“The art of simplicity is the puzzle of complexity.”
- Doug Horton
I am on the road to Maine this week, but thought I’d share a bit about an image photographed last week. This is a leaf and leaf node along the stem of Verbena bonariensis, a favorite see-through plant with small, purple flowers atop a tall, swaying, and sparsely vegetated stem. Despite its 3- to 4-foot stature, you can plant it at the front of a mixed or perennial border and still see through it to the plants beyond. And that’s one way to photograph it—in color, in the garden, with the purple flowers dancing above other perennials and small shrubs. But it’s not the only way to photograph Verbena bonariensis.
For me, it is the elongated stems rather than the flower heads that make this plant interesting. They are sturdy stems, ribbed for strength to withstand the wind. There are few leaves, but they are wing-like in character, which I find lovely. After looking at dozens of the leaf nodes on different plants, I found one, in particular, that spoke to me. It seemed to have the strength and grace of a ballerina. That's what I wanted to photograph, and I wanted to do it in a clean, simple way. I also wanted it to be part of the series I'm shooting in black and white, on a black background, primarily in a square format. And I wanted to show the details—the ribs, veins and almost microscopic hairs.
Although I could have photographed it in the garden, I brought it into the studio where I would have more control over the light and background, and be able to setup my tripod without being in some kind of contorted position. I desired side lighting to highlight the texture, with a bit of fill light on the shadow side--just enough to hold the details of the ribs and hairs. So I had a black background, a softbox light on the left and a white foam core bounce card on the right. I also positioned a sheet of black foam core to the left to keep light from spilling onto the black background.
As for the composition, I wanted it to feel strong and formal—so the stem is upright rather than leaning to either side. To create definition between the stem and upright leaf, I turned the stem until the camera could see between them. I filled the frame without cramping it, and chose to anchor the weighted, lower part of the stem slightly closer to the frame’s edge than the top of the stem. But where in the image to place the plant? With the stem centered? Curling leaf centered? With the stem following the rule of thirds? Curling leaf following the rule of thirds? Or elsewhere? I chose to place the stem along a vertical line one-third into the image, with the curling leaf reaching toward the center. This felt the most asymmetrically balanced and striking. It also created nice negative space.
Before shooting, I looked at the image carefully through a 100mm macro lens and used tweezers to remove a few stray pieces of dirt and fibers it had picked up along the way. And finally, for the exposure, I moved in close and metered off the mid-tone green stem, then bracketed my exposure ½-stop either direction, just in case. The original exposure nailed it. When the image was imported into Photoshop, I processed it as a color image, and then used Nik Silver Effex Pro 2 for the black-and-white conversion and Macphun Intensify to add a final, softening touch.
While this wasn't necessarily a complex photographic process, achieving the desired simplicity was certainly more than point and shoot. With any shot, it is important to think through your intentions and walk through the steps for capturing just that. How best to compose? What kind of background (if you have that option)? What angle? What kind of light? Does the existing light need to be altered in some way? How to place the image in the frame? How to eliminate any distracting elements in the photo? How to present the finished image? It is these kinds of choices made on a day-to-day basis that help photographers develop their photographic style and vision.