Stalking Geraniums

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Perennials

When faced with overwhelming choices in beautiful gardens, it is almost essential for garden photographers to give themselves a target, an assignment.  These days, I am stalking geraniums.

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True, it is great to wander around a wonderful garden, drinking in beauty, grabbing shots, but too often such photos end up as snapshots without a story to tell.  They may remind you, the photographer, what you saw, but don’t communicate to others.

So, when my friend, Robin Parer, unarguably one of the of the world’s authorities in geraniums and owner of Geraniacea Nursery, told me she was finally doing a book, I had the excuse for an assignment.

When I realized my friends Deborah Wigham and Gary Ratway of Digging Dog Nursery, with unarguably some of the world’s best perennial borders, had many of Robin’s geraniums in those borders, a match was made in garden photography heaven.

An excuse to go make photos: follow me along as I stalk one geranium in this fantastic garden.

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And, for this lesson in The PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, (3.5 -Themes), make an assignment out of your next garden shoot.  Choose a feature of the garden, its style, or theme, and tell a garden story.  And think like a gardener, trust those instincts that inspire you as a garden photographer.

Geraniums are hard to photograph.  The very feature that makes them so valuable in the garden – lax, sprawling fillers with delicate leaves and ephemeral flowers, makes them hard to isolate and distinguish in a photograph.  So I was delighted to find this specimen in full flower, glorious ‘Johnson’s Blue’.

Spilling out of the mid border onto a gravel path with nothing else in flower around it, for interest, I tried a vertical shot to bring in an old bench half hidden in the foliage.

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I am kneeling on the path with my tripod as low as it goes using a wide angle lens almost on top of the geranium.  Another way of composing a vertical with the bench is to use a longer lens.

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Again, a low angle, but backed away so that the telephoto lens can get close to the flowers while stacking up the other elements as shapes in the composition.

This is the classic way to “work” a garden photo, trying different techniques, thinking of different ways to present the story; and why having an assignment allows the photographer to think about every angle and every way to capture the subject.  You slow down to really see the subject and its surroundings, deciding which elements need to be part of the story you want to tell.

Let’s look back at the geranium, down the path the opposite way:

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Almost exactly the same relative composition – the geranium carries about the same space in the frame, but this photo is all about the blue geranium in context of the chartreuse foliage of its neighbor.

I am now back the next morning, still walking in circles around the garden, coming back to this border, stalking ‘Johnson’s Blue’, not wanting to miss any new photo opportunity.  The light is much changed.

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Now shooting the other direction, I am able to incorporated an urn in the path.  The light is not murky like it was the afternoon before.

Hmmm…  How about even wider lens ?

Geranium path Digging Dog-holt_780_502.CR2

Aha.  I think I have something here for Robin’s book.  I like all the photos for different reasons, but this one really shows how to use this geranium, its scale and habit, its color and companions, its place in an authentic garden.

It took hours, even days to “see” this.  But without the assignment, to force me to keep looking, I doubt I would have come up with what I consider a calendar quality photo.

That is the goal of this lesson, indeed this entire PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop.  Striking pictures don’t just happen, even if you think you see them.  If you take garden photography seriously you need to work at it.  Put all the techniques you have learned into practice with an assignment, a theme you understand and want to tell a story about.  “Work” the scene.

There is always the fear you will miss something even more glorious if you stay on assignment in only one part of a garden, but the bigger fear is to miss the moment when the assignment subject looks its best.  You want that calendar shot, not lots of snapshots.  Stay on task.

Indeed, more likely staying on task will give even more insight on the garden you are studying, and give you other photos you would have never seen.

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If I weren’t down at ground level studying ‘Johnson’s Blue’ I would never have seen how this Carex pendula works.  See the blue beyond ?  Ahh, right.  I only got to see the Carex shot because I kept looking for ways to see the geranium I was stalking.

And in the very first photo of this post ? See way beyond the magenta geranium, along the path into the other garden room?  Aha; again that same ‘Johnson’s Blue’.

There are many ways to give yourself an assignment. Think like the gardener inside you to find a theme that interests you, that will inform your photography.  Are you good at propagating, do you know good color combinations, love foliage, feel attuned to seasons, enjoy design, marvel at trees?  Use a theme, go shoot.

As you get more comfortable telling stories, you will be able to juggle multiple themes during a shoot, always thinking about what you are seeing and how it relates to one story or another that you can tell.

While at Digging Dog Nursery, thinking about blue geraniums it was easy to see how Gary used other blue flowering perennials, such as Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’.

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Now if my assignment had been “blue in the garden” I would have shown you a different set of photos….

 

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Donna June 24, 2013, 7:51 pm

Love your site and check it daily! I am heading to Digging Dog next Saturday in search of Alstromerias so your article was an exciting one for me! Thanks! I always learn something new!

