The Stopwatch Gardener

A gardening blog from Sheila M. Averbuch

Why is garden photography so hard?


Click for larger image

So, I just found out I didn’t win the Ryan’s Garden photography competition, whose £100 prize was a huge lure to me in my year of gardening frugally. The winner was a sparkly spider’s web; I think my entries were better, but I’m probably distracted by these sour grapes I’m snacking on.

I agree with the comments of Charles, the judge, that the likely reason most entries were close ups is because wide shots of the garden are difficult. All photography is difficult if you’re doing it properly, balancing light, colour and composition in an artistic way; but wide shots are especially hard in your own garden, as you usually can’t avoid undesirable elements (faded flowers, plastic plant supports, gnomes).

But let’s not pretend that close-up photography in the garden is easy, either. I just finished taking an Advanced Flower Photography course at a new online gardening school, MyGardenSchool; I didn’t have to pay for it, as the team behind it were looking for my critical feedback (my other life as a technophile has given me a lot of experience with web-based services).

I was drawn to the course because I thought it would be a great next step following an in-person photography class I took three years ago with the talented Andrea Jones, who incidentally spent three days rapping my knuckles when I tried to take a close-up. I did get some good wide shots in that weekend, plus some super tutoring from Graeme Cookson on using Adobe Photoshop to remove unwanted colour cast in images.

But I had always wanted to return to close-ups. For me, the beauty of the plant is the thing: leaf or petal, in sunlight or frost, at any stage of growth. These details are what hold my interest.

So the Advanced Flower Photography course felt like a naughty indulgence. Stamens! Pollen! Dewdrops! It turns out I got all that plus other stuff, too. I even attempted a wider shot of a field of rosebay willow herb.Click for larger image

What I loved

Super Sue: You can’t fail to like the easy style and obvious knowledge of the tutor, Sue Bishop. She’s an accomplished garden photographer and a great communicator, which is a huge asset in the course format: four weeks of 20 minute online lectures, followed by downloadable lecture notes (a transcript of her voiceover as an illustrated PDF), and an assignment of three photographs to take each week.

Online is easy: even when I was travelling for one of the weeks in Ireland, a WiFi connection let me listen to Sue’s lectures and download the notes. As she talks, a series of still shots accompany her voiceover, illustrating her points. She shows you “wrong” pictures where details like composition or light were weak in her opinion; she then explains why she believes her final shot is strongest. This is tremendously helpful.

I know my camera, and my eye, better: Before this class I’d never even tried to use my manual focus; Sue got me to do it. She also taught me that I should be guided by what draws me in a garden scene. I need to use these feelings to help me narrow down the composition and choose its true subject. This, surprisingly, had never occurred to me — that in every photograph I make a series of decisions about what to include and what to exclude, and that my gut feelings should guide those decisions. I heard that some students thought Sue’s guidance was too advanced in places: I notice the new version of the class, which starts tomorrow, is called Flower Photography — I wonder if they’re dropping the idea of “advanced”; I hope not!

What I didn’t love

It’s lonely online: every distance-learning course struggles to create a sense of community among its students, and this is no exception. I want to see tools to bring students closer together, perhaps with competitions (picture of the week) or more open collaboration (encouraging students to comment on each other’s images — as it was, we couldn’t see each other’s pictures at all).

Quirks to sort out: file upload is clunky. I had to exit the course and go back into it to upload more than one image for an assignment. This got me thinking that the e-learning platform Moodle would probably be the best underlying support for this garden school; remains to be seen if they agree with me.

Learning materials: illustrations in the lecture notes need to match the text. Sue’s voiceover describes the shots she has taken, but those images weren’t consistently and properly used to illustrate the downloadable lecture notes. One class was about colour and the colour wheel; it’s a big omission that the colour wheel wasn’t reproduced in the lecture notes.

Would I recommend it? Actually, knowing what I know now, I probably would pay to do it myself, and I felt bereft when it ended. But Sue’s tips have stayed with me — I’m now hugely sensitive to details like whether I’m unintentionally including a dominant colour in a composition of muted tones. And the individual feedback Sue wrote about my images — very detailed feedback at times — gave me great confidence and encouragement.

So I’ll keep shooting, and feeling better about it than I probably ever have, even if the prizes do sometimes get snagged by the spider’s web.

posted under Gardening
15 Comments to

“Why is garden photography so hard?”

  1. On August 7th, 2011 at 5:58 pm Crafty Gardener Says:

    I’m always striving to take better photos. Thank goodness for digital cameras where mistakes can vanish in a click. I’m always tempted to enter contests too, but just don’t feel that one photo deserves the prize … I think all entries are worthy of merit.

  2. On August 7th, 2011 at 6:39 pm Victoria Says:

    Hi Sheila,
    I just recently discovered your blog. Your post about garden photography couldn’t have come at a more apt time for me. In fact I was just waiting for some pics to upload to Flickr whilst reading this post!

