Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Day for night

with 51 comments

Each of the last two posts has featured a sunny and colorful wildflower in a bright blue sky, so let me put off another picture of that type till tomorrow; too much of a good thing may be too much of a good thing.

After taking today’s photograph on December 27, I was reminded of day for night, a term used in cinematography for any of several techniques that allow a scene filmed in daylight to simulate a night scene. That wasn’t my intention, but the sun behind this cattail was so bright compared to the plant in front of it that I set my camera to underexpose by 3 f/stops, and then to compensate for the underexposure I used my flash to keep the cattail from coming out black and devoid of detail. The result is as you see it here, with the background seeming to be almost a nighttime sky even though I took the picture at 1:43 on a bright and clear winter afternoon. I’ve long been intrigued by the way the seed heads of cattails, Typha domingensis, blow apart in the breeze, but this was a new way for me to photograph that unraveling.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 29, 2011 at 5:11 AM

51 Responses

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  1. Awesome photo!

    Thanks for describing the technique, I’ll try that when the sunbeams make it all the way to the ground again – I hope I won’t have to wait until March or so.


    December 29, 2011 at 5:26 AM

    • Thank you; I’m always happy when I can try something new and be awesome in the process! By the way, another approach to dealing with the kind of lighting I faced is HDR (high dynamic range), which you can find instructions for by doing an Internet search. Even if I’d wanted to try that it wasn’t an option for me because the breeze made the cattail move. Not only that, but I was wearing rubber boots and doing my best to keep from sliding around in the mud and water of the swampy area I had cautiously waded into to photograph the cattails. The things we do to get a photograph.

      If winter gets too dreary and sad in Germany and you don’t want to wait till March to try day for night, you can try the technique called winter for spring, which amounts to visiting Texas. At the moment Austin has gone back into its mode of clear blue skies and warm temperatures; yesterday the high temperature here was around 68°F (20°C) and it’s supposed to get even a bit warmer over the next few days.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 7:50 AM

  2. That’s pretty cool. The first video I ever saw over the Internet (circa 1995) showed this same effect. A chemist from Purdue posted his annual “lighting of the grill” using about four gallons of liquid oxygen. That makes quite the fireball! It consumed the grill and gave us day for night. Your version is somewhat less violent.


    December 29, 2011 at 6:44 AM

    • Thanks. I might have tried your version but for the fact that I was standing in a swamp. Also I wouldn’t have wanted to do the photographic equivalent of bite the hand that feeds me, which is to say burn down the subject of my picture. Still, what you saw must have been impressive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 7:56 AM

      • It was impressive, but I do prefer the gentle to the violent.


        December 29, 2011 at 5:03 PM

  3. Your sky looks a lot like our polar nights, but of course we won’t find any cattails around here 😉 Thanks for stopping by my blog. Now I can get a dose of warm, sunny photos with beautiful flowers. And if you did visit here, I’m sure you’d take some amazing photos! Great work.


    December 29, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Erica. The North Way (i.e. Norway) has its winter beauties, and I can imagine this picture as a polar night, but I have no regrets that the temperature was in the 60s. Maybe you can get a relative from the U.S. to send you some cattails.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 9:39 AM

  4. Wow I really like this and thanks for describing the technique!!! Way cool and I will put it to use!


    December 29, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    • You’re welcome. Let us know if you post a picture that you really like using this technique. I found it to be hit and miss, with some of the photos I took coming out better than others. The first pictures were too bright and looked as if they were probably blown out, which is why I stopped down so much. A cattail is pretty narrow to block the sun.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 9:46 AM

  5. Very nice photo and interesting technique. I am looking forward to experimenting with this method.


    December 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM

  6. Great technique and it came out beautifully.


    December 29, 2011 at 3:10 PM

  7. Absolutely stunning….


    December 29, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    • Thanks. I was glad to try something different with a subject I like but have photographed many times.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 4:15 PM

  8. While the cattail is interesting in its own right, the backlighting gives the image its flare (excuse the pun). Seriously, the shot is perfection in the way the light outlines the entire tail from minimal to more as it descends to the bottom and beyond, Sally

    Sally W. Donatello

    December 29, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    • Like you, I noticed the way the sunlight outlines the whole cattail and was intrigued by it. (What I mean is I noticed it on the computer monitor afterwards; when I was looking through the viewfinder I couldn’t tell a lot because I was trying to keep from being blinded by the sun.)

      And there’s never any need to excuse yourself for playing with words.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM

  9. Stunning shot. The bare branches at the bottom are a nice addition.


    December 29, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    • I was worried the bare branches at the bottom might distract a bit from the cattail, so thanks for letting me know you find them a nice addition.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 4:49 PM

  10. Happy to have stumbled upon your blog through Wild Bill’s blog! I love your photos and wonder, are you using a macro setting or a macro lens? I am new to photography and tend to take up-close shots myself. Just curious about the clarity of your floral subjects…fantastic!

    Nature Drunk

    December 29, 2011 at 6:13 PM

    • Thanks and welcome. For the past six years or so I’ve been using a Canon 100mm macro lens. Of the various lenses I have, it’s the one I use the most, and the one that accounts for the clarity in the close-ups that you see here. Since you tend to take close-ups yourself, it seems that a macro lens would be a good investment. There are many of them out there, some made by the main camera manufacturers and some made by third parties.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 7:14 PM

  11. Spectacular effect. Seed heads blowing is such an intriguing subject, too. I never fail to be captivated by milkweed pods. Do you have them your way?

