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Garden Photography 101

with Ken Druse

Ken DruseMANY PEOPLE THRILL at a sunny day in the garden, but if photographing the landscape and its plants is your pursuit, as it is Ken Druse’s, you take the contrarian view.  “I love overcast,” says Ken, and “drizzle” is another favorite forecast for the author of 18 garden books, whose camera has taken him to more gardens than most of us will see in a lifetime. Ken shared some of his top garden-photography tips in a Q&A interview and this week’s public-radio show and podcast (and I was the guest on Ken’s show this last week, on another topic altogether…more on both on the jump page).

When everyone else is headed to work at 7:30 AM or so, Ken‘s done with his morning shoot session—and doesn’t head back outside until late afternoon. It’s all about chasing that good, subdued, light.

“White flowers disappear in the sun—and the greens all gets ‘black,’” he explains,” but besides the technical solutions Ken pursues (and shares below and in the latest show), there’s something much bigger:

“I want to communicate the feeling of the place,” Ken says, “to explain in each image, ‘What does this place feel like?’”

The audio (links in the box below) talks both technique and “feel;” a Q&A below adds a bit more to the discussion.

prefer our podcasts?

GARDEN PHOTOGRAPHY 101, and also what Ken calls “the third eye”–when others visit your garden and help you “see it” even better as a result–was the topic of the latest edition of my weekly public-radio program with guest Lee Reich. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from or via its RSS feed. The April 29, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fourth year this month, and is syndicated via PRX.

Ken Druse’s “Real Dirt” podcast—now six years old—is a must for all gardeners. Visit Ken’s site now to sample recent ones, or to subscribe by iTunes. The link to the one I appeared on last week with Ken, about garden woo-woo and more, is here.

more q&a on photography with ken druse

Q. Let’s talk gear for a minute: In the days of film, I know you used to travel with an outfit of six or seven lenses, and now things are much different. 

A. Photographing your garden (and other people’s creations) can be a matter of recording, or actually capturing the spirit and beauty of a place. After all, most photos today are made with an iPhone (record), but images that are lasting memories, or even works of art, take time and consideration. If you want to get into taking great photos, you might care to look into buying an SLR, or single lens reflex camera. With these, you actually are looking through the lens and not just at a digital image on the back of your point-and-shoot camera. SLR’s begin at about $600 in a kit with a lens.

Most SLRs sold today will also take high definition video. A great bonus!

Cameras are like stereo equipment–the more you spend the more you get. Look for a kit that has a useful zoom lens that will allow you to get a wide view of the entire scene, and get in to capture a detail of the scene. I would say the most extreme range of an affordable zoom would be 18 mm to 135 mm.

Q. So many brands—but where should we start if we are shopping?

A. The best brands are Canon and Nikon, but they are different. The Nikon is more intuitive to operate, and things that you need (like the on and off switch) are where they should be (kind of like a Mac).

The Canon takes great photos (and I love mine), but it is a bit more like a PC (it takes two hands to turn mine on and off). The manual that came with my Canon, for example, is 365 pages long. I started using my Nikon right out of the box. I had to study to learn to use the Canon, but the quality is excellent.

Q. What about light, and times of day—when do you prefer to shoot?

A. Try not to take pictures in bright sunlight. Hope for overcast days when colors are rich, and shadows are minimized. If you need to take picture of something special in your garden and the weather doesn’t cooperate, you will have to either get out there early in the AM, or in the afternoon to evening. You can shoot right up until 8:00 PM–if you have a tripod.

Q. I meant to ask you about tripods. I have three, but cannot force myself to use one. My friend Erica, a professional photographer, scolds me incessantly about skipping this critical tool.  Sounds like you do, too.

A. A tripod is a wonderful thing. Putting your camera on a tripod will slow you down and make your photo compositions more thoughtful. The tripod will also allow you to take pictures well after holding the camera steady isn’t possible.

Q. Can we talk about focus—and which of these computer-like camera dials and settings are best for getting started in photographing the garden?

A. Some of my tips on that:

  • Do not use the automatic setting.
  • Choose your camera’s “aperture priority” setting. In that way, you can decide what is in focus and what is not.
  • Consider where you want the focus to be: either turn the auto focus off and do it yourself, or select the area to be automatically in focus (a feature available on all SLRs).
  • When on a tripod, turn off the image stabilization–either in the camera or on the lens. If not, you photos may come out fuzzy.
  • More important, perhaps, than the technical: Try to capture the spirit of a garden, the feeling you have when visiting. Sometimes that feeling could best be communicated by a closeup. To that end…
  • If you would like to do some super closeup photos of things like the center of a flower or a butterfly, then consider adding a macro lens to your SLR tool kit. Look for one that “opens wide,” that is, has the ability to allow a lot of light in for the image–signified by a low aperture number, for example 1.8. The lower the number, the better the lens, and the higher the price. Again, you get what you pay for.
  • Some people say pixels do not matter–I think they do. Try to buy a camera with the highest megapixel number you can afford.
  • Oh, and have fun!

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