Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.
Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.
First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.
Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.
First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.
One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium
illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.
David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.
Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.
Tips from David made perfect sense:
-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.
-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.
-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.
-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.
-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.
David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.
Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.