Why is garden photography so hard?


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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.

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Ten signs you’re obsessed with the garden


Click for larger imageThis year I’ve put most of my gardening budget into a professional garden design, so I’m in retail shutdown and can’t buy any new plants – at all. But I’ve discovered there are plenty other signs of my garden obsession in my behaviour, even with plant-buying taken out of the equation. Any of this sound familiar?

  1. My beautiful baby (plants): I’ve more photos of my borders than my children. From their earliest seed leaves to when they’re big (they grow so fast), my plants dominate my Flickr albums.
  2. Tick tock, sun by the clock: I know precisely when each area of the garden gets sun, especially in nooks that see just an hour or two of direct light. This makes me very boring, but it also makes it easier to plan where to put seats, especially for winter sun.
  3. In my dreams: Dreams or nightmares about the garden are a regular thing for me. Whether it’s a chat with Alan Titchmarsh or a late frost that killed the hellebores, they’re always unlikely and always feel utterly real.
  4. Count plants, not sheep: If I want to distract myself – at the dentist, when swimming laps, or when trying to drop off to sleep – I recite an A-Z alphabet of plants (*has a realisation about the cause of #3 above*).
  5. Weather geek: I worry about and watch the forecasts for killing frosts, heavy snow and gales in a way I never did before the garden drew me in. I’m constantly amazed at the plants’ drive to grow, flower and set seed, regardless of the weather.
  6. Love the Latin: I now love and want to learn more Latin plant names, a transformation from my first impression of botanical nomenclature as a needlessly pretentious quirk of gardening. The folksy common names are interesting, but you can’t beat the precise, no-room-for-confusion Latin.
  7. Stand and stare: Standing outside – or, more usually, looking out a window – I may stay motionless for many minutes, imagining small or big changes I could make to the space. It looks like an absent seizure, but it’s just the gardening obsession.
  8. Not great company: Because gardening has taken over eleven-tenths of my brain and this is tedious for people around me, I strain to keep gardening out of conversation. But like any hobbyist, my obsession is how I make sense of the world. Or, more precisely, it is my mental release valve: the vocabulary, beauty and order of it are a great comfort to me. I do try to muster some small talk about holiday plans or current events, but really I’m just waiting for someone to talk about tulips.
  9. These are my people: Meeting another garden-obsessive is as good as it gets. The conversation doesn’t just flow, it pours – about everything from holiday plans (for our seedlings) to current events (Chelsea). We need some way to recognise each other faster, like the brooches the masons used to wear.
  10. Forever young: Surprises in the garden give me a regular supply of Christmas-morning wonder. The first snowdrop, germinating seeds, baby newts, self-seeded plants – all these first-time-discovery moments make me feel small, safe and sure that everything in the world is well.

Are you garden-obsessed? How can you tell? I’d like to hear about it.

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Who wants a garden rosette?


Click for larger imageThe proliferation of gardening and garden writing awards has got me wondering whether we gardeners are an especially needy bunch. The diversity of form in these awards is vast, from the well-meaning chain letter to the tongue-in-cheek high-school popularity contest to the bright lights, big city variety. (And if you haven’t quite had enough, the Garden Writers Association 2010 Media Awards is now accepting entries). They perform similar functions: pushing forward a few individuals whose writing or photography is generally recognised as excellent.

And it’s not just gardening media but gardeners themselves, of course, who long for the rosette of recognition for their plot, whether that’s being named “Garden of the Year” by a magazine, growing a prize-winning leek or being chosen for the Yellow Book. (In case you don’t know it, the best private English and Welsh gardens are published in an annual volume and open up to the public a few days each year, with proceeds going to charity.)

I’ve concluded that gardeners are not extraordinarily needy, but we are driven to participate in so many awards by two major factors. First, like all other adults who have moved beyond school years, we no longer have regular assessments by knowledgeable teachers who can check and comment on our work. Is our work good? Have our skills matured enough that we can solely trust our own judgement on that? Whose judgement can we trust? In the absence of anything better, the awards become the bar, and the judges’ decision is final.

Second, with a few exceptions, gardeners and garden writers are largely isolated from each other, and awards serve as a kind of community-building exercise. Online communities like Gardenersclick.com and especially Blotanical, where unofficial awards abound, have tapped into this hunger among gardeners to find and connect with other likeminded gardeners and garden bloggers. Thinkingardens.co.uk, an arena for energetic garden criticism and analysis, to me seems to be in the same vein.

It is really only in arenas like these that kindred souls can be found. A US gardener in Maine wrote recently of her joy to discover that a septic tank problem was so serious it would require vast and expensive replacement work rather than, as she first thought, less-expensive repairs which would have destroyed a recently laid path. She received dozens of messages of support, and who but fellow gardeners could really understand this gardener’s logic?

