On Garden Photography

[Updated 2006.09.05 10:39 EDT: Reduced image sizes to fit displays with 1024x768 resolution.]
[Updated 2006.08.22 16:10 EDT: Added examples for each "consideration."]

Susan Harris just posted Tenets of Garden Photography over on Garden Rant, in which she asks some provocative (to me) questions:
... let's see how they [tips on improving vacation pictures] translate to our world.

The first advice is to not cut off people's feet, which makes me wonder: is there a plant part that, if cut off, spoils the photo? And the admonition to avoid telephone poles coming out of your subject applies equally well to plant subjects as to human. But really, there's lots more useful stuff here, like the fact that we usually see the subject, not the whole frame, and we should always "check the borders." And my favorite - a discussion of qualities of light that goes beyond the avoid-harsh-sun advice we see everywhere to describe "sweet light" and suggest that flash be only during the day, never at night. I just love that counterintuitive stuff!!

Specific to travel, photographers are reminded to catch these elements: people, scenics, details, food, movement, action, and nightlife. So what do you suppose the must-shoot elements would be in gardening photography? Maybe entrances, whole borders, close-ups, small plant combinations, animals, and such hardscape as seating, stone, wood, and statuary. What else?
I started leaving a comment there, but after my comment started getting longer than her blog entry, I thought I should write my own in response!

I've been "a photographer" since before the age of five, almost more decades than you can count on the fingers of one hand. The way I've photographed, and how I share my photography, has changed a lot over my lifetime. It continues to evolve, not only in response to the huge technological changes, but also to changes in me and my life and interests.

I don't remember the last time I used a "real" (film) camera. The time lag for feedback between what I thought I shot and what I got made me try to make every shot count. Without access to a darkroom, or the skills to take advantage of it, I learned to compose my shots "in camera": to carefully frame each shot in the viewfinder to get exactly the picture I wanted to eventually see.

Starting about 1980, I shot slide film exclusively. I "edited" each roll I got back, going through every slide, and selecting the ones which were not only technically perfect (focus, exposure, and so on) but which also captured what I was striving for when I took the picture. At most, I would get two or three "good" shots out of the roll; maybe 1-5% of all the photos I took. These are the only ones which anyone else would ever see. From this population I selected maybe 10% as "candidates" for printing. Again, maybe only 10% of these ever made it to paper. So most folks only saw a tiny percentage, less than 1/1000, of all the shots I took. And yes, I shot thousands of images each year.

Digital photography, blogging, and social networking sites such as flickr are allowing me to share my photography in ways it would have been far too expensive or cumbersome to do in the past. I can experiment more wildly, since I can get immediate feedback on the success of the shot, and the cost of making mistakes is only the time it took me to setup and take the shot. (And delete the mistakes!)

But I've kept my old habits. I still compose in camera, and take the time to setup each shot, even though I could easily crop the image on my computer. I don't dump every photo I take into public view; I still edit the collections. I still go through each image, deleting the ones which are out of focus, or shaky, or under- or over-exposed. Some of these could be corrected digitally, but, unless I have only one image of something, it's not worth it. There are other, better, shots in which I got what I wanted.

And some things are unchanged by the technology. The qualities of light, dimensions of composition, and the sensuality of beauty and nature are, in deep ways, eternal. It's my challenge to capture those eternal qualities in a frozen image.

I've got two basic reasons for my garden photography: beauty and documentation. While they're not mutually exclusive, my goal for any shot is primarily one or the other. Good examples of both, and examples of all of the following considerations, can be found in my recent series of photos of "Baby" at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, as well as the other photographs in this blog.

Some of the things I consider in my photography are:



This doesn't mean that the top and bottom, or left and right sides, are mirror images of each other. Balanced asymmetry is much more interesting. Think of a larger and smaller person on a seesaw, and how they move along the beam to balance each others weights. A classic photographic example is the horizon line; it looks best above or below the center-line of the image, depending on where the interest lies. In garden photography, to achieve this I either let the primary subject fall to one side or the other, or let the line of the subject follow a diagonal across the frame.



Related to balance, but especially important for documentation photography, is providing a sense of scale in the image. This usually involves including some familiar artifact, such as a chair, path, building, or other "hardscape" element in the image. People are also good for providing scale!


On the beauty side, some of my best photography plays with and disguises or distorts the sense of scale. Macro-photography is one of my favorites for this. Seeing things close-up, the views we usually never stop to see, allows us to see things in a new way, to see details we would never notice. There is so much beauty in the world which we miss because it is too big or small (or we are too small or big) to see it all at once.



