The Photographic Garden

How to think like a camera

By Matthew Benson

Photography by Matthew Benson


magnolia blossomsWhen we see a beautiful garden, or a splash of perennial color, often the impulse is to take out the camera and click. This perfect light, this fragile beauty, is fleeting. Best to capture it.

But knowing how best to capture it eludes many of us. You put your camera to your eye and shoot, only to throw away later when your lowly pixels disappoint: too dark, too light, too much contrast, too little focus, awkward composition. All the aesthetic excitement you experienced in the garden has perished, and you’re left with a pile of forgettable megapixels. 

Sound familiar? For anyone who has ever walked through a garden, camera clutched firmly in hand, the rich sensory imprint of color, light, and form can almost overwhelm. The photographs we take, however, are often a weak surrogate of the remembered experience.

The best garden photography understands the fundamentals of light and design. Photo-graph means “light-drawing,” after all. The most important change you can make to improve your garden photography is to learn to shoot into the light, to sensitize your eyes to the subtleties of how light moves across and through the garden. Your images will go from glare to glow, from brittle, stark contrast to evocative translucence.

When I photograph a garden, usually arriving just before dawn, I’m looking for the first signs of light: a pale filtering through a canopy of trees, a splinter of light on a pool, the wink of a spider’s web. This is the most magical time in the garden, when it wakes.

A backlit garden glimmers. It pulses with warmth and welcome. The mind’s eye swoons here. So forget all that you were ever told about having the light behind you when you photograph: Position yourself to photograph toward the morning or late afternoon light, with beds, borders, and petals between you and the sun.

Your camera’s automatic exposure meter will be bewildered, of course, and assume there’s too much light. So set the camera on program mode, and use the exposure compensation dial to lighten the image by enough to properly render the garden and over-expose the sky. Most newer digital cameras, even the compacts, allow for some degree of exposure control. Overcoming a phobia of technical manuals in order to learn these basic settings is a giant leap toward creative freedom.

The critical complement to light in the garden is design—the graphic in photo-graphic. Gardens are an idealized, ordered portrait of the natural world. The origins of the word paradise come from the Persian pairidaeza,meaning “walled garden.” By extension, a good garden photographer creates paradise within the walls of the viewfinder. The sensor is itself a walled enclosure, a frame through which paradise can be entered into and defined. An encounter with pairidaeza is possible each time a photographer frames a view.

There needs to reside in a garden image something greater than the sum of its parts; a heightened visual moment where magic happens, when we become aware of the very essence of the place. Often this is an exploration of a subject’s intrinsic idea, its distilled visual poem.

If I were to explore the idea of hollyhock-ness as a photographic subject, for example, I would first consider its form: lanky, multifloral, incandescent against the sun. Because it usually towers above our heads, I might shoot it from way below, to amplify its height and form. Then I would come in close to its ascending, pleated blooms, backlit against the sky, and make an impression of its translucence. Then, perhaps, a macro image of its delicately veined and layered petals; its tight, light-sealed buds. Maybe even a shot taken with the camera set at shutter priority, with the speed at one-eighth of a second in order to show movement in the towering stalk. I’m after the hollyhock poem, after all.

For that poem to emerge, I need to be focused and fascinated by this marvel of botanical form. Without a full commitment to the visual, my botanical poem will be doggerel. As I drop on my knees to shoot up into the hollyhock’s towering height, I must be conscious only of my poetic ambitions. As soon as I begin to worry about scuffing my Skechers, the moment has passed.

Remember, the camera is a seeker. Through it, we give ourselves the freedom to explore, to wonder, and render the garden world through our own intuitive sensibility. The more you create as a camera, and see the garden through its optical viewpoint, subjectively framed and focused, the more successful and evocative your images will be.