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.
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.