A good garden photograph begins with…a good garden.
So far, in these lessons on garden photography, we have explored the rudiments of composition and light in making good garden photos. In this lesson, we step back and begin to analyze why we take pictures so that we can begin to understand when to snap the shutter.
You will want to have something to say to your viewer, a story to tell. A good garden photo speaks to other gardeners. It is not simply a pretty picture that documents what you see. It should say something about how you see gardens.
We all love gardens. We want to share what we see, but our cameras sometimes seem inadequate for the task. Our photos do not always capture what we see. So, let’s think a bit about what we are really seeing and what the camera can actually capture.
Learning to appreciate what makes a garden work is the first step. The beauty you see is not an accident, so don’t let your photos be accidental. Regardless of individual interests and visual interpretations, understanding a garden will go a long way toward clarifying how we might photograph it.
Let’s look at a large and complicated garden, one with lots of possibilities such as Filoli, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Woodside, California. Here is a short one-minute video of a portion of the garden. As you watch it, start thinking about what you might photograph as your eye scans the garden. What makes it work?
As I scanned the garden from that spot, I found two different and distinctive shots, in addition to the wide panorama; the overall view that opened this lesson was an easy one. All the work of making that a good photo was done by the garden’s clear organization and obvious framing opportunities.
Looking around for a place to start, I acknowledged that this is quite a formal garden. What I really noticed, and what I appreciated, were the twin columnar shapes of the pruned bay laurels that tower above the flat plane of bedding plants in the Chartres Window Garden. That is one way to appreciate the garden.
Then I realized that what made the whole scene sing for me were the signs of the season: the weeping cherry trees, in full bloom, shouted out “spring!” I needed to use a telephoto lens, so I could move in and frame that detail, which says spring so much more emphatically than the wide view.
Look back at that first composition, in the middle of the opening panoramic view. I never moved the tripod to get the more intimate view of the cherries. I just changed lens when I realized that, for me, spring was in the flowering trees.
Understanding that this complex garden had many stories to tell allowed me to slow down and think about what I really noticed. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when photographing a good garden. I sometimes catch myself nearly hyperventilating with excitement when the light is good and the garden is at its prime.
Slow down for a moment before beginning to frame a garden composition. What, specifically, are you seeing with your eyes? Forget that it may be a cool morning, or there are warm fragrant breezes, that birds are singing, or you can almost taste the fruit. The camera only sees; it has no other senses. Let your eyes isolate the visual elements and start to think about those that have meaning for you and appear to work together in harmony.
Understand what you think you are seeing. This is really important and underlies the entire book, “Think Like A Gardener,” that comes later in this workshop series. Understanding what you see in a garden is fundamental to telling a story about any garden. What you see is different from what anyone else sees, and what you appreciate is different as well. You will need to find the photo—your photo—within the garden scene.
Here I think is the time to urge you to visit a variety of wonderful gardens, to learn to appreciate what a good garden looks like. When you have seen a large number of gardens, it will be much easier to recognize what is unique, what is common, what a garden is saying, and what speaks to you, the garden photographer.
Do visit the regionally acclaimed public gardens, each of which has something to offer the garden photographer. But, to really appreciate what a garden can do, make a point of signing up for local garden tours, especially those sponsored by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the Garden Conservancy, the Association of Landscape Designers, and the American Society of Landscape Architects. Revel in the variety of gardens and what they mean.
A garden is a human construct, usually celebrating plants, and has meaning to its creator. That meaning should be understood by the photographer in order to fully appreciate the garden. Whether a vegetable garden or a bench set in a meadow, a zen garden or formal estate…a garden can be defined as a structural interface between man and nature. There is meaning, intentional or not, that will help the photographer capture the garden.
Here we see two vegetable gardens: one in Historic Williamsburg, Virginia, the other in the private California garden of Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping.
These are distinctly different gardens, but I appreciate the purpose of each: they are both intensive vegetable gardens, using raised beds that have been designed in relationship to the house. There is a beauty in the structure and clear utility of these gardens.
Photographers learn to find focal points in composing garden images, putting key elements of a garden’s story into important points within a composition. For instance, I have found that featuring a table and chairs in a garden will result in a meaningful photo. Appreciating this notion led to similar photos of two very different gardens. One is the middle of a city, the other in the middle of a prairie.
Grand gardens may be wonderful for photography—great starting points to practice our craft—but often we find ourselves in more modest gardens, such as those belonging to our friends and neighbors, or perhaps our own. It is important to learn to appreciate these too.
Learn why each garden was created, what obstacles were hurdled, what plants have been celebrated. Think about the physical space and how people are expected to use the garden and always remember the plants. No matter how grand the design, how pleasant the living spaces, or artfully the human intervention has been disguised, a garden is about the plants. Even a close-up shot of a flower or a vignette of a plant combination will have greater meaning if the photographer understands the garden.
Found in a garden, a stunning flower is no longer a wild plant but one selected and perhaps hybridized to be used in just that garden. Learn to appreciate its strongest features and make that the subject of your photo.
Even wider shots need not show any prominent hardscape in the photo to appreciate the art of gardening.
This artful juxtaposition of silver and purple plants may not show the garden path or wall beyond, but it is surely a celebration of plants that is likely only to have happened in a garden.
One of the wonderful rewards from giving hands-on workshops on garden photography is the realization that every photographer has a unique eye and can tell their own story. I love seeing what students produce. Don’t go into a garden and try to recreate a photo that someone else took. Don’t be satisfied with what you are “supposed” to see. Open yourself up to the garden and tell your story.
As an example, I was expecting to photograph spring-flowering shrubs in this garden of California native plants (above), but the strongest photo I found was that of bare aspen trees behind the red-twig dogwoods.
As garden photographers, we don’t want to simply take a picture of a garden; we want to share some garden knowledge that might help our viewer learn something—something we learned in the garden, something of our own interpretation and appreciation. Our story.
Next time you take out your camera and go hunting for photos in a good garden, be conscious of the garden itself; it will lead you to the good photos.
Additional posts for Garden Appreciation. Lesson tag 1.4
Photo Overwhelm Lurie garden in Chicago.
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