Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Celebrate Home Magazine (Download for free at www.celebratehomemagazine.com)
Photography has been a passion for me since my high school days when I was the yearbook photographer. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, I also got bitten by the gardening bug (figuratively) and combined the two endeavors. It was a match made in heaven!
Photography and gardens are a natural fit due to the variety of subjects, types of light, patterns and color palettes available. No matter the season, there is always something to photograph in the natural world, from a bird’s eye view to a worm’s eye view. Here, I share my tips for how I capture beautiful images in public gardens as well as my own backyard.
Read And Watch
If you have read photography how-to books before, they almost always begin with, “read the manual” or “get to know your camera.” There is a reason for this. The more you know about what your camera can do for you, the more natural it will feel when you’re shooting. You won’t have to second-guess whether you’re doing something right or not. Shooting will become second nature to you (I promise) and you can spend your time seeking out compelling subjects and composing thoughtful and memorable images. Read your manual in small chunks and have your camera nearby, so you can see where the controls and menus are.
There are so many informative and free videos online; most likely there are videos highlighting the features of your particular camera. Some are better than others, of course, but they can be an invaluable resource in your self-education as a photographer.
I searched for “Nikon D300” and found more than 20,000 videos that highlight that model. Many are reviews by both amateur and professional photographers. Some are detailed how-to videos that are either generalized tutorials, while others cover a specific feature of the camera. There are more than 100,000 videos related to my Nikon D7000. There are other sites that offer free tutorials and/or fee-based subscriptions.
Get Down and Dirty
I’ve captured some of my best images while sitting down, eye-level to the flower bed. These unusual perspectives capture a view that most passersby will never consider, making your images more memorable. While you’re down in the trenches, shoot upward and catch petals backlit by the sun, and photograph the backs of flowers as well. From this perspective, you also slow down long enough to really notice the tiny insects and pollinators that inhabit your garden. Getting down and dirty also allows you to include a brilliant blue summer sky behind your subject, adding more pops of color. I always carry a trash bag in my camera bag so I can sit and capture images of flowers laden with freshly fallen rain.
Harness the Light
Most of the time I prefer shooting gardens in the early morning or later afternoon, preferably when the sky is overcast, making for more saturated color and no harsh shadows. If I’m out shooting on a sunny day, I will bring along a tri-grip reflector to diffuse the light over my subject. Although there are many brands of diffusers available, I found one from Fancier Studio that is less than $20 from Amazon.com. It folds down like a car sun shade to fit perfectly in a camera bag. The closer you hold the diffuser to your subject, the more the light will glow. Put your camera on a tripod, leaving one hand free to hold the diffuser.
I know what you’re thinking—who wants to lug around a tripod? I am a very steady hand-held shooter but, when shooting flowers and insects, I shoot with a tripod 95% of the time. A tripod forces me to slow down, be more deliberate with my compositions, assess various angles and backgrounds, spot tiny bugs, and most important—achieve the sharpest focus possible. A tripod is probably my most important photographic accessory!
When I’m shooting flowers without a diffuser, I look for backlit petals and dappled background light behind my subject. I rarely shoot flower closeups in direct mid-day sunlight because of the harsh shadows created on petals. I will, however, capture wide shots of an entire garden or garden bed from a distance when the sun is out. These types of shots work best when the sky is very blue and filled with puffy white clouds.
Divide and Conquer
Don’t immediately center your subject. While extreme closeups of a single flower work best centered, try dividing your frame into thirds like a tic-tac-toe grid—and place your subject on a crossline of that grid. If you place your subject off center, look for interesting lines or texture in the “empty” space for added impact.
Vertical, Horizontal, Long Shot or Macro?
The beauty of shooting digitally is that it doesn’t cost you any extra to capture multiple variations of your subject. Shoot horizontal and vertical shots of the same scene. Some subjects demand one orientation or the other. For instance, if you’re photographing a tall sunflower, you might immediately choose a vertical orientation to get the entire plant in the frame. Get that image, but then move in closer and get a horizontal shot of just the flower head. Position the flower center in the middle and get a closeup of the seeds. Move the subject off center and capture part of the flower and then the blue sky to the right or left. Shoot it again vertically, cropping tightly and placing half the bloom at the bottom with a bright blue sky above it. Turn your camera at an angle and see if that creates a striking image. Don’t get stuck with just one orientation. The process of composing a great shot is always fluid for me, even if the orientation may be obvious at first.
