Telling Tales: The Heart of Garden Photography

By: Paddy Wales

Paddy Wales, author of Journeys Through the Garden, has published many images and articles in Canadian and American books and…

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Overcast light made possible the intense color of this thorny rose (Rosa sericea subsp. omiensis) in my November garden. A shallow depth of field threw the background out of focus but kept the vague shapes and related colors of nearby stems and leaves. I sense a human narrative, a body dancing in everyday clothes, and that makes me smile. Author’s photographs

Overcast light made possible the intense color of this thorny rose (Rosa sericea subsp. omiensis) in my November garden. A shallow depth of field threw the background out of focus but kept the vague shapes and related colors of nearby stems and leaves. I sense a human narrative, a body dancing in everyday clothes, and that makes me smile. Author’s photographs

A garden is a story told and retold, day by day, year by year, at unlikely paces, often too fleeting or too slow. A camera—no, a photographer—can help tell the story, shedding light on its characters, plots, dramas, jokes, and songs. For the camera is no more than a shovel is to the garden, simply a tool.

The garden photographer has many narratives to tell of the relationships between elements in the garden: stone and foliage, plant and structure, blossom and pollinator, what is visible now and the memories evoked, the real and the imagined. There are relationships among the gardener, the photographer, and the viewer of the image. But within every image, the primary relationship is between the subject and the light. Each image also reveals something of the unseen photographer.

Entering a garden with a camera presents many rewards and challenges, an embarrassment of riches. I continue to be amazed at the wealth of details in even the smallest garden. How many leaves can there be on just one branch? The challenge is in showing the visual patterns through a medium that can, frankly, show too much. I might represent the thousand leaves on the branch by one sharply in focus, the others thrown into varying degrees of unsharpness by limiting the depth of field; those other leaves provide an exact color, vague shapes, and the sense of one among the many. By contrast, I might use more depth of field to show the multitude, each leaf sharp as can be. These are just two of the many stories of a leaf. Another might involve the serration pattern of the leaf margin, or the precise seasonal hue, the stress of leaf-curl, the geometric arrangement of leaves along a stem, the sky reflecting off a shiny surface, the shape of the gap between leaves, or the unexpected contrast of another tree’s burgundy leaves showing through that gap. The choices are limitless for that leaf, that single branch.

Having too many choices may be a problem. I know I am not ready to make good photographs when I find myself wandering the paths, aiming the camera here, then there, always looking around for something else. Only when I stop and stay in one spot for a while will I see more than what is obvious. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Wandering is key to how I work.

By committing to a single element in Beverley Merryfield’s spring garden (a dustbin of flame tulips inspired by Helen Dillon), I’ve made it clear what the viewer is to notice most; secondary elements are in shadow, so they have little influence on the glorious sun-lit flowers.

By committing to a single element in Beverley Merryfield’s spring garden (a dustbin of flame tulips inspired by Helen Dillon), I’ve made it clear what the viewer is to notice most; secondary elements are in shadow, so they have little influence on the glorious sun-lit flowers.

Placing Experience First

To tell the story of a garden, you must first listen. And smell. And be alert to the breeze on your cheek or the chenille-soft nap of felted hairs on a stem. You must employ the senses beyond mere sight, standing still to breathe in the garden, walking without goals, relaxing your face, and stopping to close your eyes. With luck (and practice!) your sharpened senses may evoke emotions and memories. If so, you will perceive the garden with your whole being.

If there is a trick, it is in forgetting photography for a while, setting it aside, and, in so doing, allowing the garden to tell you its story. I want to know the garden before I describe it with my camera—its atmosphere, challenges, successes, its antecedents, and its uniqueness. I need to balance intellect and emotion. I need to travel beyond fact and function, design or detail, to meaning.

Although there are many details in this image, the relationships are fairly simple. The gravel path separates two mostly green blocks, and leads our eyes toward the bright area of water and sky at the top. More than a mere record of Beverley’s lovely garden, it affects us because of our tendency to add ourselves to the picture, imagining we may take this journey to the gate to experience the light—perhaps hinting at the metaphor of life’s journey.

Although there are many details in this image, the relationships are fairly simple. The gravel path separates two mostly green blocks, and leads our eyes toward the bright area of water and sky at the top. More than a mere record of Beverley’s lovely garden, it affects us because of our tendency to add ourselves to the picture, imagining we may take this journey to the gate to experience the light—perhaps hinting at the metaphor of life’s journey.

Composing for Relationships

One way to tell the garden’s story is to compose with relationships in mind. Objects in a garden are not random; there was likely some reason why this lies beside that, perhaps due to a tendency of nature, the decision of the gardener/designer, or both. The simplest relationship may occur within one plant: the relationship of the parts to the whole (a peony blossom to its foliar mass), the direction of growth (the upward and outward thrust of a phormium), the process of decay (the yellowing translucence of a hosta in autumn). The way two plants enhance each other may tell another story, perhaps in the artistry of combining plant forms or foliage colors. It may be advantageous to show only a part of each plant, filling the image frame with shape concepts rather than completing each plant. And, of course, the photographer contemplates not just plants but all elements of the garden. Two chairs make a “conversation,” the chairs standing in for imagined people, populating the image. The camera records the elements of the garden, but also the spatial relationship of scale and proportion as subjects in their own right.