Enjoy your trip. Bring your camera… – Saxon

Donna June 24, 2013, 8:38 pm

Saxon, you said in the post just what I was thinking reading and viewing the images. “I like the photos but for different reasons.” The one you hit on for the book is a great shot. It shows the plant’s nature and really makes it shine.

Actually I have no idea what Robin or her editors may want, which is why it is always good to “work the photo” – Saxon

Michael Romero June 24, 2013, 8:40 pm

Blue Geraniums!!! Wonderful explanation of garden photography accompanied by wonderful photos. I like Geraniums but I don’t grow any, that blue Geranium has me thinking though.

There are many wonderful blue geraniums. I know Robin has said she can’t keep
“Roxanne” in stock it is so popular. – Saxon

Kerry June 24, 2013, 9:53 pm

Saxon – Another great enlightening post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and process, and most of all the amazing photos.

Thanks for stopping by Kerry. – Saxon

Lisa-St. Marys ON June 25, 2013, 8:31 am

Blue in the garden please! I always learn something when I read your articles. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us!

Thanks Lisa – Blue is well appreciated but under represented in photos of gardens. As a cool, receeding color it does not attract the camera until one finds these wonderful plantings. – Saxon

Theresa Forte June 25, 2013, 11:38 am

Enjoyed the lesson in planning a shoot. You are wise to teach us to stick with a subject when it is blooming to perfection!

Thanks for sharing your insight with us! Love the shots…

Thanks Theresa. The photos improve the longer you study the subject. – Saxon

Pete Veilleux June 25, 2013, 1:34 pm

i just got back from visiting my family in northern New England. I found some large swathes of Geranium carolianum – Carolina Cranesbill in places on my family’s land which were recently logged. It is small and pink, not the lovely blue of yours. Although i was obsessing on the hundreds of different Carex [Sedge] species, the real beauty of the trip was Corydalis sempervirens – Rock Harlequin which i had never seen before.

here’s some pics: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjGnhEns

Pete – Thanks for dropping by. “hundreds of Carex species?” Yeow, I need to see that – Saxon

Susan June 25, 2013, 7:32 pm

You are so right about great garden photography taking time. It’s wonderful to get the serendipitous shot (1 out of 500 say) but working as you describe above adds a Zen quality to it. You really have to look and see. You become part of the garden. Now maybe a different assignment each day for my home garden! Thank you.

Susan – Thanks for pointing out the Zen quality of taking your time. It is truly part of the process of seeing. – Saxon

mary June 26, 2013, 7:40 am

Great shot of Johnson’s Blue Geranium. Good article will probably get the book for my husband. Always looking for good information on plant families and this sounds like one of those books.

Lenny Polley June 26, 2013, 12:32 pm

Hi Saxon,

I’m a newbie garden photographer and I find this site very informative. I like to read your articles since I learned a lot from your expertise and experience. BTW, I also tried taking photos of Geraniums but I didn’t get the best results. Perhaps, I can apply some of your tips. Thanks a lot! :-)

Lenny – I’m delighted to have you along for the journey. Do try to find soft light – Saxon

Aaron June 29, 2013, 3:54 am

As usual your blog consisted of interesting information and even more interesting and beautiful photographs. Geraniums are beautiful that we all know, but you with your painstaking effort, made it look even more gorgeous.

Anastasia Abboud June 30, 2013, 9:07 pm

So interesting and such gorgeous shots! Thank you for a lovely garden photography lesson!

Nicky Dowsett July 2, 2013, 10:58 am

Wow! Geraniums are really pretty. Last year, I also made it as my subject for my garden photography. I used the photos during our gardening exhibit and fortunately, my photos were greatly rated. It was really fulfilling. :-)

Shirley July 6, 2013, 8:56 am

I love morning light for capturing blooms but haven’t necessarily done theme photography. I like the idea, of taking the photo from different angles with different lenses and looking at it from a gardener’s perspective. All good advice that I want to incorporate.

ks July 7, 2013, 5:49 pm

Very excited to hear Robin is doing a book ! Many of her selections live in my garden. And that last shot of the border at DD is splendid ! I’ve taken hundreds of photos there over the last few years , but unfortunately their open hours don’t always coincide with good lighting for photos. Where is the fog when you need it ?

Saxon Holt July 10, 2013, 11:32 am

I use the “themes” idea as a way to concentrate one’s photography. It is certainly true that when the light is fine it is easy to just take photos of what looks good, but to get the really good photo it is often a good idea to give yourself a little assignment.

Saxon Holt July 10, 2013, 11:50 am

Sorry for the slow reply – not trying to avoid Dodger fans… It’s tough to plan a photography visit to a garden when open hour are “business hours”. However it IS often foggy up there. Keep trying. Gary was planning to cut back the geraniums so they would look good again late summer. On my visit I stayed over night and glad I did – the late afternoon was brutally windy and the next day clear at dawn. Fortunately no wind that early.