Assignment – Foliage

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A garden photo is not simply a landscape photograph taken in a garden.  It should communicate something about gardening, something that enlarges the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of gardens

Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical Garden
Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical Garden

This photo of fresh emerging, nearly chartreuse foliage of Rhododendron hyperythrum is a fine plant photo, a nice leaf pattern with a sense of vibrant young leaves unfolding, but it says little about gardening.  True, part of the reason we take photos is simply to share the beauty of plants and the wonder that we see, but I challenge my students to “think like a gardener” and to find a photo that goes deeper than that.

A recent workshop at San Francisco Botanical Garden was about foliage.  Most gardeners develop a keen interest in foliage as it can provide a long season of drama, depth, contrast, and complexity to any garden.  The assignment of a the day was to find foliage juxtapositions and combinations that a gardener would truly appreciate and learn from.

Here is the branch of the Rhododendron that first caught my eye.

Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical Garden

I pretty quickly “saw” the pattern shot that opens this post and filled the frame with the  leaves; but the shade loving, blue forget-me-nots (Myosotis) were part of the essence of the scene.  I moved around to position the blue specks behind the foliage.

Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical Garden
Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum San Francisco Botanical Garden

Not only do we now get a hint of the garden, as opposed to the first photo, the added color is a lot more interesting.  By using a telephoto lens and large aperture for shallow depth of field I was able to isolate the focus point so the eye stays on the leaves and not be drawn to the busy blue dots.

As I worked the scene I saw a point of view coming over top of that foliage truss and looking down onto the forget-me-nots.

I tried and tried to find a way to fill the frame with more blue so that I did not have a “hole” in the upper right.  But I wanted to see the whole truss isolated without overlapping other leaves, and there was simply not enough forget-me-nots off to the left to come around a bit toward the right with my camera and still point back to them.

Easy fix with Photoshop.

Before and After Slider

Cloning parts of a photo is really easy when the area being worked on has soft focus.  And I only did a bit of this “enhancement”.  Did I create a fantasy ?  Perhaps, but my mind did not “see” the lack of forget-me-nots when I took the photo, it saw the scene full.  I suspect the gardener sees it full too; so I am just thinking like a gardener. Right ?

Let’s look for another foliage combination.

Variegated foliage drought tolerant Pohutukawa shrub, Metrosideros kermadecensis 'Variegata' in San Francisco Botanical Garden
Variegated foliage summer-dry Pohutukawa shrub, Metrosideros kermadecensis ‘Variegata’

Good gardens have all sorts of complex combinations of foliage shapes and textures that can be a candy store for photographers.

I am a sucker for silver variegated foliage and this Australian shrub in the Botanic garden, Pohutukawa (Metrosideros kermadecensis ‘Variegata’) would be a subject for my camera if only for its useful landscape features for summer-dry gardens.  But throw in variegation and the other plants with strong leaf textures, I found wonderful photos.  Look under the shrub where a fern and iris leaves are mingling.

These sorts of foliage combinations, with different leaf shapes, colors, and textures really make a strong garden photo with lots of inspiration for any gardener, even if the specific plants may be exotic.  The strap like leaves are not actually an iris but another Australian native, Xeronema callistemon – Poor Knights Lily.

But once again, my mind’s eye did not see the gap in the composition – the empty space in the upper right where the Ajuga comes to the path.  Once again, cloning to the rescue.

Before and After Slider

Next time you go out to take photos, make foliage your theme.  Look for foliage combinations that contrast each other.  Find a leaf or branch that you can isolate against some other part of the garden as background.  Think like a gardener – think about where these plants are placed in the garden.  Give yourself an assignment.

Here is a link to a foliage gallery in the PhotoBotanic Archive.

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