Otherwise, it’s not very satisfactory, but you may need to be realistic about your camera’s ability. If your lens turns a crimson rose a lurid shade of pink, no matter what settings you choose, don’t beat yourself up about it because you’re not on your own.

Just work to the strengths of what you’ve got and remember: as long as there are roses, there’ll always be pink ones!

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