A few simple guidelines can help you capture flowers on film

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It's 50 degrees and I'm lying prone on the sidewalk in front of my house. The striped purple 'Pickwick' crocuses planted in a thin strip of dirt between the walkway and the house have bloomed, signaling the unofficial start of spring.

Doug Oster, Post-Gazette
The crocus vernus "Pickwick" as seen from ground level..
Click photo for larger image.

My elbows ache on the cold stone as I inch closer to the flowers, camera in hand. I twist and contort until I'm directly overhead. The flower fills the viewfinder, its bright orange stamens a wonderful contrast to the blue and white stripes. I shoot frame after frame.

These first blooms lure the photographer with their beauty, reminding us how amazing flowers can be. Deprived of color for so long, we soak up every glimpse and hunger for each bud to satisfy our appetite. The early garden fills our senses with fragrance and beauty, but memories are short-lived. Pictures capture the garden in its glory and preserve it forever.

Photography can be a mysterious process, part art, part science, a trait it shares with gardening. Both offer a lifetime of learning.

A novice can feel overwhelmed with either, but a few simple guidelines produce pleasing results.

Light is everything for photographs, whether the camera is the cheapest throwaway or the latest in technology. Bright sun at high noon is the wrong time to be shooting. The harsh light and deep shadows offer bleached-out colors and an unappealing high-contrast look. It's the early morning and late afternoon sun photographers treasure. There's something special about its angle and warmth that sets off the garden's shape and form.

It's a good practice to keep the sun behind you. Although working against the light as it's called can produce interesting photographs, it takes a little practice and requires better equipment, especially a good lens.

Rob Cardillo is a professional horticultural photographer and author who grew up in Pittsburgh. "I divide light up into easy light and hard light," he said from his home near Philadelphia. "With soft light, the colors and textures just jump out." Overcast days provide softness and give photographers a longer window of opportunity to shoot. "Patience is a real gift if you're a garden photographer," he said. "You have to wait for cloud cover, you have to wait for the sun to move or it's going to be ugly."

There's an old saying among professional photographers: An amateur shoots a few pictures and hopes for the best; a pro shoots a lot and picks the best. Whether it's an extra roll of film or another digital card, shoot a subject as many ways as possible. It's a process that takes time to adjust to but rewards photographers with more options when editing.

Photographers who own a camera with interchangeable lenses have many options for close-up photos. The first is a macro lens, which allows the shooter to get within inches of flowers. "You can explore the botanical geometry, the wonderful detail of living plants," Cardillo said. Photographers should take advantage of the control that macro photography provides by changing the light or the camera angle, he added.

A less expensive option is to use a normal lens in conjunction with extension tubes. They fit between the lens and the camera and allow the photographer to get even closer than with the macro. I like to use extension tubes and the macro together for interesting extreme close-ups. A tripod helps; it's very difficult to hold the camera so close to the subject.

Close-up photography exposes a world filled with brilliant color combinations, patterns and shapes we would overlook in the course of the day.

The hardest thing to learn is how to compose a photograph. Entire books have been written on composition, and it's an important skill to learn. Some people just have the eye; for others it takes time.

Study garden photos in books and magazines. Try to figure out how photographers made each photo, how they used light and composition to express themselves. When it's time to photograph the garden, slow down, Cardillo said. "Spend some time looking for the interesting relationships; study a scene before you aim your camera." Look for repeating patterns, interesting shapes, contrasting tone, patterns and colors. Explore your subject high and low, and see how it changes from different angles.

One trick Cardillo uses is what he calls the one-eyed squint. "You're trying to translate a three-dimensional world into two-dimensional photographs, and by looking with one eye shut I can better understand how that multi-dimensional work will translate onto a flat photograph," he said. It's part of understanding how your camera sees.

You'll find that many of the best photographs use a compositional tool called the rule of thirds. It simply means dividing the frame into threes and putting the focal point of the picture a little off-center. This gives the photo a sense of tension and makes it visually interesting. There are thousands of ways to shoot each picture, and the subtle intricacies included or excluded determine what makes a picture yours.

Cardillo was back in Pittsburgh visiting last year. While walking in Mellon Park he was drawn to a bed of tulips. "It had a nice poetry there that asked to be photographed," he said. His reflection on what stopped him that day shows both the complex and simple reasons why pictures are made. The photo from that walk in the park landed on the cover of February's Horticulture magazine.

Photography, like gardening, takes time and patience to learn. Whether the photos are artistic interpretations or a simple record of your plants, they will remain for decades, even centuries, as a legacy of your love for the garden.


Post-Gazette garden columnist Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1484.


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