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Garden Photography Tips
by Marion Owen
by Marion Owen

email: marion@plantea.com

When not tending 20 raised beds of vegetables, herbs and flowers, Marion Owen of Kodiak, Alaska is a master gardener, professional photographer and "Fearless Weeder" (President) of PlanTea, Inc., the company that developed PlanTea, the original and patented organic plant food in convenient tea bags (available online at http://www.plantea.com).

She also co-authored the bestseller, "Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul."


July 22, 2012


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“Marion, what are you doing inside on beautiful day like this? You should be out taking pictures!”

I explained to my friend that I needed to be inside, working in my office, and that photographs would have to wait. Truth is, bright sunny days are not my favorite times to take pictures. Give me an overcast day with soft its light and I’m a happy camper. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15 years as a professional photographer, overcast days provide not only the best lighting for flower photography, but for portraits as well.
But what if the flowers you’ve been waiting for all season are looking perfect now, but cloudy days are not in the weather forecast? My first reaction would be to find a piece of wax paper or a white bed sheet. “Say what?” you ask. Read on and I’ll share a few secrets about toning down a bright sun, plus a few more photography how-to’s you can use no matter what the season.

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Light: softer is better

Contrary to popular belief, a sunny afternoon is not the best time to take pictures. This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions that my photography students bring to class. Yet after looking at their own pictures, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that in many cases, softer light is a more pleasing, complimentary light.
Bright, contrasty conditions with its corresponding—and distracting—dark shadows aren't conducive to showcasing flowers, or many other subjects for that matter. (Have you ever taken family pictures and noticed later that everyone has dark eyes or [gasp] half-lit faces?).
In the garden, bright light is tough to work with. For example, large petals of irises and lilies block light and turn the center of the flower into a dark cave. Shiny rose leaves act like mirrors and reflect light—which is what they are supposed to do in nature, but it makes for white, shiny spots all over your pictures.
The soft, diffused light of overcast and misty, foggy days is ideal for taking pictures in the garden. The soft, even light creates richer colors and textures, and it makes it easier to take light meter readings. You can see into the center of flowers, and butterflies, birds and leaves are more evenly lit; and wider angle “gardenscapes” photos are more pleasing to look at.
You can avoid the bright midday sun altogether by taking pictures in the early morning (before the breezes start up) or later in the afternoon when lighting conditions have a more pleasing and warm glow. When you can’t change time of day though, that’s when my old Rule of Photography kicks in: do the best with what you’ve got!
So, let’s tone down the sun and create our own soft light.
On sunny days, you do this by blocking—and diffusing—the sun with a piece of wax paper, a white bed sheet or T-shirt, a white garbage bag, frosted glass or a sheet of faded “clear” plastic (3 to 5 mil thick). Just hold the diffuser, prop it up on a support, or have someone hold it for you between the sun and the object you’re photographing. The diffuser blocks the sun and creates a soft light. See the difference? The shadows are less prominent and not as distracting. Take two pictures: one with the diffuser, and one without. I think you’ll be amazed at the difference.

How to prevent blurry photos

Out of focus pictures are frustrating, but they are preventable. Most pictures that don’t “work out” aren’t due to incorrect exposure, but because the subject is out of focus. Even today's autofocus cameras don't guarantee picture-perfect results. Therefore, you need to use a faster shutter speed, faster film or a way to support your camera, such as with a tripod. 
If you don't have a tripod, you can brace your camera against a tree, fence post or overturned bucket. Or set it on top of a shovel handle or stick like a mono-pod.. To further dampen vibration, press your camera against a rolled-up jacket that's placed on the tree or fence post.
Here’s another thing to consider: your eyes. Several years ago, one of my students was having a terrible time with her pictures. She was using a top-of-the-line 35mm camera and a tripod, but her photos were still fuzzy. One day, she came to class with a big, sheepish smile on her face. The trip to the eye doctor confirmed her suspicions: she needed glasses!

Go with the flow!

The slightest breeze can make a flower dance wildly when seen through a camera lens. If you want to calm that gale, use a wind break made from materials at hand, such as a bed sheet, piece of plywood, mat board, shirt, a couple buckets, or a wheelbarrow turned on its side. Or, get creative and take the picture anyway. A longer exposure and the movement created by the wind can add a beautiful watercolor look to your photograph.

“Back light” for a change

"When taking a picture, place the sun at your back." This is a basic rule of thumb, but it deserves to be broken. (The rule, not the thumb). To make flowers really glow, back light them by placing the sun behind the flowers in front of you. Change your exposures to create silhouettes or a striking stained-glass look.

Last but not least...

It’s important to go out and have fun with picture taking. Experiment with different lenses and backgrounds. Get low and shoot up through flowers and trees. Include people, but don’t have them look at the camera. Play with close-up photography techniques, and remember, avoid putting your subject in the center of the picture!
On the next sunny day, go on a treasure hunt. Photograph the same flower in different lighting conditions. Compare bright and diffused light; front light and back light. Most importantly, have fun. You'll never be wanting for subject matter, as flowers are more than happy to pose.


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