Beyond the Pretty Flowers: Finding Other Opportunities in Gardens & Nature

Sarah Marino
Colorful blossoms rightly attract attention but when you look beyond these subjects, you can find many other opportunities for photography.

Have you ever wondered why plants have such colorful flowers? The biological relationships between plants and their pollinators help explain the reasons. Colorful flowers attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds, with the flowers and pollinators enjoying a symbiotic relationship. Pollinators help plants produce fruit and seeds by moving pollen from flower to flower while the flowers offer enticing food, like nectar, for pollinators. These same showy characteristics attract humans to flowers, as well. We are drawn in and captivated by the range of colors and shapes offered up by the flowers that bloom in cultivated gardens and in wild nature.  And, for photographers working in gardens, it makes sense that colorful flowers are often one of the most popular subjects. Despite all the lovely and important characteristics, plant photography can be about much more than pretty, colorful flowers. A world of fascinating plants awaits just beyond the showiest of subjects.

A few years ago, I visited an impressive display of dahlias at a garden on the fringes of Seattle, Washington. Nearly all the garden’s visitors, including many people with fancy cameras, were swarming around the dahlia display. Feeling crowded and hot, I wandered off to another part of the garden where I could be alone. While the dahlias were the main attraction, I found some of the quieter subjects to be equally beautiful. I find this experience to be common when photographing in gardens. While other photographers have their cameras pointed at colorful blooms, I am off photographing a pattern in a collection of leaves, some plain grasses, backlit cactuses, or other more mundane subjects. In this article, I hope to encourage you to also see opportunities for photography beyond the showiest blossoms.

Finding Order Among Chaos: Repetition and Patterns

In my photography, I have a tendency to seek out order among chaos. While gardens are far less chaotic than wild nature settings, I still enjoy looking for ways to organize and simplify the subjects in front of me. One theme I explore in my work is repetition and patterns. I think of repetition as simple elements of visual design, like lines and shapes, repeating throughout a composition. Pattern is a form of repetition but more organized and consistent, like a wallpaper. If you look at subjects in terms of their abstract forms, gardens are full of repetition and patterns.

In your mind, think of a grouping of tall grasses. Their vertical stems create a kind of repetition that can be organized into a composition, especially when simplified with a shallow depth of field. The coleus below creates more of a pattern, with the leaves appearing more consistently across the composition. Next time you are in a garden, take some time to choose a flowering plant and then look beyond the flowers. You might find an impressive collection of intricate ferny leaves, like those that grow from a yarrow plant, or leaves with gracefully serrated edges, like those that grow on some sedums. Once you start looking for a subject like this, you will find more than you could possibly photograph in a single outing.

The leaves in this colorful coleus plant offer a composition based on repetition.

 Photo ©Sarah Marino

Strange Subjects and Abstract Interpretations

After repetition and patterns, the next category of subjects I seek out is strange plants and plants with potential for abstract interpretations. In the example above, the fuzzy curls of this plant drew me in. By getting very close with my macro lens and choosing a shallow depth of field, I could emphasize the abstract qualities of the plant and make the photo a study of curling lines. I look for similar qualities on other non-flowering plants, like succulents, cactuses, aloes, grasses, yuccas, and ferns. Subjects like these all have interesting shapes and lines that, when viewed up close with shallow depth of field, can be transformed into abstract interpretations. By experimenting with my focus point (often moving it far into the subject instead of the point closest to me), I can sometimes take a literal interpretation where the subject is obvious and transform the photo into a soft study of lines, shapes, or colors.

An up-close view of these curls offers a more abstract interpretation of this plant.

 Photo ©Sarah Marino

Working with More Challenging Light

I live in Colorado, a state known for its sunshine. This means that I can expect clear skies when I head out to photograph plants. While I often have a diffuser along to shade small subjects, I sometimes just feel like using a simpler, less cumbersome setup of gear. On these days, I try to embrace strong direct light. Since I am primarily a nature photographer, I apply my nature practices to my garden photography. When I am in nature, I try to work with the landscape. I’ll take whatever nature offers up and if I bring an open mind, I will find something interesting to photograph. Instead of arriving with a lot of expectations, like hoping for soft clouds, I arrive knowing that I can work with more direct light if that is what I find. With this mindset, I have created a few of my favorite photographs under conditions that would disappoint many photographers.

Even with an open mind, it can be helpful to have a few ideas of subjects that can work in brighter, harsher light. If I arrive at a garden on a day with such conditions, I look for subjects that are fuzzy or translucent. When photographing such subjects with sunlight behind them, a plant or collection of leaves can take on a glow that would not be possible with soft, even light. I also look for subjects with an interesting mix of bright highlights and strong shadows as this quality can make a dramatic black and white rendition possible. With improvements in dynamic range for cameras, I also often have success taking photos of subjects in bright light and then bringing up the shadows and bringing down the highlights in processing. As long as the highlights are not clipped in the original file, I am often able to reduce contrast and add other processing steps in a way that creates a bright, glowy rendition of subjects that were in full sun. Together, each of these ideas offers more than enough to keep me busy during a bright day at the garden.

Afternoon sunlight falls upon a small joshua tree at a garden in Utah.

 Photo ©Sarah Marino

Before and After the Blooms

While the peak of summer is often the most productive time to visit a garden for photography, I find all other seasons to have opportunities as well. For example, succulents and sedums are one of my favorite subjects and in areas where they are cold hardy enough to grow outside year-round, the plants often take on more vibrant colors compared to other times of the year. In the example here, this sedum plant had been flattened under a thick layer of recently melted snow. Whereas the plant has all kinds of high and low points during the growing season, making it look erratic and messy, the weight of the snow and cooler temperatures transformed it in terms of shape and color. In early spring before flower stems start growing, masses of tender leaves can create different opportunities than when a plant is full-grown in summer. And fall brings on the transformation to autumn colors, which is another opportunity to photograph your favorite plants under different conditions. For example, I took a favorite photo of salvia stems long after the flowers had faded and as the leaves were taking on the first hints of autumn. Finding these different opportunities encourages me to get out year-round. Even though finding subjects can sometimes take more work, the variety compared to summer makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

A snow-flattened sedum photographed deep in winter.

 Photo ©Sarah Marino

I hope these examples will encourage you to spend some time looking beyond the blooms of summer to find the other opportunities that abound in gardens year-round. With more ideas in mind, like those I shared above, you can find beautiful, interesting, and surprising subjects to photograph regardless of which plants are growing and what is happening with the weather.

Sarah Marino

Sarah Marino is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Sarah and our photography conferences she’s teaching at, click here.

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