Photographing Garden Plants

Betula luminifera birch tree 622_038

Plants are the core of gardens, they are the core of garden photographs.  When we photographers picture plants we need to consider why gardeners grow them in the first place.  What are the core 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.

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

In this chapter of the PhotoBotanic Garden Photography Workshop, “Think Like A Gardener”, we are developing a personal style.  Our own understanding of a garden will help 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 garden photo.

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

Fan palms, here Chamaerops humilis 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.  Once we realize those distinctions they are also good reasons to make a picture.

White bark is the essence of Aspen trees, Populus tremuloides

We all see different beauty in plants and gardens and are 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.

The dark foliage of Red Leaf Japanese Barberry, helps to define other plants in a mixed border.

The white flower of a Star Magnolia tree isolated against a dark background.

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

Careful framing of this cactus, Mammillaria celsiana, helps to accent the spiral pattern of the spines.

My first genuine success taking pictures of plants was 30 years ago when I was working with The Nature Conservancy documenting 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 pictures.

Here in this detail of Sitanion hystrix , Squirrel-tail Grass, the bent awns are critical to the story.

holt_816_0704Sitanion hystrix

This sort of insight gives a story to the photo, and because of this first success I have learned to always look for distinguishing features in every plant picture I take.

The distinguishing features of some plants may very well be found in close-up details but gardeners usually choose plants for broader reasons. I go into detail about macro technique elsewhere; here I want you to think like a gardener and photograph plants that illustrate their essence as garden plants.

Blue Oat Grass – Helictotrichon sempervivens 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 capturing their details I have been alert to how they fit into gardens, how their shapes fill holes, how their textures blend with other foliage.

Try to shoot plant photos straight on, directly into them at their level.  This helps remove lens distortion and gives your viewer a realistic sense of size and perspective.

holt_903_0859Berberis ottawiensis(Silver_Mile)

Berberis ‘Silver Mile’ in mixed border with ‘Bednall Beauty’ Dahlia

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

For ground covers getting to garden level and down low to photograph is really the best way to see the plant itself rather than normal eye level where all you may see is a mass of texture.  With a wide angle lens you can get close on the plants and show its relationship to the larger garden.

Low camera angle of these Mayapples helps to show off its garden characteristics.

Where you want to emphasize shape and structure you may find telephoto lenses will help isolate the shape and flatten the perspective.  This is especially effective with trees and branches.

In winter the bare branches of Camperdown Elm tree show their zigzag pattern.

To further isolate the plant from the surrounding garden try a wide aperture on the lens to give shallow depth of field.  This draws the eye to only the sharpest spot and will accent the feature you choose.

A telephoto lens helps create shallow depth of field in this Kangaroo Paw – Anigozanthos ‘Harmony’

For 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 this plant, a garden worthy element that is part of the story I see.

The best plant pictures will reveal those essential elements of the 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 in the spring in a post Photographing Foliage.  As a plant portrait it is clearly a Rhododendron, it is spring and full of life, it tells a story.

Fresh unfolding leaves of Rhododendron hyperythrum.

 

About 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.

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7 Responses to Photographing Garden Plants

  1. Lisa-St. Marys ON September 11, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    If only Canadian Gardening had you as a photographer, I would still be a subscriber. Sigh…. Your photographs are such a joy to look at. You have changed how I look at my garden, and at garden photography.

    Now if only I could get my pictures to speak like yours. Well I’m never going to be a professional, so I shouldn’t expect that my pictures would ever get to that level, but there is definitely room for improvement.

    Thank you again for sharing.

    Thanks for the comments Lisa. Photography is an on-going process, the more we try the more we learn. – Saxon

  2. Arthur in the Garden! September 11, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Wonderful!

    Thanks for dropping by – Saxon

  3. Susan September 11, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    Once again you remind us that good photography, creative photography require both time and purpose.

    Thanks Susan – I hope I am not too repetitive… -Saxon

  4. Donna September 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    I think Susan said it best in her comment. I agree with her statement. But one thing you were taught a long time ago really resonated with me, “what made each grass unique I understood what details were important and used that knowledge to take pictures.” You looked at it from the biologist’s understanding of the plant in question to draw out the image she was seeking. The understanding of the finer and most important points leads to what you both wanted to accomplish. We do that in architecture and space planning too. A real understanding must happen to create good design. I found that on my own in photographing insects and birds. Once I understood their habits and habitat, I could anticipate their actions and reactions better. I think I have to look at plants a little more in the way you described. I take what I know about them for granted rather than using that knowledge I think. Your post certainly made me realize there is much more than just composition and technique in snapping the garden photos. I know… the story, but until reading today, I think you added another chapter to making a story – the one on knowing your subject.

    Thanks Donna – I really appreciate your comments, knowing you have been following along. Knowing your subject is what “Thinking Like a Gardener” is all about. True, it is an ongoing process of study and learning as you do with birds, but I suspect many beginning garden photographers don’t realize what they already have when trying to figure out how to tell a story with photographs. Trust your own insight and curiosity. – Saxon

  5. Layanee September 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

    Great tips as always. I am often on my belly in the garden.

  6. Maurice September 16, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    these are really great pictures! im especially attracted to the cactus one, it looks like a bunch of Fibonacci sequences put together! beautiful!

  7. Diana Studer September 20, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    each time I read one of your posts, I’m inspired to go out and try again … but it’s grey, cold and raining steadily – so I’ll hold your inspiration in mind when the camera and I are out in the garden again.

    Diana – grey, cold and raining can be its own story and you may well find a way to capture it in the plants (so long as it is not raining so hard as to soak you and camera) – Saxon