Consider me a cheerleader. I am dedicated to spreading my enthusiasm for photography as a vital part of camellia culture. The first photography classes in the American Camellia Society at Longwood Garden opened a different and exciting way for gardeners to display their beautiful blooms, and it was a well appreciated addition for the public.
A partnership between cameras and camellias is not a new concept. Years ago my father catalogued his collection of plants with notebooks accompanied by 35 millimeter color slides. It gave him a size manageable visual record of the plants he purchased, the area of the garden in which they were planted, how well they thrived, and even unusual weather events, like the rare snows or ice storms in Louisiana. Better yet, as a photographer it was a task that extended his pleasure in camellia culture. His influence has made me a devotee of this art.
THE ART OF PHOTOGRAPHING CAMELLIAS
All gardeners are artists, in their choices of plant combinations and in creating a pleasing landscape design. Taking a camera into the garden immediately changes and heightens the grower’s perception. Walking through a riot of blooms in February, the eye sees a tapestry of brilliant color. Looking at a camellia flower through a lens narrows vision, making the photographer examine the separate elements that combine to create a beautiful whole. A limited focus concentrates the contrast of color, emphasizing the vivid red blossom set against its complementary deep green foliage or the faint yellow dusting of pollen onto white petals from fat stamens. It pinpoints the juxtaposition of textures like the subtle veining in a flower petal against the serrated edge of a leaf. The lens can eliminate clutter, exposing etching-like tracery of dark limbs punctuated with flashes of color. Isolating these elements of design gives the photographer a real boost in perceiving and creating a pleasing composition.
Another aspect of photography is the ability to capture a moment and preserve it far beyond the brief time a flower lives. The camera can freeze the ephemeral beauty of a fragile camellia and allow it to be enjoyed miles from the grower’s back yard. Framed in an artistic composition, the bloom is presented to the viewer at its peak of perfection. The camellia show is an excellent venue to display this extension of the gardener’s pleasure in his plants, and competing in shows can hone the photographer’s skill plus expose him to new techniques.
Camellia photography encourages a larger number of entrants in shows throughout the country. Often it is difficult for an exhibitor to transport blooms long distances, especially with the reticence of airlines to allow unusual and live materials aboard. Packing a delicate blossom for travel is a real challenge, and in areas plagued with petal blight the disease appears shortly after the bloom is cut. With photography, the flower can be pictured at perfection in accordance with the class schedule, matted, and mailed to the show well before the opening date. The photos can be staged before setting up the tables of cut specimens or arrangements, all of which are subject to the damage of aging. It is an excellent way to open competition to all parts of the country instead of just the community in which the show is held.
GETTING STARTED—PHOTOGRAPHING CAMELLIAS 101
While future articles may deal more in depth with some of the technical aspects of camellia photography, the following are some hints and tricks to produce successful and prize-winning pictures. Probably the best advice is to take lots and lots of photographs. The more choices one has, the better the chances of picking a near perfect entry. The slightest difference in light, in the angle of the sun, or in point of view can have a big effect on the clarity of the image and its impact on the viewer.
Film versus digital? It is a matter of the photographer’s preference; or better yet, why not use both? I admit to being a camera junkie! I still love my old Nikon F3, but the many new features of today’s cameras, such as on-board metering and auto-focus, are beguiling and make taking a picture incredibly easy. Digital cameras are improving every day, becoming more user friendly and less expensive. I prefer the SLR with a zoom lens with macro capability to really close in on the subject, but any format can be manipulated to suit the photographer’s skill. The biggest advantage to digital cameras is instant gratification. The photographer can immediately see results and decide if he needs to revisit the subject.Another simple rule is to have a camera available at all times. One never knows when the perfect picture will appear. It might be magical slant of light, or a busy insect may visit a bloom for a load of pollen. The weight and bulk of an SLR is not always conducive to spur-of-the-moment shots, so owning one of the versatile minis is a good choice. Many have features rivaling the bigger, more costly cameras, and their size and weight mean they can fit in a pocket or purse. They are also great for travel.
Additional equipment should include a good tripod or monopod to insure a steady shot. This is most important in lower light and for extreme close-ups. A waterproof gadget bag provides protection for expensive cameras from rain showers, heavy dew or sprinklers. Throw a couple of clothespins in that bag; they are perfect for pulling distracting foliage or branches out of the way of that perfect bloom. Sharp Felco clippers can also eliminate unnecessary twigs, but use them at home or ask permission to prune another gardener’s plant! A simple mister is the tool to put faux dew drops on the subject, and a soft brush can eliminate a patch of dust or pollen without bruising the flower.
Always experiment! The typical best light for a successful garden shot is a light, cloudy day or even high shade, but rules are truly made to be broken. High contrast of bright sunlight might create a dramatic shot, especially in a monochromatic composition. Try backlighting for a special effect; the aura of light around a camellia bloom can be magical. Taking pictures in early morning or late afternoon brings another quality to the photograph with the often golden tint and slanted angle of light. Frame flowers against the clear blue sky that appears in autumn when humidity is low, or look for interesting streaks of clouds to enhance a scene. Be careful with the flash; even turn it off. It can often wash out detail, leading to a flat looking photograph.
When framing a flower, crop out as much of the distracting background as possible; zoom in as close as the camera will allow. Try using an unusual angle to enhance the form of the bloom. Photographing a flower from the side can emphasize the height of the center and highlight the layers of petals. Though further manipulation of the image can take place in the darkroom or Photoshop, nothing can substitute for good composition and an artistic eye.
For the true camellia enthusiast, photography is a natural partner with which to broaden pleasure in gardening. I encourage each club that is planning an upcoming show to include this artistic form of expression in your schedule. It not only provides another challenge for the grower, but it also is a favorite of the public. Get creative with classes so that entrants will have interesting choices. Most of all, camellia growers should grab that camera and get outdoors to immortalize the blooms they have worked so hard to produce. How lucky is it that our beloved camellias bloom best in the cooler months of the year?