Photographing a November garden   

 

For years I have made sure to wander my garden with my camera in every season.

I know most photographers are only interested in the bloom of spring or glorious colours or fall, but to me it’s as much how the yearly changes shape the plants as it is the colourful presentation of spring and fall.

I like to walk around the garden that hides my home from the country road that borders my property. Spring, summer, fall or winter. I enjoy it.

It was on a late afternoon just after 4PM. I walked out on my porch to listen to the coyotes serenading the neighbourhood. Or maybe they were complaining loudly that the wet cold weather was making it hard to find food that normally scurries in the meadows.

Friends have commented that it must be nice to live away from the noise of the hustling city. However, at that moment it wasn’t only the coyotes that were disturbing my supposedly quiet rural life. Three roosters, fourteen chickens and five ducks were all making sure I knew they were as important as the coyotes in their forest home.

As I lazily kicked some fir tree branches out of my path I thought about how the cold plants looked interesting and decided to get my camera.

I mounted my 200mm macro on my camera and attached the ring flash and walked along the little pond to take some pictures. After about five not-so-sharp captures I chastised myself for being lazy and returned to my house to grab a tripod.

A photographer I met that worked for a couple magazines once asked me, “What is the difference between using a tripod and not using a tripod?   “The shot with the tripod is the one the editor chooses for the cover.”   I am not sure if that’s always true, but I am sure using a tripod (and a flash) when photographing plants and gardens give me more keepers.

The ring-flash creates a smooth direct light that is very different from the flash mounted top of the camera. There is a sparkle to the subjects.

I always use a flash for plants.

I begin by metering the ambient light as if I were about to photograph the flower without a flash. Then I stop the aperture down to under expose the picture. In the low, bright November light I wanted to darken everything but my subject.

Sure one could open the aperture to reduce the depth-of-field and soften the background. But the closer the lens is to the subject when doing a macro or close-up photograph the less the field of focus in front of and behind the subject will be anyway.

I want as much sharpness as I can get around the flower. So instead of relying on the aperture to separate my subject from a busy background, I reduce the ambient light.

My ring-flash is set to manual so all I need to do is experiment with flash distance. I move forward and back to give the plant the light I want.

The ring-flash has a diffuser and I use a 200mm macro lens. The magnification is the same as with a 50mm or 105mm macro. I just get to be further away and that distance is more effective for the ring-flash.

There isn’t much more relaxing photography than garden photography because the subjects usually cooperate.

December has just overtaken me and I have no doubt that festive Canadian month will bring a totally different garden to photograph.

 

Photographing flowers.    

 

Just after I got to my shop this morning I received a text on my phone that read. “ Hi, How’s your shop today? I hope you sell something. What’s your article going to be about this week?”

To tell the truth, at that moment I was walking down the street to get a coffee from Tim Horton’s and I hadn’t thought about my shop, impending sales or my article.

Just coffee. However, when I got to the coffee shop there was a line, so to keep from being rude I returned a text that said, “I dunno, me too, dunno.”

I’ll shorten this story by saying that about four or five hours later I received another text from my friend Jo that said, “I have pictures for you of flowers in your yard. Stop by on your way home tonight and get the USB drive. They’ll be edited to PSDs and ready for your article.”

So the images I am posting this week are again from my photography pal Jo. However, this time she didn’t have to wander around in the rain.

Spring is just beginning and there are many plants in the process of poking out of the ground and blooming. I haven’t taken the time to photograph anything anywhere in the garden yet.

Maybe next week.

For me, photographing my wife’s garden is quite a time consuming process that includes a tripod, an off-camera flash or two, reflectors, and sometimes even a backdrop.

My wife used to complain that I enjoyed the photography more than her garden.

That may be so.

When I opened Jo’s images on the USB drive it was obvious that she was of the same mindset as my wife, and enjoyed the spring garden as much as she was enjoyed pointing her camera’s 70-200mm lens at everything growing there.

