In the Garden:
Middle South
January, 2006
Regional Report

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2007

I love the fuzzy buds and clear blue flowers on this borage.

Garden Photography

If you love creating gardens, chances are you enjoy having photos of your handiwork. However, you don't need fancy display gardens to take great garden photos. Some of the best photographs are of ordinary subjects, taken from an unusual angle, with compelling lighting, or with an unusual focal point -- a colorful bird amidst the greenery, a water droplet on a leaf.

I've found that the more time I spend taking pictures in the garden, the more enamored I become of plants, insects, and nature in general. I often have to force myself to finish the task at hand (usually, weeding), rather than running in to get the camera!

I'll talk about the art of photography in a minute; first, however, are some technical considerations.

Digital vs. Film Cameras
The biggest benefit of using a digital camera is that you can take multiple photos of the same subject (from different angles, with different lighting, etc.) and view them immediately on the camera's screen. Not only does this ensure you get the shot you want, it's also less expensive: You don't spend money developing and printing dozens of shots just to get the one you want.

The biggest drawback to digital cameras is in the quality of the prints if you want to enlarge them. Digital cameras record an image as a series of tiny squares of a single color, called pixels (short for "picture elements"). Film cameras, on the other hand, record images in continuous tones. Therefore, if you plan to enlarge your photos into poster-sized prints, you're best bet is to use a film camera, because digital images enlarged to that size will probably be too "pixilated"; that is, upon close inspection the individual squares of color will be apparent. The technology of digital cameras has come so far in recent years, however, that they are now the choice of many professionals.

Choosing a Camera
Choose a camera based on the way you want to view your photos. Digital cameras differ in the amount of information they store -- the more pixels that comprise a photo, the higher the quality of the image.

If you plan to view your photos on a computer screen, any digital camera will be adequate, since computer monitors display at relatively low resolution -- just 72 dpi (dots, or pixels, per inch). For quality prints up to 5 x 7 inches, use a camera that has a capacity of at least 1.3 mega pixels. For prints up to 8 x 10 inches, use a camera with a capacity of 2.1 mega pixels.

Although a quality camera with lots of extra features is nice, it's not necessary for taking pleasing garden photos. However, I do find one feature indispensable: a zoom lens. By stepping back from my subject and zooming in on it, the background blurs, drawing the eye to the subject. By modifying the distance and amount of zoom, I can modify the amount of detail in the background. (Another way to modify background focus is by adjusting the F-stop and/or shutter speed.)

Artistic Considerations
Rather than photograph large expanses of garden, I usually opt to zero in on one or two plants, or even a single flower. Photographing a whole garden is a little like photographing the Grand Canyon -- the photo rarely conveys the scene in its entirety. I've photographed incredible wildflower meadows, only to find that, once printed, the flowers are decidedly "underwhelming." Maybe my eyes fooled me; I was looking at the flowers, so the green foliage faded into my subconscious.

Plants in general, and flowers in particular, are photogenic. Every plant has some feature that makes it stand out from the others. It could be the flowers, or it might be something less obvious -- the shape of the flower or leaf buds, the color and texture of the bark, or the patterns of veins in the leaf. Some of my favorite photos are of ordinary plants; for example, a perfectly symmetrical arugula, a close-up of the hairy leaves on a yucca, fuzzy leaves and stems framing a borage flower. Keep your eyes open for interesting shadows, which can add drama to a photo.

Rules of Thumb
There are some simple rules of thumb that can help you compose your photo; however, feel free to break these rules!

1. Avoid splitting an image right down the middle, either horizontally or vertically. Try to place the horizon, for example, about a third of the way down from the top of the photo or, if the sky is the focal point, then a third of the way up from the bottom.

2. Place the focal point of the photo slightly off center -- that is, unless your photo is capturing the symmetry of a plant, in which case centering the plant adds to the symmetry.

3. Morning and late afternoon or evening light is best because harsh midday sun can wash out colors. However, the light can appear quite yellow at these times. Midday on an overcast day often produces the truest colors in a photo.

The first step toward taking good photos is becoming a keen observer. As you work in your garden, observe the subtleties around you. Look at plants with the eyes of a photographer. Would the dark mulch under that rose be a nice background for a close-up of a flower? How would the black-eyed Susans in the distant field contrast with the deep blue delphinium in the front? Keep your camera with you out in the garden, and experiment!


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