    Susan Scheid

    December 29, 2011 at 8:29 PM

    • Thanks, S.S. Like you, I’m fascinated by seed heads coming apart, especially when helped along by the wind. Yes, I’m a big fan of milkweed pods and fluff; we have several species here in central Texas, the most common being Asclepias asperula, known strangely as antelope horns. It’s one of the many plants I didn’t manage to show pictures of since I started this blog in June, but in the relatively grim months of January and February that are ahead of us I may go back and fill in some noticeable gaps. I took (and am still taking!) way more pictures than I was able to show.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 8:56 PM

  12. At long last, the email subscription button cooperated for me so I can get your images more regularly. Hurray! And just in time to spot this spectacular shot. You took full advantage of the glorious halo afforded by the backlighting without losing any of the incredible texture and velveteen richness of the cattail’s face, and the results are stunning.


    December 29, 2011 at 8:44 PM

    • I’m sorry to hear that the email subscription button was recalcitrant for you till now, Kathryn. There are always weirdnesses on the Internet.

      Good word, velveteen: my wife and I had independently looked at the circle of fluff toward the top of the cattail and had seen it as a ruff around the neck of a coat.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 9:05 PM

      • Well, *now* I see the whole thing as a tall, slender Flapper in a velveteen wrap coat with a big fur ruff. Maybe even a fur cloche to match. Excellent! 🙂


        December 29, 2011 at 10:40 PM

      • And now I can add that you have a good imagination. Does that make me an F. Scott Fitzgerald of the camera?

        Steve Schwartzman

        December 30, 2011 at 6:10 AM

      • 🙂


        December 30, 2011 at 8:55 PM

  13. Gorgeous image, Steve!


    December 30, 2011 at 1:11 AM

    • Thanks, Terry. I’m always pleased when I can find a different way to see something familiar.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 30, 2011 at 6:12 AM

  14. Hi. I like the word ‘unraveling’ used in association with the release of Typha seed. Jane

    jane tims

    December 30, 2011 at 7:20 AM

  15. Great alternative approach to get this neat shot, Steve. I rarely use fill flash, but a reflector also allows you to give some front lighting to a backlit subject. The backlighting you have really highlights the loose silky strands from the seed head and looks quite cool.

    Steve Gingold

    December 30, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    • Thanks, Steve. I find myself using flash from time to time, usually in a fairly subtle way, but this picture is a more dramatic example of the technique; normally with fill flash I don’t underexpose, but I had to do something to counteract the sun and keep it from overwhelming the loose strands you mentioned. Once in a rare while over the years I’ve used an improvised reflector, but I don’t carry one with me when I’m out in nature.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 30, 2011 at 5:27 PM

  16. As soon as I saw your image, the “flare” lighting up the cattail reminded me of my mother’s stories of using cattails as torches when she was young. I suspect they soaked them before the seeds began to scatter, but she said they were quite effective and would burn quite a long time.

    I’m not sure of the point – perhaps they were only for fun, a kind of poor man-and-woman’s tiki torch. I don’t think they were pillaging neighboring towns or playing arsonist. 😉


    December 30, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    • How nice that you have that personal connection to cattail torches. I think you’re right that people soaked them in a flammable liquid while the cattail seeds were still firmly attached, unless they used something viscous to keep the looser and more ignitable fluff attached. In the case of “my” cattails, I don’t think the people in the nearby truck depot would have taken kindly to a terrestrial rather than a solar fire.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 31, 2011 at 1:07 AM

  17. a beautiful and thought provoking image


    January 2, 2012 at 4:12 AM

  18. Amazing creativity, I love this 🙂


    January 2, 2012 at 3:27 PM

  19. […] had produced some of its characteristic seed balls. These start out hard and firm but eventually, in a way that’s reminiscent of cattails with seeds attached to fluff, they loosen to the point that a touch—be it of a hand or of the wind—causes them to unravel. […]

  20. Amazing flower i see the image of the warrior
    Excellent post 🙂


    January 3, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    • I don’t think I would have seen this as a warrior, but it’s good to hear that your imagination casts the cattail in that role. I’m pleased that you enjoyed this post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 3, 2012 at 8:07 AM

  21. […] add that along with Mexican devilweed and many another member of the sunflower family, as well as cattails and sycamores, our native grasses also produce varying amounts of fluff when they go to seed. Most […]

  22. […] love the chaos? A slightly earlier phase in the process appeared, and from a greater distance, in the post of December 29. Both times I wore hip-high rubber boots so I could wade into the water where the cattails were […]

  23. […] technique I used in making this picture is the same one that I explained in detail when posting the picture of a cattail last December. In short, I got close and aimed the camera in such a way that the basket-flower […]

  24. […] for the loss of light, I added some flash to keep my subject bright. (There he goes with that day-for-night technique […]

  25. Magical, like an eclipse and yet poetic in the way that the cattail looks like a blond woman in a suede coat with a fur color. A dedication to love as she stands in the sunlight glowing like the way our loved ones make us feel!!



    January 27, 2014 at 10:38 PM

  26. Oh and now I see that others have commented nearly the same, including you and your wife!


    January 27, 2014 at 10:41 PM

    • Yes, this definitely said “coat” to people. Your imagination filled it in with a wearer and the wearer’s emotions.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 28, 2014 at 6:25 AM

      • She was confident and proud with her fancy coat, I couldn’t not acknowledge it!



        January 28, 2014 at 7:34 PM

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