I have been noticing more and more flower pictures being shown on our local photographer’s page. I suppose Jo, like most of those that are posting flower pictures, could wander the mountain meadows around Kamloops, British Columbia. However,most of the pictures I see are of the same one or two early blooming wild plants, whereas the large fenced garden at my place has lots of different shapes and colours to choose from and if one is, like me, more interested in the image then the flower, a colourful garden is a great choice.

This is a good time to get out with one’s camera. Whether it’s to photograph plants and flowers in the rain or on a sunny day the growth and colours that spring brings is so stimulating.

The famous Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson, in his book, “Photography and the Art of Seeing” wrote, “ Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

 

And thanks again to my good friend Jo McAvany.

 

 

 

Photographing a late summer garden.   

 

I woke up to a wet day.

There was a light shower overnight, not the strong rain everything is dying for here in the southern part of British Columbia, but it did dampen things down the most since those rainy weeks last June. However, any rain is good and if I had better hearing I surely would have heard happy sounds coming from the garden outside my door.

The drizzle ended and as I lazily finished my morning coffee, like any serious photographer, I knew there was an opportunity waiting.

Many photographers that are excited with all the brilliant colours of spring ignore the dry plants at the end of summer. Sure the reds, blues, purples, bright yellows and greens have mostly gone, but there is still an abundance of colours if one just takes a moment to look.

I like photographing the garden. As that well-worn quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “ I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”, I admit that I have no memory for plant names, but I like all the flowers, trees and bushes one finds in a garden.

With me, it’s not really the colour as much as it is the shapes. My approach to a spring, summer, fall and winter garden is much the same. I search for the shapes, differing tones and, of course, the light.

My favourite accessory for rainy days is my ring-flash. As I would with any portrait, person or plant, I always use flash. I usually operate my flash off-camera using light stands and light modifiers. Sometimes just holding my flash at arms length works at the end of the day. But after a rain I like the sparkling direct light a ring flash produces.

The ring flash is a flash that fits around the front of a lens instead of on the camera. I prefer keeping the flash at some distance by employing longer focal length macro lenses. My macro lens, a true macro, is a 200mm. That lens keeps me out of the garden ensuring that I don’t step on other plants.

I photographing the garden, spring, summer, fall and winter, calming. Maybe that’s because I am looking into and at the small details of a landscape ignoring the world around me

When my wife and I photographed the garden together her final images were about space, design and how all the bushes and flowers fit together and how the colours interacted. Linda’s visuals discussed the landscape rather than individual flowers. Mine are more intimate. As I wrote, I am always, “looking into…at the details” when I wander our garden.

As with any portrait, I am rarely satisfied with natural light and almost always add light from a flash. And during those hours of low light as the storm slowly drifts away adding a bit of light to makes a normally flat subject come to life.

That garden just outside my door is always waiting. I never ignore it and am always looking to see what it offers.

I found this quote by the famous Canadian nature photographer and writer Freeman Patterson, “Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, you intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.”

Garden photography during the first days of summer          

 

 

 

Last Wednesday was the first day of summer here in Canada and I finally made time to wander our garden for my monthly photo session with the flowers growing there.

I had photographed the garden in May and although there were some early blooming roses and tulips, not much was going on.   However, since then the cool spring days here in the interior of British Columbia lengthened and warmed and the summer heat is coming.   Everything was in bloom and waiting for my first-days-of-summer photographic expedition.

The sky clear with a slight breeze as I walked around in the cool morning.   It was comfortable, but neither worked for me. I was hoping for some clouds and didn’t like the breeze at all, so I waited.

About 2pm slight clouds started gathering and the breeze quieted.  I attached a flash on a lightstand, mounted my 70-180mm macro on my camera and started searching the garden.

It doesn’t matter if I am photographing a person or a flower, I like to use an off-camera flash.   Sure there is nice natural light once in a while, but it is so much easier to control the light with a flash then to hope and wait for the sun to be just right.   Normally I like using an umbrella, but there was that intermittent breeze that didn’t bother my waiting subjects too much, but the tiny gusts could easily blow my flash over with the large umbrella, so I left the umbrella on the porch and instead employed the diffuser that came with the flash.

