Night-Blooming Cereus

by Sean Setters
 
My wife has two night-blooming cereus plants which were cut from her mother's decades old plant. In fact, the origin of this night-blooming cereus goes back four generations with mothers passing down cuttings to their daughters. If you're unfamiliar with this type of plant, an apt description can be found on Wikipedia:
Night-blooming cereus is the common name referring to a large number of flowering ceroid cacti that bloom at night. The flowers are short lived, and some of these species, such as Selenicereus grandiflorus, bloom only once a year, for a single night. Other names for one or more cacti with this habit are princess of the night, Honolulu queen (for Hylocereus undatus), Christ in the manger, dama de noche and queen of the night (which is also used for an unrelated plant species).
The night-blooming cereuses we have typically bloom once or twice a year, with the flowers appearing well after the sun goes down and wilting sometime around sunrise. Once you see the white petals just poking out of the ends of the nearly enclosed buds, you know the flowers will be blooming later that night.
 
Having noticed the imminent blooms, I photographed one of the buds earlier in the day. The leaf the bud was attached to was sticking out well beyond the railing of our back porch, giving me plenty of working room and few obstacles to shoot around if shooting from the side. To photograph the bud, I set up a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro and pointed the camera alongside the railing to get a nice side view. However, the background (a line of trees bordering our backyard) proved too distracting because a) the relatively narrow aperture I wanted to use did not diffuse it sufficiently for good separation and b) the colors of the background were too similar to the bud to create color separation.
 
To remedy the situation, I clamped a black foam core board behind the bud to eliminate the background. Here's what the setup looked like:
 
Night-Blooming Cereus Bud Setup September 2018

At this time of the day (approx. 12:30pm Eastern Time), sunlight was filtering through the trees, giving it a soft quality, but the bud was still relatively well lit. Therefore, I used the sunlight as my main light and simply held a white foam core board angled slightly below the bud to fill in the shadows caused by the high sun. Of course, the sunlight was also illuminating the background, making my very dark grey foam core board less dark, but... I liked the effect. Here's what the bud shot looked like after processing:
 
Night-Blooming Cereus Bud September 2018

EXIF: f/10, 1/160 sec, ISO 200
 
Later that evening, the real show began. Around 10:00pm ET, we noticed that the flowers were starting to open up. I quickly grabbed the same tripod-mounted camera and lens and got to work. This time, I used a shoe-mount flash diffused by a 24" collapsible softbox with grid positioned behind the flowing plant (rather high) to create a diffused backlit glow and rim light. I used the same white foam core board that I had used for the bud shot positioned below the flower for fill. EXIF for the end result seen atop this post: f/8, 160 sec, ISO 400.
 
My mother-in-law questioned why I didn't shoot the flower from the front to show off its interesting structure, and many of you may be wondering the same thing. Truth is, I captured many shots of the blooming flower from the front but didn't like them nearly as much. Here were the challenges that made photographing the flowers from the front less ideal:
 
  1. The position of the bloom (sticking through the railing) limited where I could place off-camera flashes and modifiers (no rim/back lighting possible), leading to a rather dull image.
  2. Night-blooming cereus flowers are very deep. Front lighting the flower from anywhere except the camera's axis results in dark shadows in the deepest part of the blooms.
  3. Getting the entire flower in focus from the front of the petals to the back (within the depth-of-field) is very challenging. As I was photographing the flower while still attached to the plant, small movements made focus stacking an impractical solution.
Sometimes you just have to accept the limitations of a given situation and figure out a solution that works best.
Posted: 9/19/2018 10:11:44 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
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