The “awards” circulating on communities like Blotanical are simply a way for gardeners to further connect with and show their appreciation for their distant comrades. To me it’s a shame that so many of these awards take the form of a chain letter, though (“I give you this award, please nominate ten others who should also get it”), as this gives them a certain viral nature that can make honorees unwilling to pass it on, and lead to award fatigue like that described by The Galloping Gardener.

My own garden is a modest patch but I have seriously considered trying to qualify for Scotland’s Garden Scheme (our Yellow Book equivalent). On the surface that looks like I’m wanting a stamp of approval on my work, but really it’s just the company of other gardeners I crave.

Online communities are fine, but to have fellow fanatics stand in my garden would be wonderful. I have yet to meet anyone but Gordon the gardener (he cuts our grass) who will happily chat with me for ages about this self-seeder or that rose bush, pruning techniques, the usefulness of underground irrigation and so on. In the same vein, I joyfully submitted Stopwatch Gardener and my photography to a variety of awards schemes, if not genuinely expecting to win, then at least happy to be among “my people.”

I’ve realised that it’s not awards I really want, it’s company. It is ironic that gardening and garden writing — for me two quite solitary acts — aren’t fully satisfying unless I can share them with someone else who understands. And that means you, if you’re reading this. If those Rosa moyesii geranium seeds I planted last week eventually germinate, you’ll probably understand better than anyone who’s actually near me how much that means.

Thank you for reading.


Tech tools for garden writers


Click for larger imageBecause I’ve spent most of my journalism career writing about technology before Stopwatch Gardener, I’ve been fascinated to see how garden writers and publishers are using tech tools to support their work. If you’re a garden writer who’s already pretty wired, you may already know these tools listed below. I’d recommend them to anybody, especially writers who need to save time and be more productive.

  • John’s Background Switcher — JBS is more about inspiration than productivity, but it’s the best way I’ve found to enjoy my thousands of garden photographs. If your pictures are trapped on a computer, John’s Background Switcher lets you dip into them, bit by bit, by using your picture collection to periodically refresh the wallpaper image on your PC desktop. You set the time interval and tell JBS where to look for your pictures; I’ve set mine to refresh every ten minutes with images from my Flickr “garden” folder. And because each new desktop image shows the date, it’s continuously jogging my sense of what blooms when… a great way to improve gardening knowledge by osmosis. Best of all, it’s free software.
  • Dragon NaturallySpeaking — This is voice-recognition. Very Star Trek. Right now I’m speaking this into my headset and every word is transcribed on the screen, with about 98% accuracy. Whether you write lots of little e-mails or churn out thousands of words a week, this will save you time. I began using voice-recognition a few years ago when I developed repetitive strain injury from typing, and at the time Dragon NaturallySpeaking was given to me as a journalist review copy. I never did the write-up because I suspected, rightly, that it was always capable of better performance than my struggling old PC could deliver. On my new PC DNS flies along; don’t attempt it unless you have plenty of memory and a microphone-equipped headset that plugs into a USB port. Headsets that plug into your standard microphone and headphone ports are too slow for high-quality voice-recognition. Dragon sells at retail for about £150.
  • Google Reader — keep an eye on your favourite garden journalists, blogs and publications by subscribing to their website’s RSS feeds. RSS feeds are just the guts of the stories — plain-looking text and basic images — which are sucked out of the fancy-looking websites for you to read altogether as a simple list of headlines and stories in an RSS reader, like Google Reader. Check your favourite websites to see if they have an RSS feed; or, inside Google Reader, search for feeds by a keyword like “gardening.” A great timesaver, especially for editors who need to keep an eye on everything. The software is free from Google and works with other useful software tools like Feedly for Firefox (Firefox is an excellent free web browser alternative to Internet Explorer).
  • Twitter — another free service which is being exploited so well by many gardening journalists and publications, not least The Telegraph, The Guardian, Garden Answers, and in the US magazines like Fine Gardening. Most publications use Twitter to tease and put links to their content on the web. But more exciting is the “crowdsourcing” of ideas that publications like Fine Gardening are doing on Twitter. They regularly survey the Twitter population to get ideas and recommendations about plants and things to do in the garden, to solicit competition entries, and more. FG is well wired: its website’s Pronunciation Guide for Plants, with “hear-it-out-loud” Latin plant names, is perfectly geared towards its US market, where common names rather than Latin names prevail.

How can gardening media in the UK and elsewhere make best use of technology and the web? It’s a question that the blog Landscape Juice, among others, has been asking. As print readerships continue to wilt, the thinking caps will need to go on.

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