A flash lets me control the ambient light using the shutter speed and I stop down my aperture to disguise background distraction by under exposing or open up the aperture to reduce depth of field.

I thought about getting in the car and driving over to the pond to check out the geese, or maybe make an attempt at photographing a nearby waterfall that I am sure was loudly crashing into Chase creek. Those are more exciting subjects than flowers, but I promised myself I’d get a good record of the flowers this year. Anyway the afternoon garden and the surrounding neighbourhood was quiet, the plants were patiently waiting, and I was too lazy to go for a drive.

Summer is here and the flower’s bloom won’t last long. The mountains around here have ticks, snakes, and maybe hungry bears (well, probably not hungry bears and I haven’t seen a rattler in years). The water is to high to get good shots of the waterfalls and anyway if one waits another week I expect there will be plenty to photograph on Canada day.  So for now I suggest one more leisurely and safe foray, with camera and flash, into the garden before summer’s heat takes the bloom’n colour away.

Flowers as Portraits   

Easter is about a month away and I expect a few readers will be getting flowers from someone or giving flowers to someone. Those flowers will be a great photo-opp.

A portrait photographer’s studio set-up usually includes a backdrop and lighting equipment. The lighting, from small, or large flash units, is controlled by an array of modifiers that can include reflectors, umbrellas and softboxes. And the backdrop is chosen not so much because it is a flat surface but because it is a background to flatter the subject seated in the foreground.

The lighting illuminates the subject and separates it from that background as well as creates depth and dimensional form.

When producing an outdoor portrait most experienced photographers will begin by placing their subject in front of a neutral background or sometimes erect a backdrop and use either flash, or reflectors, to control the light on their subject and create depth and interest.

However, if I asked those same photographers to make me a good picture of a plant they would likely just kneel down next to some pretty flower and snap the picture with little thought to background or lighting.

After years of doing just that to lazily document some plant that caught my eye, I decided that I wanted more from my images. I realized that it was the shapes and plant forms that drew me to gardens.

During my quest to make my plant and garden photos more than flat, lifeless documents, I discovered the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. His portraits of flowers are always posed and include the kind of dynamic lighting one would expect in photographs of beautiful people. His spectacular and thoughtful compositions of flowers, like orchids and calla lilies, convey moods that to me reveal more with each viewing.

When I photograph people I try to be both creative and flattering with my lighting, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded when trends change.

I have come to think the same way about photographs of plants. Flowers, of course, are so much easier to photograph than people, especially potted plants. Select a good location, turn the pot until the pose looks good and add light. Plants don’t get tired, nervous or jittery. Maybe that’s why I like photographing flowers, they (almost) always cooperate.

Photographing a plant in the garden or in a pot should be more than quickly pointing a camera at that flower in a garden or a windowsill and releasing the shutter.

Put that boring iPhone away, and take the time to make it more than just a repetitive, unimaginative record. Don’t be in a rush; take time to develop a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it, and above all, be creative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographing a Late Fall Garden   

oregon-grape

thistle-2

thistle

grass

thorns

yellow

I try to wander about in our garden with my camera each and every time the season changes; spring, summer, fall and winter.

I have photographed the changing garden throughout the years and, although it always seems very familiar and comforting, I find myself discovering different ways to capture the life that begins, grows, blossoms and then retreats into sleep. There are times when I have constructed elaborate sets with reflectors to capture and control the light. I have built mini studios much like the controlled indoor setups that portrait photographers are familiar with. I’ve lain in the snow and employed umbrellas on rainy days. However, on this particular day I wanted light, and waited all day for sunlight that seemed reluctant to bring me one day of fall warmth I wanted to photograph before the snow that was predicted in a day or two.

When 3pm rolled around I worried that if I didn’t get something done in the quickly dropping light, other than look out the window, I wouldn’t get any pictures at all.

My camera was waiting with a manual 200mm macro, wireless sender and two light stands with a flash and umbrella mounted on each. However, when I finally walked outside (yep, I already said “quickly dropping light) I realised I was doomed to failure if I relied on taking the time to set up that equipment.

