The night blooming cereus is a type of cactus, which produces a large, fragrant bloom that opens for one night a year. A native of Hawaii and the South China Sea islands, this succulent lives in our basement 70% of the year, coming out onto the back deck to take advantage of the short, hot summers of the Ottawa Valley. This is the second year that we've had blooms, and even though I'm not a horticulturist, you can't deny the beauty and rarity of these huge, fragrant blooms. Friends of ours, retired British Army, had lived years ago in Singapore, where parties were held at your house to celebrate the event of a new night bloom, also an excuse to socialize and to tie one on. You might even have looked at the bloom!
Anyways, we saw that there were two blooms getting ready to open, and after a warm day today, they opened just after sunset. I had photographed cereus blooms in the past, but I wanted to do something a bit different this time. Rather than strapping on a flash and taking a quick picture to record the bloom, I wanted to get a bit more creative. So, I took advantage of the fact that there's a near-full moon, along with a clear sky and a fair bit of wind.
I wanted to use the moon in the background, framed in the shot to let the viewer know this was moonlight, not sunlight, making a flower bloom picture therefore even more unusual. Since it was a breezy night, I knew that if I set up to take timed exposures of 20-30 seconds, the clouds would reflect the moonlight and show as interesting background blur. To keep the moon from overexposing the shot, I set the aperture very tight, to f/22, and using my Canon 7D with a 35 mm lens and a 60 mm macro lens, I composed the shot so that the blooms were the foreground subject, and the moon and the blurred, moving clouds were the background. In order to properly expose the blooms, I used a small LED flash light, which I covered to mute the harsh effect of the light. I did a very subtle paint-by-light technique, that is, during the 30 second exposure I washed light all around the blooms for about 7 seconds, effectively "painting" the blooms with light while the shutter was open. If you do too much light, the end result looks like an over-exposed flash shot. The key here, is using white light with a diffuser (a sock works great) to mute the harshness of the light, and to illuminate the aspects of the bloom you want the camera to record. Then, stop using the light and leave the shutter open to continue to record the sky, clouds and moon, and you can get an interesting result. In Photo Shop Elements 9, I used the contrast slider to heighten the distinction between the foreground blooms and the background sky.
The shots taken with the 35 mm created the "moon star" effects, since the lens has a 7 blade aperture that works well in timed exposures to create this star burst (or moon burst in this case) effect. I framed the moon so that it was between the two blooms, making the star burst effect more dramatic.
The Canon 60 mm macro lens was used for the close view shot of the interior of the bloom, using a hand held light with a timed exposure of 15 seconds. Personally, of this series, I prefer the shots taken with the 35 mm lens; not only do they look better to me, but the 35 mm lens on the Canon 7D 1.6 crop factor sensor makes the 35 mm a "normal" lens for the 7D, and thus I find it easier to frame pictures. The 60 mm macro requires you to be further from your subject if you're taking overall shots of the subject, which I personally find to be a pain in the ass. For the close view shots, the 60 mm macro is of course indispensable and I love the Canon macro for close work.
I should add that in all these shots, as with timed exposures at night, you need to get your focus, then shut off the auto focus, use a shutter release cable and tripod, and even consider using the mirror lock up feature. If you leave the auto focus on, then once you frame your shot, as you depress the shutter release cable, the lens will keep jumping around trying to find focus; find your focus looking through your viewfinder, then shut off the auto focus, enable the mirror lock up, use the shutter release cable to open the shutter, and use your hand held light to illuminate your subject in the foreground during the exposure.
Anyways, that's my blog for August 31, 2012. I'm glad that I had a night off to take these shots, because by dawn, the blooms will be dead, the rare, indescribable scent gone, and the moon over the horizon.
Remember, photography is a game of light, time and opportunity. If you have the opportunity, try and do what you can
Chris Kiez, a hardcore photographer since the 80's, learned to take a picture before the age of selfies and cell phone photography, training on mechanical cameras and film. After years of taking photos of all manner of subjects and people, he did over a 10 year stint as a crime scene photographer on two continents. Now, he does portrait and landscape photos, and is currently distressing the world with his relentlessly, excruciatingly boring blogging. To buy what you see on this site, click here!