Taking striking outdoor photos requires a new way of seeing


October 06, 1990|By Linda Lowe Morris

WASHINGTON — Washington---It's early afternoon in the garden at Dumbarton Oaks and what more could you ask of a day like this: The sunlight filters softly down through the leaves. The clear blue sky has just the right amount of clouds floating by. And the air is so sweet you could almost lean into it.

Even the garden, romantically sculpted out of luxuriant green, conspires to break the heart.

Everywhere you look, it's beautiful. And yet Allen Rokach -- professional garden photographer and writer -- is searching for something else, something even more elusive.

Nikon in hand, he heads down a path, then up a flight of stairs. He looks through the camera from time to time, then moves on, going past one enchanting vista after another, bypassing the first red leaves of autumn and the last flowers of summer.

Finally he stops by a fountain, looks through his camera toward a stairway overhung with greenery, and then, after pacing back and forth to find just the right angle, takes a few pictures.

"There's a difference," he says, looking up, "between beautiful and photogenic. When you're in a place like this where everything really is very beautiful, still it may not be particularly photogenic because of all sorts of problems."

He squints up at the sky. "Right now the sun isn't in such a good place. If it was a little bit lower, you could get more backlight and that would create a nice effect."

Allen Rokach, author with Anne Millman of "Focus on Flowers: Discovering and Photographing Beauty in Gardens and Wild Places" (Abbeville Press, hardcover, $39.95), thinks a lot of amateur photographers could be a lot happier with their pictures if they understood the basic differences between the camera and the eye.

While you may see many scenes that you want to capture -- especially at this time of year as the leaves begin to turn -- it's not enough to just see something pretty, aim the camera and snap.

You need to learn a whole new way of seeing, not just through the eyes, but through the lens of the camera. At first, Mr. Rokach says, this may seem to limit you, but once you develop some proficiency with different lenses and filters, the camera can actually expand your possibilities of capturing images.

One of the first things to do is to begin to look at light.

"In photography," Mr. Rokach says, "you're not really photographing flowers, you're not photographing trees or plants, you're just photographing the light that's reflected from them."

The photographs that work best invariably are the photographs that have the most interesting light, he continues. But that's rarely the light that beginning photographers think they want.

"Most people are programmed to think that they want to photograph when the sun is out and that's usually the worst time of the day to photograph.

"The light that's probably least photogenic is the bright sunny light in the middle of the day," he says. "It takes something that's fundamentally beautiful and turns it into something that's jTC completely unphotogenic."

In garden photography, he continues, there are a number of great problems that occur when the sun is out. "You have a tremendous amount of glare and reflection off the leaves. You don't get to see the color because you're getting to see mostly reflections. And there's also a lot of shadows. People often don't notice the shadows and if you expose for the bright areas the shadows become very black and splotchy.

"On a day where the sun is behind the clouds you can actually see the color very comfortably and there are almost no shadow areas. So the best time to photograph is on bright overcast days."

Morning and evening are good times to take photographs, he explains, because the light is less intense and comes from the side.

Another mistake that photographers make is to try to put too much into their photographs.

A whole hillside ablaze in autumn color may seem more striking to us than one tree, but when we want to capture the feeling of autumn in a photograph, we would be much better off to focus on that single tree.

"Too many people want to take the whole panorama of what thesee," he says. "When I teach and when I'm photographing, my attitude is a very simple one. It boils down not to what I do I want to incorporate in the picture but what do I want to leave out. And I'm constantly trying to find things to leave out so that what I'm focusing in on becomes the main aspect of the photograph.

"And most people try to do just the opposite. They keep oasking, 'Well, what more should I put into the picture'? And eventually the picture doesn't work.

He advocates constant practice and study. "I'm a great believer in making the effort to continuously learn, he says.

Mr. Rokach -- now a free-lance photographer, author and director of the Center for Nature Photography -- was director of photography and staff photographer at the New York Botanical Garden for 15 years.

Formerly a teacher of geology at the City University of New York, he decided in 1973 to start a career as a writer and photographer. To improve his skills, he first took courses at the International Center for Photography, then apprenticed with master photographers whose work he admired.

"People have to think of film the way painters think of oil paints. They very rarely just take one brush and one can of paint. They use a lot of it over and over again. And I think that's very important in terms of photography. You want to shoot a lot of film."

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