By Alan L. Detrick (Timber Press, 2008)
Back in 2007, I had a chance to take a day-long photography course with Alan L. Detrick as part of a Garden Writer’s Association event in Kansas City. Even though I was using a point-and-shoot camera (I’m embarrassed to admit that!), Alan was a true gentleman and a fantastic teacher. He even liked some of my pictures, and he truly wanted all of us — editors and writers — to become better photographers.
A few months later, I bought a digital SLR and this book. Macro photography is essentially super closeups done with special lenses. Detrick walks readers through the reasons for taking macro photos, the equipment you’ll need, f-stops, histograms, and the basics of thinking about photos: light, angles, composition, background. Like a true photographer, Detrick believes you get better pictures by paying attention to what you do before you push the shutter rather than trying to adjust the photo on the computer.
The best part of the book are the dozens of photos Detrick has taken in his years of photographing gardens. Each one is accompanied by a lengthy caption explaining how it was taken, the equipment involved and why the photo worked. Often, the book includes side-by-side shots of the same image taken a different way to illustrate a technique or idea.
If you are interested in taking macro photos of plants and gardens, this is a great book. However, I will say that I’ve learned much more from taking short courses on photography from Detrick and from Donna Krischan than from any book. If you have room in your schedule and your budget for a course, that’s really the way to go to improve garden photos. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the North House Folk School and photographer John Gregor are among those offering photo courses geared toward gardens and nature.
I love photographing succulents because of the textures and the lines. Here are a couple of shots of Jim Laupan’s succulents on display at the Minnesota Home and Patio Show, which ended yesterday. The light in the hall was not great, but Jim’s plants are fascinating no matter what the lighting.
If you want to take better pictures of your garden (or for that matter, your kids, birds, places you visit, sporting events or anything else), the first thing you need to learn is your camera — and what controls it offers you. That was the message of Eileen Herrling, a Wisconsin-based photographer, who led the shortest 3-hour class I’ve ever attended last night — and not because the class ended early. Eileen had about 50 eager photographer/gardeners at Garden Visions thumbing through their manuals, clicking into the controls of their cameras, taking pictures of Coke cans, focusing and refocusing to figure out what controls each of us would have when shooting in the garden.
Even point-and-shoot digital cameras have features that allow photographers to tighten their focus or clear up the background of a photo. Here are three of Eileen’s take-away lessons:
- If you have a digital SLR camera, learn to use F-stops and Time-values to enhance your images. (If you have a point and shoot, start using the little mountain and flower settings for different pictures.) An easy way to remember f-stops: Small f-stop (f-4), narrow depth of field; large f-stop (f-11 or above), wider depth of field.
- Eileen has a couple of very firm don’ts. Don’t use digital zoom, unless you like (or think the shot is worth) grainy pictures. Don’t use automatic, which turns all the controls over to the camera. If you have a program mode, use that for your first picture to get the shot, then start playing with your controls to get a really good shot.
- Develop a digital work-flow system. I’m taking this one to heart. I have about 2,000 garden shots (a few of which are pretty good) sitting on the hard-drives of two computers. That’s a no-no. Not only do the shots eat up storage space (I take pictures in the largest setting, which is what Eileen recommends), but one spilled drink (well, two spilled drinks) and I could lose it all. What your storage system looks like — disks, a remote drive — is up to you, but have one and keep it organized.
If possible, this class made me even more eager to get out in the garden and take a few pictures.
Many gardeners like to take pictures of their gardens, partly to keep records of how things look and partly out of the parent-like pride people rightly feel about their gardens. Getting good garden shots is not easy–as I have certainly discovered while keeping this blog. Some photos look washed out, some too bright, sometimes the main subject looks great, but there is that annoying branch or house in the background.
Donna Krischan, a professional garden photographer from Big Bend, Wis., offered tips to gardeners at the Midwest Regional Master Gardener Conference last week. Donna is a regular contributor to Northern Gardener, and one of my go-to photogs that I contact when we need specific images. There isn’t room here to go through all of her suggestions. If you want to go deeper into photography, Donna occasionally teaches courses on the topic. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum also offers periodic garden photography courses, usually taught by Two Harbors-based John Gregor. Here are my top three tips from Donna:
- Move in close. Simpler images have more power and nothing is more simple or powerful than the amazing forms and colors of flowers. Think Georgia O’Keeffe.
- Focus on the stamens. Where do you focus when you take shots of people? Most people focus on the eyes. Stamens are the eyes of the flower. If you can get those in focus, your subject will look its best.
- When shooting in sun, force the flash to fire. Bright sun is tough to shoot in, and for that reason, I try to take my garden shots at sunset or early evening. (Many photographers swear that dawn is the best time to shoot, but I’m not that much of a morning person.) If you must shoot in bright sun, force your camera’s flash to fire. This will light your main subject and give more details to your shots
I was so excited after Donna’s talk that I returned to Boerner Botanical Gardens, which we’d toured the previous day, to try out some of her techniques. The photos above are from that shoot, and I think they turned out pretty good. Thanks, Donna!
[Photos from top left, a bee foraging (appropriately) on bee balm (Monarda); my Georgia O’Keeffe impression with a Memorial Day™ rose; and Charmaine daylily, which I used to practice focusing on the stamens, which is tougher than you’d imagine.]