Artist Q&A: Susan Michal

You were a professional singer for 25 years in Los Angeles before you discovered photography. What kind of music inspires you now in the studio?

Well, I like it to be big and dramatic, I guess because I have always been Big & Dramatic! Aerosmith & Bon Jovi are the fun ones, and I love Big & Rich in the studio. A few other favorites on my playlist are Lara Fabien, a Belgian artist that I love, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Kelly Clarkson, Sara Barellis, Skylar Gray and Evanescence.  I’ll tell you a little known secret: I have been writing and composing and recording again…I think the flowers really helped re-open this musically driven creativity in me. I have actually written music to go with the flowers in some way. In a perfect world, I would have a big Gallery opening with a grand piano and I would get to play this soundtrack that I created.


Tell me about your experience lighting & posing the flowers.

You have to be technical. The process and discipline in creating any of this is way more important that the final product. You have to be able to create it over and over again. If you’re not technically proficient, you will fail. Typically, I love to shoot wide open with shallow depth of field, but with flowers I went the opposite direction – I shoot them at F22 because I want the most detail possible. I experiment all the time. Some things people have never seen because I want to keep a cohesive look for this collection.

Getting those backgrounds to be white-white and true black are among the most important things. For the white background, I had the thought to photograph the flowers against a white soft box. The very first one I did like this looked so painted that it stopped me in my tracks. The light wraps around the flower from all sides, and then I bounce light back into the front of the flower to off-set the light coming from the back.  The part that takes time is really knowing the flower because some are so translucent that you lose the detail if you throw too much light at it, whereas darker or deeper flowers need more light.

Posing the flowers is very hard, especially as they’re starting to die – which is when you get the really interesting compositions.  They can be so fragile – one wrong touch and the petals fall off. I was struggling with how best to do this when I had a light-bulb idea one day:  what I needed was a microphone stand! Which, thanks to my music career, I had in storage. That was a huge breakthrough, combined with the various wires I had accrued from local flower arrangers. I laugh because I have my little surgeon’s tray at the ready when photographing and posing the flowers.


How do you find the flowers that you use?

When I first started this project I was really excited about finding unusual, rare and unique flowers. I began in November. Not exactly the best time of the year to find flowers to photograph. The first flowers I photographed where common tulips. I have always loved tulips and when a client had given me a bunch as a thank you, I decided to see what I could do with them. The images I photographed that night are still among my favorites after more than two years of prolific shooting. That week was when it all started. I began searching everywhere for cool flowers. Interestingly, the Whole Foods market near the studio had a fairly large selection. I made friends with the manager of the floral department and over the next three to four months I would go in almost daily to see what they had gotten in. She kept me updated and made note of things she thought I might find interesting. 

When spring rolled around I started noticing the flowers blooming in the yards between my home and the studio. It was not uncommon for me to stop, knock on someones door and ask if they minded me picking a few of their flowers. I am sure some them thought I was crazy, but no one seemed to mind. I started keeping bottles of water, extra vases and cups in the car. I also quickly realized that I need to keep a variety of cutting tools handy. It was  like an easter egg hunt everyday and I was surprised by all of the different flowers I was able to find within the ten mile drive. 

As time went on and more people heard about what I was doing, calls started coming in from friends and clients wanting to share flowers they had found for me. It was not uncommon to arrive at the studio to find a vase full of flowers someone had picked from their garden and left sitting for my on the front porch. It was touching that so many people wanted to contribute and be involved. Daily I would get texts with pictures of what was blooming in someones yard that day. Sometimes it became a wild goose chase, but more often than not I was rewarded greatly when I made the effort to go and check out some of the flowers people were willing to share with me.


Some of my favorite images are of flowers I found along the roadside blooming wild, or in my studio garden. When you look at a flower through the camera lens you see things that you may never have noticed when viewing them with the naked eye. I love the complex textures the intense colors and the unexpected shapes. Some are soft and gentle in their beauty, some are bold, many are funny and some are just strange, proving that God has an intense sense of humor and a strong imagination.

Susan Michal

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s not doing you any good sitting on a hard drive.” This came from the person who encouraged me to do the flower thing. I had never thought to do it, and he said “Why would you NOT do this? You have nothing to lose, it’s crazy not to go for it.” The biggest thing is being willing to do it, though. So many people have a thing in their head, but they don’t put in the work to make it happen.

Where would you go if time and money were no object?

I love to travel! I would have to say Africa. I was there for the first time last year, finally, and I am going back to Tanzania in March. I really feel like if I didn’t do the flowers, there might be something in that genre for me… I came home with 20,000 images – let’s put it that way! I love photographing animals. I don’t know if I’ll ever get enough of Africa.