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Photographing Your Garden

I have owned a camera since I was twelve years old, and in the dark bathroom even learned to develop and print my film. Later I wanted to be a professional photographer, but adolescence intervened. Nevertheless, I do have a couple of achievements that might help my credibility in this blog. As a young teenager I photographed every member of the Savannah Indians baseball team and had the players autograph the prints. My girlfriend was a baseball fan (though I was not), and Carol was much pleased with my present. In high school, I made a hit and a few bucks at dances using my cheap flash camera to photograph couples dressed to the nines. In 1968, the novelist Lee Smith, an old friend, asked me to take her picture. After many shots we agreed on one. It was published in “Alumnae Profiles” a section of Hollins College Bulletin. No, not the well-known magazine Aperture, but I’m not complaining.

Now that you are convinced of my competence, I reveal the true significance of this early career. Never again did I take any posed shots. Those using their I-phone cameras will not understand my aversion, but I just enjoy using more imagination than invested in a selfie or folks in serried ranks assembled. Most often, I photograph folks doing something. I now have about 4,000 slides and every Fourth of July give a slide show for my greater family. Here, now! Stop that groaning!

Here, then, are a few rules that should help you produce handsome pictures of you garden.

Rule 1. Some acknowledge only three rules in photography: Light, Light and Light. This idea holds much validity, and although we can’t cover the whole subject here. I offer a few tips. First, be aware that the best light occurs in those magic hours of early morning and late afternoon. Then you’ll have the advantage of soft shadows and avoid harsh glare that washes out color and detail. The light is often even more effective just after a rain, the wet leaves supplying a richer color. If you encounter unwanted shadows in close-ups, use a reflector to brighten them. (And by all means, take some close-ups.) White poster board works well; it can be propped up or held by a bored spouse or friend. I’d avoid using flash, but if you need to fill dark space you should experiment with it. (We all know, of course, that the most important thing in the garden is the shadow of the gardener.)

Rule 2. Sharpness is almost as important as light, so keep the camera steady. I’m ignorant of I-phones, but surely there’s a way to keep one steady when you “trip the shutter,” so to speak. There are still a few old-timey cameras around, though, and a tripod and a self timer will hold the camera rock steady. If a tripod isn’t an option, put the camera on a bench or ladder. If a cable release isn’t an option, use the self timer, so as not to shake the camera when tripping the shutter. And avoid shooting on a windy day. Mornings and evenings are often less windy than other times—another good reason for shooting early or late.

Rule 3. Give careful attention to composition. First, fill the frame with interesting matter. Everything you see in the viewfinder should be worth gazing at and should enhance your overall purpose. Moving in close to the main subject of your shot will likely exclude what you don’t want, such as the single ugly part of your house or a rusty wheelbarrow. Even so, be careful to choose an interesting background. In the process, decide whether to make the photo vertical or horizontal. Most amateurs like us rarely turn the camera for a vertical shot, although it’s ideal to capture height or sometimes length (of a path, say).

Rule 4. This is really a special part of Rule 3. It’s called the rule of thirds. Divide the image into thirds horizontally, positioning the horizon and sky in the upper third. Then try to make two additional fairly distinct layers for the other two-thirds of the picture. You can, of course, leave out the horizon, allowing the eye to concentrate on details. It’s also a good idea to include a diagonal somewhere in the photo. Be sure to take some close-ups of your favorite Blossoms, also.

Rule 5. Take several shots of every subject, varying light direction, composition, camera angle and anything else you can. Film, after all, is cheap nowadays.

Finally, for even greater interest, by all means break the eye-level syndrome (whether photographing the garden or people or anything else); shoot while perching on something or kneeling. Many stunning photos in gardening magazines, I’m convinced, would look like weed fields if shot from a careless angle or at eye level.

And now, if a friend says, as folks often do, “Your camera takes good pictures,” smugly remember—it’s the photographer and not the camera that gets the good shots.

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