Making a habit of photographing your own garden — or gardens you visit — helps you seize beautiful moments, tell stories and bring your ideas into focus.
Taking pictures sharpens your eye for details: for the deeply quilted texture of a hosta leaf, the bubbling exuberance of a cluster of cherry tomatoes or the playful face of a pansy. It helps you to be more aware of the changing patterns of sun and shadow across your garden. Garden photography also helps you appreciate views and perspectives, and exercises your design sense.
Professional photographers with expensive cameras and bags full of fancy lenses have an edge over enthusiastic amateurs, but great garden photography really starts with your own eye. You don’t need a high-priced camera to capture a great image — even the pros often shoot pictures with their phones, with beautiful results.
A picture-perfect day begins at sunrise, when the light is soft. The right light is crucial. Rob Cardillo, a professional photographer in Pennsylvania, who has been photographing gardens and gardeners for more than 20 years for magazines, books and newspapers, calls light “the magical seasoning” in garden photography. “You can make something out of nothing in great light,” Cardillo says. “You can make an average garden look stupendous.”
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In early morning light, colorful gardens are at their best. Your eye can appreciate a garden in the bright light of the midday sun, but a camera sees things differently; that brilliant light looks harsh through a camera lens, and it washes out the colors. Get up with the sun, Cardillo suggests, and “exploit great light.”
Gardens also glow in the golden hour before sunset. Cardillo’s rule of thumb for afternoon photography is, “I don’t shoot until my shadow is longer than I am.”
Taking pictures in your own garden is a great way to think about its design and document its development. Walking around with a camera in your hand allows you to take visual notes rapidly and easily. What better way to catalog your collection of irises, asters or garden art? Use a camera to capture the colors and character of seasonal combinations of plants in flower beds or in pots, or to record the story of your vegetable garden through the summer.
Before-and-after pictures of garden projects are also useful. When you’re using your camera to document the construction of a pergola or the process of laying stepping stones, it helps to write down the important steps along the way and to shoot each one from several angles. The presence of people adds scale to these shots and brings the projects to life. Remember, you’ll have many opportunities to show how your new garden feature looks once it is finished, but you have only one chance to capture the excitement it as it is being built.
When you visit a botanical garden or go on a garden tour, a camera will help you think about what you see and what you like. Pathways naturally guide your feet, but let your eye and your lens wander away from the path to catch great views and shoot the details as you walk through a garden.
Keep the camera in your hands. Frame your shots carefully, defining your subject and blocking out distractions. Don’t just shoot randomly: If you spend a minute thinking about the best angle for a shot and then composing it through the lens, the results will be much more satisfying. Take your time. Wait for people to move out of the way.
On a garden tour, you might try to develop a running photographic theme, shooting different kinds of water features, for example, or designs for patios, or plant combinations in flowerpots. Of course, with a digital camera, you can keep several themes going at once and sort the pictures out later.
Cardillo likes to shoot from above, looking down on a scene, and from the low angles, through the greenery -- these are “bird’s-eye” and “worm’s-eye” views. From above, you eliminate problems like electrical lines. A worm’s-eye view focuses on the foreground and makes even small plants look “grand and heroic,” he says.
Practice makes perfect, Cardillo says. “Get one camera and use it. Make it second nature.” Use the automatic settings while you get to know your camera, and “then learn how to tweak that,” he says. “Figure out how to take everything off automatic, and try manual focus and exposure.” His images in “The Layered Garden,” by David Culp, with Adam Levine, unfold the beauty of Culp’s own garden, seen through many seasons and from many angles.
Using a point-and-shoot camera or a phone to take pictures is great practice, too. Shooting with a phone “keeps me on my toes,” Cardillo says. “It’s like I’m doing visual push-ups, keeping my eye active and strengthened by looking for photos everywhere.”
Cardillo’s favorite garden photography “captures a garden moment,” he says. These moments are more than a simple photographic record of the plants and lines of a garden’s design. A great series of pictures is a distillation of your passing experience of the color, texture and light in a garden: the photographs capture the mood and the magic. It won’t always be easy: You may have to get up on a ladder, lie down in the grass or wander off the beaten path. When the moment comes, grab it: Put down your trowel and pick up your camera.
When you photograph your garden regularly, you’re documenting its development and your own changing relationships with plants and design. Pictures don’t just freeze an image; they capture the passage of time. Here are some tips and ideas from Rob Cardillo to help you get the most out of your garden photographs:
▪ Take a walk around a garden before you start shooting. Look at it from different angles. Find the obvious, designed views but also the unexpected angles.
▪ Get an early start. “If you show up at dawn, you just get a magical look,” Cardillo says.
▪ Practice “the one-eyed squint,” Cardillo suggests. Close one eye, and imagine what you’re looking at is two dimensional, instead of three-dimensional. “It helps me put things together in a graphic way, with splashes of color and lines and forms,” he says.
▪ Get to know your camera. “Cameras today are sophisticated, small and menu-driven, and they have too many little buttons,” Cardillo says. “You really have to read the owner’s manual.”
▪ It’s natural to be drawn to close-ups of flowers, but you need overall shots and medium-range vignettes to tell the story of a garden. Taking overall shots provides the necessary setting for the fine details.
▪ Let your view-finder help you garden. If you are constantly working to block a view of the neighbor’s rickety fence or a power pole, it’s time to think about how you can use plants or design features to make the scene more beautiful.
▪ Include people in your garden photos. People add scale and interest, Cardillo says. You may be more successful with a phone than with a fancy camera. “There’s less technology and equipment between you and your subject,” Cardillo says. “You can get a more genuine expression.”
▪ Whatever angle you choose, “fill your frame with beautiful things,” Cardillo says.