Years ago I was asked to give a lecture to the Abbotsford Photo Arts Club. I won’t go into that long discussion, but the title I chose was, “A problem solving approach to photography”. And I realised that this was the time to move into a problem-solving mode.

I removed the 200mm macro from my camera and replaced it with my wife’s 70-180mm macro. I prefer my old manual lens for close up photography, but that Auto focus zoom macro is really easy to use.

I also put aside the light stands and attached a single flash to an eight-foot TTL flash cord. I could have set things up wireless, but I was going for quick and easy and with the TTL cord I just let the flash hang off my shoulder until I wanted it.

I could have used a high ISO, a wide aperture, and just popped a bit of light for a proper exposure. But a high ISO would increase the ambient light and show the lifeless colours of surrounding foliage. A wide aperture would limit my depth of field, and TTL is fast and easy to light, compose and relight a subject.

I under-exposed my exposure by several stops, and let the dedicated TTL flash (with a diffusor cup) do what it was designed for, to deliver just the right amount of light on my subject.   That gave me a dark background that I could later make completely black by adjusting the contrast in Photoshop.

I didn’t have a lot of time before more clouds moved in making an already dark afternoon even darker, but my portable set-up made things easy and even gave me a moment to pause and watch our three legged, feral cat flee as it ran out from the cover of the shrubbery. Gosh, in spite of the damage to her one back leg, she sure can move.

I had been trying for three days to get some pictures, but unpleasant weather and life in general got in the way. However, with a bit of problem solving and the will to finally get out and do something, a person can end up with a few photographs worth keeping.

 

What Shall I Photograph when its windy? 

Lilac

Oregon Grape

Allium

Oriental Poppy in wind

Iris in wind

B&W Iris in wind

I looked out the kitchen window at my wife’s garden. It was late afternoon, the sun was peaking out under the clouds after a light rain, and the garden was glowing with a gusty, light breeze.

Linda mentioned that we hadn’t taken any pictures of the spring garden yet and suggested that it looked so fresh after that rain that I should be able to get some good flower photos in spite of the wind.

Wind? Wind is not a problem if photographers take the time to problem solve. I could increase the ISO or shutterspeed, but that wouldn’t do much for the ambient light, and I like more control. My normal technique for photographing flowers is to underexpose the ambient and illuminate the subject with a flash. I recall years ago having given my photography students a “stop action” assignment. They were to go out at night or find a large, dimly lit room, and use a flash to stop a moving subject in a photograph. All they had to do was select enough flash power at a specific distance to illuminate their subject properly when they released the shutter.

Those were assignments given before modern, computerized cameras and TTL dedicated flash when the flash would always produce the same amount of light and the aperture controlled the amount of light exposing the subject.

My technique for my windy garden was the same. I placed my 200mm macro lens on my camera and attached a ring-light on it. I really like is using a ring light on rainy days. I keep it on manual mode and stay at a specific distance so it won’t under or over expose the subject I am photographing. My ring flash also has ¼ and ¾ power increments to reduce the flash power output if I need it.

Just as my photography students learned all those years ago, when I pressed the shutter the flash stops the movement of the flowers in the wind. Nevertheless, the wind was quickly drying out the plants, so I had to quickly search for leaves that still showed raindrops.

The movement problem was almost solved. I took extra shots when I thought some motion had wrecked my shots, however, it was the sun that became the biggest concern. I had hoped the high clouds would block the sun, but instead of getting more bad weather, I got less, and with the clearing sky I began to struggle with the bright light.

The bright light would have been fine if all I wanted to do was document plants in the sun, but I wanted to go beyond that. Just pointing and shooting is boring. I would have liked to get out lightstands, a couple of off-camera flashes, and even a black backdrop, but the wind continued on, and would probably blow all that stuff over and I never followed up on that option.

So while other photographers might have celebrated the sunny, clear sky and be willing to put up with windy landscapes, I was done for the day.

I think I am pretty lucky that I don’t have to go far when I want to take pictures. Over the years I have looked hard into what is close to me and instead of being one of those photographers that depends on a car to find a location to get inspired. I just look around the yard and adjust my thoughts and camera for what awaits me.