Floral designers have always been inspired by the 17th Century Dutch Masters, but over the past few years, the look has become very popular again. Loose, natural arrangements with beautiful home grown flowers, tangled stems, wispy, fly away foliage, trailing fronds and disheveled leaves lend themselves to the look. Each specimen individual and unique just as nature intended. Bringing the garden inside if you like, complete with the odd butterfly or snail perhaps. I have ‘dabbled’ with replicating the Dutch Masters style of painting in my photography over on Instagram, more for my own enjoyment as I experiment with camera settings and lighting. When I say lighting, I mean natural daylight.
I love the work of Rachel Ruysch, one of the female Dutch Masters who painted still life florals. I really recommend looking at her work for inspiration. Of course the collectors of these paintings back in the 17th century were showing off their wealth and the artists their skill. When you actually look at these paintings you’ll see all kinds of amazing and exotic planting arranged together in a vase, much of which would not have flowered at the same time. It’s more about the colours, textures and botanical details that I love.
The image below is completely unedited, but gives you an idea of a few blooms I gathered from my Yorkshire garden in late May including roses, heuchera, geums, lilac and broom. I deliberately chose quite intense coloured florals and wanted them massed quite close together for the Dutch Masters look. You can even see one of the roses has a lovely little hole, munched by some insect or other. I quite like that imperfect petal.
So how can you add some Dutch Master magic to your floral photography? Before you even pick up your camera you need to set the mood with your arrangement, vase and backdrop. That doesn’t mean you have to head off to a flower market and spend a huge amount of money. This bunch of peonies below was bought from a supermarket, and literally stuck in a vase to do their own thing. You could use tulips (overblown and past their best) daffodils, dahlias, chrysanthemums and try adding garden foliage or grasses from the roadside. It’s more the vase and the lighting conditions that give it the Dutch Master feel. I scrunched up some chicken wire in a copper bowl and then wove the blooms through. This can be the tricky part, but floral foam is a modern invention and so try and use something as natural as possible to arrange the flowers.
This was shot with my canon 70D and a 50mm lens. The light is coming in from the right from a large window with a venetian blind slightly open. So the light is difused and subtle and the true colours of the peonies are maintained. This is after a quick edit and tweak in Snapseed, one of my favourite mobile editing apps. I’ve used the ‘portrait look’, slightly sharpened and brightened and with the brush tool raised the exposure on a few of the blooms.
I love how the 17th century Masters included decorative details from nature in their work. A nest, fruit, birds eggs, butterflies or insects all appear on the table top which is often draped with a cloth or piece of fabric. Velvets, satins and linens will add texture and look good on camera. The plums I chose in the above image are the same hue as the centre of the narcissus to carry the colour through the design and the tulips are just beginning to drop their petals on to the table top. Don’t forget to style your arrangement out of the vase and think of the image as a whole.
You don’t need a fancy camera to create this look either. This unedited shot was taken on my iPhone 6+. Again you can see the light coming in from the right giving a wonderful shine to the vase. I probably should have taken the exposure down on this as a few of the roses are blown out, but at the time it was just to check that the flowers were in the right place. (A quick iPhone shot of your arrangement really is the best way to make sure you are happy with the look).
I swapped the natural linen backdrop for a photo board here and added in a ribbon or two. (I’m not very good at that less is more look) this was taken with my canon 70D as I wanted more depth and drama than my iPhone can give. I took this about 4pm in the afternoon. It was a bright sunny day and I waited for a little cloud cover for this look. In harsh sunlight the highlights would have been blown out and the roses wouldn’t have had this lovely definition. This is how it came out of camera. Settings: ISO 200, 1/50, Fstop 8 Other factors should be considered though, the light, the weather and time of day. With natural light photography, camera settings change all the time. You just have to experiment with the light source and settings.
And this is the edited version of my Dutch Master inspired still life that I posted a few days a go on Instagram after an edit in Snapseed. Again the ‘portrait look’ and the brush tool were used to enhance and brighten the roses facing the light and to give the copper bowl an extra sheen. But as you can see, it wasn’t heavily edited. To the left of this image, the room is quite dark anyway ,but you could add more drama by placing a dark board or fabric to block the light from filtering around the room. I like to show the flowers with their true colours so I’m always wary of underexposing the image too much which can make them look dull.
I’m really enjoying creating these style of images right now and look forward to sharing more with you over on Instagram. Do let me know if you have questions and I’d love to know if you have tried this look for yourself.