Author: Rupert Wade

Photography workshop

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Photography workshop
Rachel Raywood

A lovely, extensive garden with many plants in full flower, including roses, geraniums, water lilies, Albuca, Astrantia, Buddleja, Clematis, Digitalis, Iris, Knautia and so many more, and in which a hundred-year-old Liriodendron tulipifera takes pride of place; blue sky, fluffy white clouds, a slight to gusty breeze – thus was the setting for our photography workshop, held in mid-June. The venue was Anthea and Trevor Sokell’s garden in Bookham, our photographic guide Dr Peter Brandham.

Photography being an all-embracing subject, this workshop deliberately concentrated on flower close-ups. We began with a “points to watch out for” pep talk covering key elements to consider before pressing the button. We organised ourselves loosely into pairs, to facilitate practicalities such as pinning back unwanted foliage, (wooden clothes-pegs proved useful), providing additional shade where required and agreeing the best subjects, angles, perspective etc.

Having chosen a subject, composition is the most critical consideration. When photographing a single flower in close-up, we were asked to: observe the direction in which it is facing, consider the balance of the subject within the frame, remove or avoid anything remotely ‘tatty’ and fill the view-finder to the subject’s best advantage. We were encouraged to focus directly on the subject and to check for an uncluttered background and compatibility with the subject. It was decreed that ‘portrait’ format is the preferred option for single flowers.

When thinking about the lighting of a photograph in sunshine, imagine yourself with arms outstretched to your sides, slightly behind you. Fitting the sun into the area before you provides an illumination for photographs with a balance of light and shade that is far more attractive than the commonly-adopted ‘sun behind you’ position, which lacks that contrast. Shading the camera lens avoids unsightly flare when looking in a direction very close to the sun and counteracts the ‘flat’ effect that can occur when taking images of flowers growing in shade on a sunny day.

Thus we set about identifying subjects and taking better photographs, waiting for the gaps between the gusts of wind to return our subjects to their ‘point of rest’, employing wooden pegs to do our bidding and creating our own artificial shade to set off sunlit flower portraits against a darker, shady background. That my partner had had the foresight to bring an umbrella was very useful, but readers beware the shade-shape of the umbrella insinuating itself behind your so patiently set-up photograph.

When setting up your photograph, try to seek out an unusual aspect or unique characteristic of the plant/grouping and be prepared to put yourself into a physically challenging position to achieve that ‘must have’ shot. Seeing plants from unusual angles also provides interesting lighting options and scope for intriguing shots which can elicit a surprise element. Notice the direction in which the flower is facing and let that dictate where the edge of the shot should be to produce a balanced composition – if it is facing left its balance point should be slightly right of centre to make the subject appear to move into the shot. Also, the usual presence of a stalk below the flower must lift the centre of the flower above the centre of the image, otherwise space is wasted at the top. Think aesthetically; disguise any pot rims, especially if cracked, with leaves or stones and avoid the inclusion of unsightly brickwork or any other superfluous objects which will detract from the image. Try emphasising a plant’s special characteristic, for example the DNA-like spiral of the flower heads of Buddleja alternifolia, or the hairy leaves and flowers of Pulsatilla. Look where the light is striking a plant’s petals or leaves, or seek out patterns within a plant e.g. the symmetrical appearance of Phlomis flower groups lends itself to a focus on that aspect of the plant’s habit and appeals to those drawn to the regularity of Nature’s design.

A key point is that the main subject should be entirely within the shot. Don’t crop the top or sides of a flower (as many plant catalogues do), or have extraneous foliage falling out of the frame and avoid a too-busy background. Simplicity was the order of the day with the emphasis on single specimens of a single species rather than a mixture of plants in a border. The aim is for a completeness of subject in its own right.

After a delicious buffet lunch we adjourned to the nearby home of Anthea’s friend Peter Tilley, where we found the ideal venue for the next part of the programme – a curtained room, large projector and the advantages of modern technology. We were treated to a slide show of Peter Brandham’s own flower photographs, taken at Kew, demonstrating contra-jour illumination and other techniques we had attempted during the morning. Then came the moment of truth as we looked at our own photographs, by then ‘anonymously produced’, which were subjected to criticism, acclaim and approbation. It was interesting and informative to see why many of our photographs hadn’t captured the aimed-for effect and we by then having the newly-acquired knowledge to reason why that was so. Conversely, it was gratifying for those who had taken very good photographs to have them highly regarded and appreciated within the group.

Participants appreciated the opportunity to pick up tips and hints in such a welcoming, appropriate and enjoyable way which made for a great day out. Appreciation was expressed to Peter for sharing his expertise and special thanks were conveyed to Anthea and Trevor Sokell, who did everything possible to make the event such a success.

First published in the Southern Counties Group Newsletter, September 2010
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Rachel Raywood

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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