Get The Picture?

THE REAL DIRT

June 28, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

On rainy days, we like to leaf through the family photo album to see how much our gang has grown.

They shoot up fast, don't they?

The twins have blossomed into real beauties. It's hard to imagine they were once those skinny little stick figures pictured in the album.

Our oldest, now 17, has grown as big as a house. Wasn't it just yesterday that we first brought him home in the trunk of the car? We still have pictures of him lying next to the spare tire.

Trees, folks. These are trees that we're talking about: dogwoods and peaches and pines. I photograph them all the time. I also take pictures of our shrubs, flowers and vegetables. Every year I walk around the yard, clicking away with my camera, preserving the plants for posterity.

I do this for the same reason parents regularly stand their children in the doorway and measure their height with a pencil mark. I'm proud of my plants, and I like to record their growth.

I just wish I could take better pictures.

My technique is simple: I aim and shoot. My snapshots reflect this. They are humdrum. The roses I photographed were brilliant; the photos I got back from the drugstore were not.

I feel like I let my flowers down.

Nonsense, says Christine Douglas. Camera-toting gardeners only think they are hampered by their green thumbs. Anyone can capture the best side of Mother Nature by following a few simple rules, says Douglas, longtime photographer for the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Botanic Garden.

A good 35mm camera is essential, preferably one with a close-up (macro) lens that allows you to photograph a plant from as close as nine inches. For clean images, use a tripod and low-speed film.

Study the garden. Know the life cycle of each plant, and when it flowers. Many plants only bloom for several weeks, so shoot them early.

"You might even find some buds that are partially open or slightly faded. But don't get them frowning," she says. "I can't sell a picture of a faded flower to save my life."

Study the weather. For sheer richness of garden colors, the best summertime photographs are made around dawn (5 a.m. to 7 a.m.) and dusk (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.).

Most gardeners take pictures with the sun at their backs, producing a "flat" light. Douglas suggests angling the sun from the side, for a striking three-dimensionality.

Before and after a storm are exquisite times to shoot, she says: "Just before it rains, there's always a break in the clouds that seems to cast a glow on the flowers from below."

Use props in garden photographs: bridges, urns, fences, even insects. "They give the flower a sense of scale. We all know the size of a bumblebee.

"I love to put people with plants. Have a hand caressing the flower, or a face bending into the blossom, to give a sense of fragrance. Photograph a pair of pruning shears, poised to pluck the flower off. It shows someone cares about it."

Never center the flower in the picture, says Douglas, because "it creates a static image. Place the flower in a corner, or higher or lower in the camera frame. This steers the viewer to it. Or you can shoot so close that you only get part of the flower, so that you're abstracting it. That's always neat."

Trees make lovely subjects, she says. "Dogwoods at sunset are like butter, when the sun drapes on them. They have a lyrical quality. There's something about how that dogwood flower, with only four petals, reaches out."

Above all, experiment with different camera angles. Examine a flower from many viewpoints.

"Lie on the ground and become the cat coming down the garden path. Or stand overhead and come straight down at the plant, like an insect.

"People stroll through gardens, but who really approaches a flower and sits on it like a bee?" she says. "Investigate that flower. Don't just walk up and snap the picture. Make a portrait of the plant.

"Photographs are like gardens: They don't just happen. You plan for them."

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