    I’ve just really started experimenting with taking photos of my garden and I have also found that the wide shots are the most difficult, feeling disappointed that they don’t do my garden justice. So, for the purposes of getting a more satisfying pic and trying out the different settings on my camera I’ve stuck mainly with close-ups. If you’re interested I’ve added my Flickr link to my details above.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the online photography course. I’ve only self-taught so far, so I’m going to check it out.

    All the best

  3. On August 7th, 2011 at 10:37 pm Janet Says:

    Sounds an interesting course, Sheila. I have learned to use my camera much better since I took up blogging. I now feel that I need to move on to a better camera. Did the course work that?

  4. On August 7th, 2011 at 11:54 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Hi Janet – Sue the tutor gave me some advice about what to look for in a new camera, as I felt myself getting frustrated with the limitations of my current device during this course. She said early on that she prefers to use the aperture priority setting on her camera; I discovered that my current camera doesn’t have that setting, and I had to revert to a much earlier and older camera to use AP in order to fill one of the early assignments. I think there is a lot a photographer can get out of this course even if they don’t have a super camera; I think I completed one of the weeks of the assignments without even using my manual focus. But it definitely would be best to do this course if you had a camera with AP, manual focus and ideally a tripod — in fact, definitely a tripod! I have a super super cheap tripod, and it was fine.

  5. On August 7th, 2011 at 11:56 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Dear Victoria — I’ll definitely have a look at your Flickr! I think the gardening world is full of avid gardeners who have cameras packed with photos of their spaces; the only thing more addictive than the garden is taking a picture of it. Good luck!

  6. On August 7th, 2011 at 11:59 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Crafty – after I took the first gardening photography course with Andrea, I got much less snap happy; I try not to click the button unless I’m very happy with everything in the frame, and the course with Sue has accentuated that. I also try to, as you say, get rid of the bad ones as soon as possible. I don’t think I’ll ever stop submitting to contests; for me it’s important to have something to strive for, and it’s also a good way to make myself look at what other photographers are doing.

  7. On August 10th, 2011 at 8:46 pm Christine Says:

    What an interesting post! I’m glad I’m not the only one with hundreds of snaps of my garden. I always joke with my neighbour (we have what is called a “shared garden”) that my garden is the most photographed in Britain. I mostly photograph it in order to look back to see what was growing and where, but increasingly I photograph it for the sheer pleasure of re-experiencing its better moments. Like you, since I began blogging, I’ve been enjoying photography a lot more. Perhaps some day, I could consider taking a course… I hope you are feeling a bit less bereft, by the way. I’ve been thinking of you.

  8. On August 17th, 2011 at 7:21 pm Ronnie/Hurtlingtowards60 Says:

    Thank you for such an interesting post – I was bought a DSLR for my birthday and am trying to teach myself which is ok for close ups but anything more is proving difficult. Since starting my blog I have developed a love of photography, hence the birthday present. I will now take a look at the course.

  9. On August 20th, 2011 at 7:14 pm Ros Says:

    I did the same advanced flower photography course – absolutely loved it, but really wished we could have seen each others pictures. I now want a part 2!

  10. On August 30th, 2011 at 6:00 pm VP Says:

    Interesting to see your post as I’ve looked at these courses before and have been put off by the price compared to what’s available locally via the RPS.

    Have just watched the taster video via your link: is the intrusive background music overlaying the lecturer’s voice at the beginning and end on the real thing too? I’m OK with it, but people with hearing difficulties will have a problem.

  11. On August 30th, 2011 at 6:09 pm Ronnie/Hurtlingtowards60 Says:

    Update: After reviewing lots of various courses, I have just got the last place on a photography course at our local FE college. Its only a 5 week course but cost £46 and there is someone in person to show you what to do. The next step up course, (8wks) starts in January, so I will go to that one also.

  12. On September 14th, 2011 at 4:08 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    VP – I’m sorry for the delay in replying. I remember the music being loud at the top and tail, but it was never a problem during the lectures themselves.I’ll mention it to the lady who is organizing the courses; I know it’s hard to get levels write in these things, but they don’t want to blow anybody’s ears.

  13. On September 14th, 2011 at 4:11 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Dear Ronnie — that’s brilliant you got a place in the local course. Has it already started? how are you finding it so far? That’s a wonderful price you secured; I’m very jealous; I would love to be doing another photo course. I’d love to know how you’re getting on with it.

  14. On September 14th, 2011 at 8:43 pm PJ Says:

    As per a previous comment, I too find wide shots the hardest! Checking your flickr now for some examples…

  15. On September 14th, 2011 at 9:27 pm The StopWatch Gardener Says:

    Hi PJ — I just updated my latest blog post to include a slightly wide shot; it’s my instinct to publish only the close-ups, but I must go wider! Today was the first day I’ve taken out my camera since I finished that photo course really. That course, plus the Andrea one I took, have made me much less snap happy; I only take shots that are worth taking, and following Sue’s course I am much more aware of the angle of the light.

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