birch tree with yellow autumn leavesJust as plants are the core of a garden, they are also the core of garden photography. At least that’s the case for those of us in the PhotoBotanic Workshops, where we celebrate plants.

When we photograph plants, we need to consider the primary reason that gardeners grow them. What are the main distinctions? What is the essence of a garden plant?

A photograph of a plant should be as carefully considered as was the plant when it was placed in the garden. The photo should reveal a genuine understanding of the plant in its setting.

Hosta 'Bright Lights'-932_407cr_1920.jpg

Outstanding as foliage plants, hostas, such as this variegated ‘Bright Lights’, offer color and texture to mixed borders. Photos need to celebrate all of this.

In this lesson of the  Workshop, we will be developing a personal style. Our own understanding of a garden will help us tell a story about it. So far, we have talked about garden themes, moods, seasons, light, hardscape, and design. All these elements need plants to make a complete garden photo.

By their very nature, gardens exist to showcase plants. Often the reason a gardener puts a choice plant in the garden is the same reason the photographer wants to make a picture.

Chamaerops humilis_286_3344.jpg

Fan palms, here Chamaerops humilis var. argentea, offer explosions of texture in gardens

A tree with distinctive shape or bark, a shrub with variegated foliage or compact habit, a perennial with beautiful flowers or unusual leaves, a groundcover with great texture, an heirloom vegetable, a rare or botanical curiosity…are all good reasons for any given plant to be in a garden. They are also good reasons to make a picture.

white bark poplars trees (Populus tremuloides) in California native plant garden

White bark is the essence of aspens (Populus tremuloides).

We all see beauty differently in plants and gardens, inspired by our own curiosity and knowledge. Let your own insights lead you to your own style as a garden photographer. Think like a gardener. Trust your knowledge and tell a story.

Dark, purple foliage Berberis thunbergii 'Atropurpurea' in waterwise mixed border demonstration garden at Bellevue Botanic Garden, Washington

The dark foliage of red-leafed Japanese barberry helps to define other plants in a mixed border.  Leave enough room in the photo to show the context – how the contrasting foliage helps to both break up the greens and showcases the purple.

White flower hybrid Magnolia 'Leonard Messel' tree in Maile Arnold Garden early spring

The white flower of a star magnolia isolated against a dark background.  Careful composition using negative space helps to isolate the flower.

Sometimes plants reveal something unique that gives a photograph a special story. When you study and truly observe plants, you can find fascinating details. The use of a tripod is a great aid in this process, forcing you to think clearly about exactly what you want to say about what you are seeing.

Mammillaria celsiana cactus with spiral growth pattern

Careful framing of this cactus (Mammillaria celsiana) emphasizes the spiral pattern of the spines.

My first genuine success in taking pictures of plants was thirty years ago, when I was working with The Nature Conservancy to document plant communities and endemic plants. At Ring Mountain Preserve in California, the biologist was having difficulty getting good pictures of grasses that could be used for identification purposes. When she explained what made each grass unique, I understood what details were important and used that knowledge to take my pictures.

Here, in this detail of squirreltail grass, the bent awns are critical to the identification of the species.

Sitanion hystrix Squirrel-tail Grass with long awns in Denver Botanic Garden meadow

Sitanion hystrix Squirrel-tail Grass with long awns in Denver Botanic Garden meadow

This sort of insight provides a story for the photo. Because of this first success, I have learned to look for distinguishing features in every plant I photograph.

The distinguishing features of some plants may be found in close-up details, but gardeners usually choose plants for broader reasons. Later, I will go into a detailed discussion about macro techniques for recording those close-up details. Here, I want you to think like a gardener and photograph plants that illustrate their essence as garden subjects.

Blue Oat Grass - Helictotrichon sempervivens in shrub garden border for foliage contrast

Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens), filling a gap in a shrub border

Ever since those days photographing for The Nature Conservancy, I have loved grasses. Perhaps because of my success in capturing their details, I have been alert to how they fit into gardens, how their shapes fill holes, how their textures blend with or complement other types of foliage.

I find it is usually best to shoot plant photos straight on, directly into them at their level. This helps avoid any lens distortion and gives the viewer a realistic sense of size and perspective.

Berberis ottawiensis (aka B. thunbergia) 'Silver Mile' variegated barberry shrub in mixed border foliage garden with 'Bednall Beauty' Dahlia

Berberis ‘Silver Mile’ in a mixed border with ‘Bednall Beauty’ dahlia.

Notice how the photograph of ‘Silver Mile’ barberry is composed at the plant’s level to feature its size and its foliage, as well as its usefulness as a garden plant within a mixed border.

For ground covers, photographing down low is the best way to show off the plant rather than from normal eye level, where all you may see is a mass of texture. With a wide-angle lens you can get close to the plants and show their relationship to the larger garden.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) shady woodland wildflower groundcover leaves in environmentally-responsible, native plant sustainable garden, Mt Cuba Center Delaware

The low camera angle for these mayapples helps to show off their garden characteristics.

When you want to emphasize shape and structure, you may find telephoto lenses will help isolate the shape, and flatten the perspective into two dimensions. This is especially effective with trees and branches.Deciduous tree in winter, California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) with white branches, pale bark

In winter the bare branches of the California Sycamore display their white patterns that a telephoto lens helps to compress into two dimensions.

To further isolate a plant from its surrounding garden, try a large aperture on the lens to give a shallow depth of field. This draws the eye to only the sharpest point in the image and will accent the feature you have chosen.

Yellow flower perennial, Kangaroo Paw - Anigozanthos 'Harmony' in drought tolerant California garden

A telephoto lens helps create a shallow depth of field for these kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos ‘Harmony’)

For the flowers of this kangaroo paw, note that by photographing it straight on the maroon stems are in sharp focus. Thinking like a gardener, I see the stems as an important feature of the plant, a garden-worthy element that is part of the story I want to tell.

Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical GardenThe best plant pictures will reveal those essential elements of a plant as well as its use in the garden—as you see it, in your own style. By carefully considering what you want to say, what you think is important in the garden, your plant pictures will reflect your style.

I explained my thought process of making this picture of the fresh leaves of this rhododendron emerging from their buds in spring in Assignment – Foliage. As a plant portrait, it is clearly a rhododendron, it is spring, and it is full of life; it tells a story.

We are finished with Section 3 in the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, but we have just begun to think like a gardener when taking garden photos. I hope you are beginning to see your own style evolve in your work.

Keep shooting, follow your style, find ways to tell the story of what you see. Trust your gardening instincts and tell those stories with your own themes.

Note: I continue to post lesson assignment ideas in the Learning Center of PhotoBotanic. If you want to see plants as botanic illustrations be sure to review the examples and lessons in the Plants Illustrated section.