Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how she created these kaleidoscopic images of a wax plant using a lightbox and an old ornamental ashtray

An internationally renowned photographer of

the natural world and author of more than 50 books,

Heather brings her expertise to AP.

I?m always buying plants to photograph so I have something to take pictures of whatever the time of year. The plant in these images is called a wax plant (Hoya carnosa). It?s part of the milkweed family and has wonderful star-shaped pink and white blossoms that are very photogenic.

I?m always thinking of ways to create compositions that are a little different. I don?t like photographing flowers in one particular way and to me photography is about trying things out. What you?re looking at here is a wax plant in a Venetian glass ashtray, positioned on a lightbox.

I often go to antique shops and rifle around for interesting containers that I can use to put flowers in for my still-life macro work. In still-life photography the container is as important as the subject.

I found this ashtray and wondered what kind of images I could create if I placed a flower inside. I?ve actually photographed the ashtray on a lightbox on its own before, but with the wax flower inside it becomes quite magical. I wanted to offset the flowers against the abstract patterns of the container.

One of the great things about macro still-life photography is you have complete control over the lighting. By looking at the structure of the subject you should be able to decide how to light it. Try holding a flower bud up to the light and see how much light shines through. You could always try rim-lighting your subject if it isn?t very translucent. Ask yourself what facet of the flower you want to bring out and take time to think about how you could do it.

I used a lightbox on this occasion, which is a really useful continuous light source that is perfect for illuminating subjects such as flowers and other semi-transparent subjects. The lightbox was on the floor, which meant I could stand above it and easily photograph directly down. You could place the lightbox on a table, but it would be more difficult to get a direct downwards shot.

I took these images using my Nikon D3 with a 105mm macro lens. The camera was attached to a Benbo tripod and angled directly over the subject.

In the smaller image the flower is lit solely by the lightbox from underneath and the patterns in the glass ashtray are clearly visible. As you can see, the main image is much brighter. I used a Nikon Speedlight SB-800 flashgun to light the flower from above. The burst of fill flash reveals how vivid the colours actually are and the pinks show up beautifully. I didn?t want the flash to swamp the light coming through the flower from the lightbox, so I turned the flash down by about 11/2 stops.

I always look for average tones to meter from and for the image on the right I took a spot meter reading from the dark blue areas; there aren?t any really contrasty areas so you could just use an average exposure.

With a 3D subject I always focus manually so I have precise control over my point of focus. In these images the flower is more or less in the same focal plane as the background, so making sure everything in the image was sharp wasn?t too much of a problem. I used an aperture of f/8 or f/11.

I like the way the soft pastel colours of the flower blend with the cool blues and greens of the ashtray in both images. I deliberately chose a flower with soft colours as a brighter coloured flower would be too overbearing.

While each image is quite different, they work well as a pair. They illustrate the creative potential of various light sources. I don?t think you can say one image is ?better? than the other ? they?re just different.


Temperatures outside may be icy, but you don?t have to put your flower photography on hold until spring. If you have an old lightbox, try using it to shine light through different flowers and see what effects you can create. A lightbox emits light that is a similar temperature to daylight (5,000-6,000K), and it is essentially just a container with several light bulbs and a translucent pane of glass on top. You can buy second-hand lightboxes on eBay or you could even try making your own. For instructions, visit

To see more images by Heather visit

For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley