Personally, I feel the background color or value should be chosen as a compliment to the violet plant. The intensity and quality of light is easily controlled and adapted to enable the perfect exposure. But if all else has been tried and the scene still needs a bit more, or less, light, try different backgrounds.
I asked four photographers for advice before beginning our virtual violet shows, and these lessons. They all had two bits of advice they wished to emphasis: use a tripod to prevent camera shake and use dark backgrounds. All the photo texts and courses also emphasized these, although the subject there were portraits or advertising photographs. I feel this advice is very worth consideration.
Again, personal preferences will come in to play. I think a better term would be personal 'prejudices'. Here I will indulge in a bit of my personal opinions.
I shudder whenever anyone lines up a family group a foot in front of a white wall to take their photograph. We have all been cautioned to include a plain, unobstructed background... and the white background will create contrast between the people and the background, but watch out for the shadows.
However, most studio portraits of family groups will use a dark background to bring the people 'forward' in the photo, and special lighting to bring their faces into emphasis. In the recent trend toward light colored studio backgrounds, the poses of each family member is emphasized... such as having them sprawl on the floor, or grouping several kids together in a striking pose. I have seen very effective senior portraits using white backgrounds, with the emphasis on the student's cheerleading costume or sports prop.
I feel the traditional formula, actually taught as a formula, is also great for the average shot of an African violet. The formula calls for a medium to dark value to be the background, to set the stage for the subject. A bright light is used to set the main light direction and to illuminate the person's face. This brightest light may be moved to best compliment the person's facial features... left, right, up or down. Then a 'fill' light, or simply a reflecting sheet of foil or white cardboard, is used to model the figure and to allow details in the shadow areas of the face. To throw a bit of light on one corner of the background, or to add shine to the hair, a narrow beam from a 'spot' light may also be added. Technically, the darkest values in the photo would be the shadows within the subject's face. To translate this into our AV photography, we would use a gray or maybe a medium green as a background.
Andrew Slater offered the method he and Bonny use to photograph her plants. Most of their photos are taken with available light. "I find the flash tends to change the color of the flower a bit but the leaves stay perfect. The only way I have been successful in capturing the correct shade is using sunlight. Early or late sun is the best and then we diffuse it with our white sheer kitchen curtains. We also use a reflector to help light up the dark side. (white cardboard from a large pizza). On an overcast day you can take them in front of any window. About the white or black background: You can make a good picture with either. White is more of a challenge but I like a good challenge. Me personally, I like green violet leaves as a background. The show pictures to me don't do the violets much justice. There should be a third photo called most flattering with no rules so the photographer can bring out the best backdrop or angle or f-stop."
Outside of the studio, and with only ourselves to please, we are able to try anything we like... and the differences are what make it so much fun to see everyone else's African violet photos. Amazingly, we can have three plants of a certain variety on our own plant shelf and still eagerly view every other photo of the same variety! Fun, isn't it?
Background color does influence our automatic exposure meters to some degree and below are several examples. Decisions on what is 'best' is left for a later lesson.
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