Intro: Botanical Garden Photo Safari: Bagging the Best Shots
Wherever I travel, I try to find a local botanical garden to explore. Botanical gardens are wonderful places, a confluence of art and nature that present some really great hobby photography opportunities. This particular photo safari was the result of an accidental find: The Kampong in Miami, a fabulous hidden gem of a place, the former home of famed botanist David Fairchild, for whom Fairchild Gardens, in Miami, is named.
According to the 2015 book, "Fruits of Eden: David Fairchild and America’s Plant Hunters, by Amanda Harris (University Press of Florida), Fairchild introduced over 100,000 varieties of plants and seeds to the U.S. by 1935, including the Meyer lemon, soybeans, Calimyrna figs, date palms, durum wheat, navel oranges, and many varieties of mangos and avocados, as well as helping bring the first cherry trees to Washington D.C..
The Kampong (Malay for village or cluster of homes for an extended family) was Fairchild's experimental garden which, over 100 years after he lived there, is rich with old growth heritage plants as well as some lovely art deco architecture, making for a great photography experience.
Step 1: What You'll Need
A Botanical Garden - They're everywhere! There's a great listing at the National Tropical Botanical Garden website, as well as the American Horticultural Society or for a stunningly comprehensive directory, check out the Internet Directory of Arboreta and Botanical Gardens . You can also just do a nearby search on botanical gardens in Google Maps when you're out and about, and something is bound to pop up!
Camera (s) - I carry both my trusty old Canon T2i with a 250 mm long lens and my mobile camera, for my purposes of simply an augmented hike, a perfectly suitable combination of photographic equipment (see Cell Phone as Auxiliary Lens for a little history)
Step 2: Get the Lay of the Land and the Light
Spend some time just walking around and getting a feel for the garden, the weather, the lighting. The Kampong turned out to be equal parts meditation and conference center, and self-guided botanical garden. Because it was previously a private home, there was also a bit of a feeling of walking around in someone's yard - albeit a rather exotic and extensively landscaped yard!
But it helped to just enjoy the spaces for the first part of my visit, an enjoyable reconnaissance of sorts that led me down paths and around buildings and to some lovely art pieces. I snapped a few shots as I went, when something particularly appealing caught my eye, but for the most part, I just wandered around, finding my favorite views.
Step 3: Pathways
Then I drilled down a bit. To me, photography is often an almost spiritual experience. After taking in the larger view, I can frame more intimate scenes, finding the more nuanced parts of the whole.
One of my favorite parts of the whole in a garden is often the path I'm on, which can sometimes be as good a subject as where it takes you. Especially in a garden with buildings and walkways, the paths can lead to both man made visual elements or those enhanced by nature.
Changing your perspective along that path can also yield different visual experiences. The two views of the leaf strewn path are taken from an almost ground level view, back up to what someone walking along the path would be likely to see. Each view reveals something different.
Step 4: Incorporating Structures
Botanical gardens often have structures that can be as appealing as the flora they showcase. These can include sculptures, fountains, out buildings, greenhouses, and in the case of Kampong Gardens (and many others) sometimes houses.
Incorporating those man made structures into the natural (or at least, nature's) landscape humanizes the view, even with no humans in sight.
Look for interesting lines, and materials like metal, wood and stone that offset nicely against plants , or capture light in interesting ways, made the most compelling when you keep your framing clean and simple.
Step 5: Telling a Story
I've said this before, but it's worth repeating: The best images tell a story - maybe it's a story of what just happened, like a rain shower, or a story of what could be, like lounging beneath an umbrella.
How you frame that story is important, so take time to understand the scene you're seeing through the view finder or screen. The first two photos are of the same scene - but just shifting the field of view down to include a full view of the lounge chairs, as oppose to showing only the topics of the chair and more of the umbrella, is the difference between a random snap shot, and a memorable or thought provoking experience.
Similarly, the walkway leading up to the courtyard with the large planters in it, invites you in, and perhaps makes you wonder what's all the way into that courtyard, just around the corner where you can't see.
Walkways, doors and gates, arches and openings often present great photo opportunities. Just keep moving around until the view stops you - then take the photo.
Step 6: Evaluate the Background
When you find your subject, be sure to consider what's behind it: whether there's a clear sky, or a cloudy one; people, or other things - which can be either distracting or complementary, depending on your goal.
Each pair of photos here show the same central images in two different ways - the red flower with and without the branch in the background. You can see how it changes the experience of the photo. Similarly, the lily is photographed both against the full backdrop of the pond,and close up, with just some lily pad leaves in the background.
Which you prefer is completely a matter of personal taste, but taking the time to look behind your subject can help you create the image you most enjoy.
Step 7: Solitary or Group
Again a matter of taste, and intent, whether you group your subject items or photograph then individually depends on what you're trying to impart. If you want particular colors or shapes to stand out, photographing your subject by itself, in relief against a simple background, might be the best way to go.
If you're more interested in giving a sense of the depth of garden areas, or providing more of a tapestry background, then photographing your subject with a long lens against a busier background may have a richer effect.
Step 8: Scale and Scope
It's hard to give a full sense of scale or depict the actual scope of a view sometimes. But there are a few things you can do to help convey what you see there in person.
Try to capture the image in both horizontal and vertical views to see which conveys the closest image to your view.
Try to scale your view with some foreground object, like the bench in the image above, or aim high for a towering view.
Step 9: Accentuate the Colorful
Botanical gardens can be festivals of color. But to make the most of that festival requires taking a thoughtful approach to finding the best ways to illustrate color.
Very vivid colors like the powerful violet color of the lily or the deep red passion flower can show off more strongly against a simple, clean background.
Clusters of flowers in more subtle hues can show well against a more softly muted background.
Step 10: To Center or Off-Center
Some things look great centered in your field of view, and other things look a little better off-set. Both of these images are actually fine, but the top one with more of the bottlebrush like flowers in the center is more appealing to me, personally. It obscures a somewhat distracting background of other plants that moves the eye from the center of focus.
Step 11: Look for the Unexpected
While exploring the Kampong, I came across a spent Kapok flower on the ground, and thought it made a really nice image, with the waxy red rain sprinkled leaves arrayed like a star and the blasted sepals against the brown leaf litter:a perfect portrait of a dying flower
Another nice and unexpected find was the bust of an old statue, wedged into the ropey strands of a ficus tree.
Botanical gardens are full of great opportunities to truly learn to see, in a wonderful mix of environment and man made art. So check out those directories, and go on a photo safari to remember!