Zooming in on Garden-Photo Excellence

Last year I was dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of digital photography. I’d been shooting Kodachrome slides for nearly two decades for my books and magazine stories. I knew that territory well. But the world around me was going digital, and editors forced me to take the plunge.

The magazines stipulated that each shot be at least three to five megapixels, with emphasis on five. Five holds enough data in one shot to fill two 3-inch floppies, so you need to save them on a CD-ROM. I purchased the Sony Cybershot with its Zeiss macro lens for close-ups. I’d never had much success with close-up film photography and hoped this new medium would make it easier.

Garden photography is wholly weather-driven. Your enemy is high-contrast light on sunny days. This makes the shadows in the picture go black. The sun-drenched leaves will bleach out. The result is too much contrast that robs the shot of color. In full sun it can be nearly impossible to get a marketable shot from certain gardens.

Some of the world’s best garden photography comes from England. Granted, they have beautiful gardens, but it’s the climate that makes the difference. It’s often overcast and foggy there. High fog diffuses the sunlight, providing even illumination over the subject area. Plants cast little or no shadow. Leaves do not reflect. Everything is bathed in a soft light that’s bright enough to make the color pop out. Most shots will be keepers.

I used to shoot Kodachrone 64, which was a slow film that was very unforgiving in low-light situations. My first discovery with digital was, I could get a good shot in the shade. It took awhile to start taking risks and explore just how far I could push the camera. Before, each roll of film and processing cost big bucks. I didn’t know if I got the shot until it came back from the processor. Experiments were costly in time and money. With digital I was liberated to risk it and go into the darkness to experiment without spending a penny. These experiments taught me a lot, and they’ll teach you, too.

Garden photography is about opportunity. It’s about developing a keen eye for pictures everywhere you go. It’s about weather and sunlight. In midwinter, when things cast long shadows all day long, you are unlikely to obtain really killer garden photos. It may, however, be OK for close-up work where the lighting is diffused and shadows pale or nonexistent. Sometimes I take one look at a site and know it’s a no-win situation.

The photographer’s secret weapon has always been to shoot a lot of film. This ensures that you get every possible angle and light option out of the subject matter. Since digital pix don’t cost anything to create, plentiful storage capacity helps to ensure you great shots.

When shooting for magazine quality, it’s essential you come prepared. A standard photo stick may hold only 20 or 30 five-megapixel shots. That’s hardly enough to do a site justice. The cost of more photo storage sticks is nothing in the larger scheme of things. You can buy a handful of them for what a single high-quality digital shot can earn. It’s false economy to scrimp on storage.

Storing high-resolution photography is another challenge. You can fill up a hard drive in no time. These shots are too big to store on floppies, so you need a CD burner. Unload the pictures into the computer, burn them onto a CD, burn a second backup CD and then delete the shots from your hard drive.

The world of digital photography is incredibly cool. With programs like Photoshop and Picture It you can explore all sorts of artistic digital effects. Even if you’ve never shot a garden or a flower, follow these guidelines and you’ll be shooting for National Geographic in no time.