Beware the Background
What is in the background is as important as your actual subject. Keep your backgrounds clean and simple and your subject will shine. Adjust your angle so you can exclude distracting “hot spots” of light or dead foliage and stems. Isolate your flowers against a bright blue sky or backdrop of darker foliage. Let your background fall out of focus by shooting with larger apertures.
In cases when I can’t control the background (i.e., cars, a parking lot, people or spent foliage), I put a black or white sheet of foam core board or a collapsible reflector behind my subject. This gives my shot a studio-like quality and eliminates a distracting background.
Beauty Really is In the Details
Sure, you can photograph a beautiful tulip or a group of Shasta daisies, but don’t stop there. Move in closer and capture dramatic textures and patterns, such as pollen-covered stamens, veins in leaves (especially beautiful when backlit by the sun), or a cluster of raindrops on a petal. I always shoot overall views and then move in closer for tighter compositions. If you pay attention to composition and lighting, even weeds and dried flower heads and seed pods can be photo-worthy.
The Sum of the Whole
Remember to photograph all the parts of a flower, from a fuzzy stem (you’ll often find tiny bugs clinging to them!) to a curled leaf to a single petal. Move in closer and crop tightly for more dramatic images and texture. Shoot from different angles, too—top, sides and below. Looking down over the flower is a great place to start, but also consider shooting a side view of the flower, or get under the flower for a shot from the ground looking up.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Photographs taken after rainfall will be more saturated in color and the light will be clearer and more even. And if Mother Nature won’t provide it, create your own drama by watering your garden and photographing closeups of petals covered in water drops.
Some of my most dramatic images are of a brightly colored flower against a contrasting background, such as hot pink coneflower against a lime green shrub. Look for striking color combinations, such as purple and yellow, white against dark green, or orange against purple. When I planned my garden bed, I intentionally chose plants that would contrast against each other for photographs.
Consider the Critters
To me, there is nothing more rewarding than having an insect in my composition. Since I use a tripod, I am prepared when a butterfly sweeps in or a bee comes to pollinate the bloom. The addition of an insect will elevate your image beyond a standard “record” shot. Photograph the flowers as they are, then if you wait long enough, a critter will meander in to enhance your composition!
If you’re photographing a plant in a public garden and it has a label, get a shot of the plant label before and after you shoot the plant or flowers. I always do this so that I have the information at hand not only for blogging purposes but also for my archives. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to identify these plants in the future. Most of the plants I photograph are labeled, but when they aren’t, I do some sleuthing on the Internet to narrow down the possibilities. I also ask fellow gardeners for help in identification. You may think it’s extra work and isn’t important, but I promise you that you’ll thank me for this advice one day!
As far as identifying insects, some are obvious (bumblebees, ladybugs, certain butterflies), while others are not. Sometimes all it takes is an online search for something as simple as “yellow and black striped beetle” to find out that your latest image is a Striped Cucumber Beetle. Then the next time you photograph this insect, you’ll know exactly what it is (an added bonus—you can astound and amaze your friends with your new found knowledge!).
Sharing Your Work with the World
I highly recommend that you start a (free) blog to showcase your work. It will serve as a chronicle of your photographic journey and you’ll get feedback from nature lovers and fellow photographers. I use WordPress and pay an inexpensive fee to have additional storage space.
There are other free sites that can showcase your portfolio such as Picasa Web Albums, Flickr, Tumblr, Wix and Pinterest. Fee-based portfolio sites include Zenfolio.com, Photoshelter.com, Squarespace.com, Foliolink.com and pBase.com, to name a few. If you have a Facebook account, post photos there or start a Facebook page just for your images. (Editor: I use Smugmug.com to keep my online photographs.)
My final advice is to practice, practice, practice! Photographing gardens and the natural world has been enormously rewarding for me. Read your manual, shoot regularly, learn how to process your digital images and above all else, always stay curious!