holt_287_6145.tifFinding your own style as a garden photographer begins with your understanding of gardens. Think like the gardener within, then get inside the garden to find your photo—in your own style.

We begin Section 3 of The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop with Design and Space. In the earlier sections, I talked about design and space as it relates to the actual composition of a photograph, and about how to create a design (a composition) within the space of  the camera frame. Here, we look at the gardens themselves. By now you have some camera tools and techniques to work with, so let’s look at garden themes as assignments for when you go out with the camera.

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The long wide path around this house allows space for plants

Every garden has a theme, whether accidental or purposeful, and a design, whether well maintained or messy. A garden fits into its surroundings somehow, and that fit is the design.  How a garden occupies the space it lives in (and serves the needs and interests of its owners), is a big part of the story in any good garden photograph.

As you look at a garden you intend to photograph, think about how it is put together and what resonates with you. Think about what is it saying to you, a garden lover, in that moment of inspiration. Finding your own style as a garden photographer depends on your interpretations of the garden in front of you. Consciously work on interpreting what you see.

I love seeing chairs in gardens. I imagine the peace and quiet of a private moment. When I see chairs, I note how they are part of the garden space, how they fit the design, and how I can take a picture that will tell that story.

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Getting behind these chairs in Chanticleer Garden allows  me to show the garden space.

A garden’s design may be obvious, it might be a renowned garden, you may know the gardener, or it may be your own garden (which will make this lesson a lot easier). There are design features that you will recognize because you understand at least a little about gardens; your experience tells you something insightful about the garden. Creative juices begin to flow because you are responding to the design in front of you.

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Purple muhly grass fills this entire space as a lawn substitute.

This is how you develop your own photographic style. This is how you go beyond the simple act of snapping a picture of a garden, to telling a story about what you see. Let your interpretation come through in your photograph.

Trust your judgement in what story you want to tell. Immerse yourself. “Get inside the garden” was the best advice I ever received from a photo editor. Doing so will force you to concentrate on a single idea rather than grabbing a shot that tries to do too much.

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In the garden of Linda Cochran, this ornamental pampas grass is beautifully sited in side the garden to be a focal point from any part of the garden.

Now, let’s look into garden shapes and designs as the lesson assignment. Next time you go out to take photos, give yourself this thought to work on: how does the design fit the space ?

What is it that works for you? Is it the clever use of space? The placement of trees to frame the garden? Is it the scenery borrowed from a neighboring garden or landscape? Is it the arrangement of beds and borders within the space? Are there garden rooms? What does your understanding of the garden reveal to you?

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This mixed border dominates the patio space; that is the story.

Often, the message you get from the space is exactly what the designer intended; at other times you will find your own insight based upon your understanding of gardens. Don’t be afraid to concentrate on the one idea as you understand it, and compose a photo that tells that story—your interpretation of the garden. My favorite compliments are those from designers who say they had not seen their garden the way they saw it in my photograph.

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The entry to Michelle Derviss’ garden is not just about the gate; it’s about entering into an eclectic cottage garden.

For this assignment, when you go to make pictures, get inside the garden design, feel the space, and make it yours. Sometimes, paradoxically, getting “inside” may mean stepping away from the space.

Think back to the orange chairs in Chanticleer Garden, 5 photos above. A garden is sometimes better defined by photographing from outside. The entry gate to Michelle’s garden, above, is better defined for my story by stepping back to see it in context of the full cottage garden aspect.

Pathways are great elements to connect design and space. Backing away from a garden path can show how it works inside the garden, how it divides the space in the way you understand it.

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In Sally Robertson’s garden, the path neatly divides the space to create a stroll garden.

The point of view you take with your camera should result in a photograph that leads the viewer’s eye into the space, frames the space (see Point of View, Lesson 2.4), and tells your viewer something about the design. It really can mean retreating to the edges of the garden to find elements that frame your composition and guide the eye into the space.

In the next photo of this little backyard sustainable garden, I crammed myself into the very corner of the garden, where the back fences come together behind the chicken coop. Looking from this farthest point, I was able to use as many elements as l could to bring you “inside” the design.

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Jennifer Carlson’s garden with rainwater cistern, compost, chickens, and organic berries.

Next is a story of interconnected garden rooms – spaces. I backed out of one room and stepped into the canopy of the tree framing a path, so that the room, the space could be recognized with a bit of intimacy.

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In the tiny garden, below, I made the narrow front yard seem bigger by getting down low inside the meadow, while still demonstrating how the garden filled the space.

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All these examples were based on how I saw a design in relation to the space—the story I understood. The gardens were not necessarily intended to tell my story. As a photographer, it’s my job to tell my story.

As you work on this assignment, tell your story of a garden’s design. Think about the space. Walk around it. Get inside it. How is it organized? What does it say to the gardener in you?

This is really the fun part of being a garden photographer. We understand gardens in our own ways. They are spaces artfully occupied by plants, and we can get excited about communicating the art we see. It is not simply about having a camera while in a garden and taking a random picture.

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Plants and hedges frame the garden at Digging Dog Nursery

Recognize this love of gardens that will help you to take better pictures. You don’t have to have any formal training in garden design to recognize beauty. Whatever aspect of a garden inspires you, put it in context of the space, and you will be a better garden photographer.

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