Of utmost importance for me, which is why I shot slide film. Related to this, the best color is achieved by slightly under-exposing the image, by 1/3 or 1/2 stop. This leaves the colors more "saturated" and less washed out, making the image more vivid and natural looking. Subtleties of color and variation in color are themselves often subjects of my photography.


Light (Redwoods, Muir Woods)

My favorite photographs are able to capture the quality of light which was present when I took the photo. This is a big challenge, but awareness of light - its color, its direction, its qualities - is important to consider when taking the shot. Overcast days are the best for garden photography. With reduced contrast between light and dark, not only can colors be more saturated, but texture and structure don't get lost in the shadows or washed out in sun.

Think of light streaming through the leaves and trunks of trees, or the crepuscular rays of sunlight between clouds. Light becomes visible in these ways when it's scattered by moisture or particles in the air. In other words, the light is making the space visible, giving a three-dimensional quality to the image, and providing the viewer with a palpable sense of the place in which the photo was taken.



Everything is changing all the time. In the garden, some of these changes are obvious, but mostly they are visible only over time. Capturing the different stages of growth of plants and their parts is, again, a way of helping us see the things we would otherwise overlook.

The fronds of a fern just emerging from the ground are incredibly detailed, but we rarely see or observe them then. A bud before it opens, or the dried husks of plants in winter, these are things which are also part of the garden, and also beautiful. They are reminders of how fleeting it all is. How temporary and ephemeral is each moment in the garden, as are we.

Balance, Time


Garden Obsession said...

Lovely post! Thanks for sharing your experience on this subject! I couldn't be more opposite, though I have studied photography and I sometimes get a bug to take a "proper picture", but mostly I just dash out in my slippers, take several shots, hope that one is in focus, and dash back in before the mosquitos find me or I start sweating. :) And then I use Paint Shop Pro to crop, fix color/contrast, etc. I couldn't be lazier...

candleangie said...

Your photos are great! I especially like the first photo of the cactus(?). Beautiful!

Sandy said...

Well said!

Anonymous said...

theses pictures are amazing.

La Gringa said...

Gorgeous photos! Can you recommend any on-line learning sources for a beginning photographer?

Jeph said...

You have some amazing photos!!

lisa said...

I really enjoyed this post...along with all your posts thus far, actually. It's refreshing to read something written by someone who obviously knows what he's talking about, yet isn't "all-knowing" or snooty about it. You obviously enjoy everything you write about, and are sharing your enthusiasm-which is infectious! Fun stuff-glad I found you! ;)

Janet said...

Thanks, Xris, this was a great post! I'll have to re-read it a few times.

Xris said...

I'm a little overwhelmed by the response this post has received. I wasn't expecting this. One thing I get from this is that there's interest in posting some more "beauty shots" as well as the ones documenting what's going on in my gardens!

I'll try to respond.

sandy, anon, jeph: Thank you!

obsession: Whatever it takes to get the shot!

angie: I think the spiky plant is an Agave.

gringa: I don't know of any good resources for beginning photographers. I'll keep my eyes open. The best advice I can give is to keep taking pictures of what interests you, and to experiment with the technical features of your camera. Take several different photos of the same subject with different settings to see how they come out. It's much easier and cheaper to do these days with digital photography. Also, the feedback is quicker, so the learning is faster.

lisa: Wow. I mean, I wouldn't write about stuff that I don't enjoy, but wow. And thanks.

janet: Come back anytime!

Janet said...

I came back. :o)

Those ferns wouldn't be cinnamon ferns, would they?

I loved taking pics of my ferns as they unrolled. They actually showed more differentiation at that stage.

lisa said...

Not sure if you will see this comment, (since it's an older post)-but I am looking to buy a new digital camera, and was hoping to pick your brain, since you have more experience with digi's than me. (I am currently using my son's old Epson from 1998-TOTAL antique as digi's go) The only other photography experience I have is with a 35mm Olympus OM-4 SLR, which I bought for the "control factor", because it's all manual, so I get what I TRULY know how...more of a learning experience. Anyway, now I want a Canon Powershot SD700 IS...so slim and versatile (sounding), and I sure understand if you are reluctant to comment...but I've done my research, checked out the Amazon consumer reviews...even my friend has it and says it's cool...but I'd love to know if you have an opinion one way or another. So please let me know if you will...thank you in advance!

Xris said...

Lisa: Sorry to take so long to reply to you. I do read every comment.

I don't have any experience with either Olympus or Canon, so can't provide any experience about either. Both are good names.

Does Olympus have a digital SLR model? If so, you could continue to use your existing lenses with that instead of the Canon. Depends on the lens investment you already have. I took that leap with ny Nikon and I'm very happy with it. It takes a little getting used to, because the effective focal length will be a little longer, and the field of view is therefore narrower.