The most difficult compositions contain too many elements. Often photographs that attempt to show five or six things fail to show much at all; no one element has impact and the relationships are unclear. This is like writing a paragraph without a central idea. It is rare that one image can tell the whole story of the garden, so a suite of images will do the job better than one wide-angle, try-to-tell-all picture.

There are certain likely places to stand to photograph a scene more effectively, and these are usually the spots from which the garden was conceived. The top of a set of stairs is one such vantage point, as is the view from a kitchen or other key window, or at the outset of a path. A gateway is another, or anywhere one naturally pauses to look up. From these places, the garden view is likely composed as a picture.

Backgrounds may either support the story your image is trying to tell, or distract from it. One of the best ways to clarify your message is to ensure that everything included within the frame is intentional; you want it there for a reason. What doesn’t work to support your image distracts from and weakens it. The precise angle of view is important. A tripod will assist in fine-tuning; it is indispensable for composing close-ups, where an exact point of focus and depth of field are essential.

Cotinus ‘Grace’ seems to grasp the light and store it so that, no matter where you stand, you see some leaves backlit, glowing orange or crimson in autumn. To capture these hues, I circled the shrub several times, selecting angles that did not include distracting elements such as the sky or other competing plants.

Cotinus ‘Grace’ seems to grasp the light and store it so that, no matter where you stand, you see some leaves backlit, glowing orange or crimson in autumn. To capture these hues, I circled the shrub several times, selecting angles that did not include distracting elements such as the sky or other competing plants.

Love the Light

The emotional component of an image is often contained in its light, a powerful tool, indeed, when you consider how it can vary, sometimes from minute to minute. The angle and quality of light falling on a subject can elevate it from prosaic to holy. Light is neither good nor bad, but certain lighting conditions are easier (an overcast sky), more dramatic (lighting from behind), textural (lighting from the side), or contrasty (sun high in the sky). How you use the light may result in a boring image or a captivating one.

Light may be used to separate a subject from its surround, by shading the background and leaving the foreground in bright light. The camera will exaggerate this difference in brightness, causing the background to nearly disappear. (Limiting the depth of field also accomplishes this separation; if both depth and light are controlled, you may create a velvety dark background.) Working with sunlight and shadow is a worthwhile challenge, albeit at times frustrating since the camera cannot match the human eye in its ability to make sense of a scene with a great range of light and shadow. One of my favorite things to show is the passage from a dark area toward a bright one; the implied journey is ripe for a healing metaphor.

Many landscape photographers prefer the “golden hour” of light at sunset, but I find it turns garden elements too orange; the light is so warm that the greens turn muddy, at least to my eye. I prefer early morning light, cool and bluish before sunrise, then pinkish for a short while after. Computer programs now allow fiddling with the light, but I’m not yet adept at that and prefer to control the light with the camera, trying to record what I’ve seen and how I’ve felt.

Delicate colors (shell pink, pale yellow, milky blue) can be elusive at times. The digital camera has the advantage of allowing many bracketed exposures, which may result in a good image out of several. But choosing the right condition (indirect light from a white sky) and over-exposing at least a half stop will often give the best rendition. Defined shadows from direct sunlight increase a photograph’s contrast, and destroy delicacy. On a sunny day, a collapsible scrim (a thin white screen) may help soften the sun’s intensity.

I have always used the exposure compensation feature of the camera liberally for film or digital images. I use the simple technique of ordering my shots, with the first one being my best guess at the right exposure, and subsequent ones, the likely corrections. This has trained my eye to make correct compensation most of the time for good exposures.

A strong image is made by choosing few elements, here just the lavender and the ceramic orb. The visual relationships are clear and uncluttered. For me, the pleasure of seeing this in Beverley’s gravel garden is evoked; I have the sense of found treasure.

A strong image is made by choosing few elements, here just the lavender and the ceramic orb. The visual relationships are clear and uncluttered. For me, the pleasure of seeing this in Beverley’s gravel garden is evoked; I have the sense of found treasure.

A particular pleasure for me has been photographing plants with thin petals, peeling bark, or leaves that transmit the light. Ah, the joys of the opium poppy! I have many plants in my garden placed so I can enjoy these backlit beauties: my tree peonies and a smokebush (Cotinus ‘Grace’) collect afternoon light, and a clematis grown outside my kitchen seems to glow all day. It is a shameless delight to photograph (or simply stare at) these again and again.

But what, after all, is the point of photographing a poppy again, a path again, another bench beneath a tree? It matters because these images tell us who we are. We re-tell the symbolic narrative of the blossom, its freshness, delicacy, sensuality, brief glorious beauty, and certain demise. The path is a metaphor for a journey we might be conducting in our life, the sheltering tree, our deep desire for security and repose. The garden is a place of belonging, of experiencing nature’s forces intimately over many seasons and years.

The heartfelt reward of garden photography is not the clear image or the decorative print, the screen saver, or the useful record. It is the sheer wonder of participating in the life of the garden.