When you’re photographing plants and gardens, it’s natural to focus your attention on what’s in the center of the picture. Taking a few seconds to consider the “frame”—the edges of the image—before you shoot can help to enhance the entire photograph.
One thing to think about is the orientation of the image: whether you hold the camera in its normal position to take a photo that’s a horizontal rectangle or turn it 90 degrees to shoot a vertical one. Broad garden shots, large drifts, and low, spreading plants tend to lend themselves to horizontals…
…while verticals are a natural choice for tall, spiky plants and combinations. (Above is a horizontal shot from the meadow, of Joe-Pye weed [Eutrochium maculatum], teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), and not-yet-in-bloom goldenrod (Solidago); below is a vertical of the Joe-Pye and teasel.)
Sometimes it’s obvious which orientation will work best; in other cases, it can be tough to decide. When you’re using a digital camera, though, there’s no need to spend time deliberating: take some of each so you’ll have plenty to choose from later.
I tend to like horizontals for capturing a feeling of overall abundance, making a generally pretty garden shot, and verticals for capturing the interaction of just two or three special plants. (Above is golden lace [Patrinia scabiosifolia], purple Japanese burnet [Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Purpurea’], ‘Orange King’ zinnia [Zinnia elegans], and ‘Australia’ canna, while the vertical format below draws attention to just the golden lace and burnet.)
For most of us, the difference between verticals and horizontals is simply a matter of personal preference: what we think looks nicest, or what works best for our blog format. I find myself defaulting to verticals, so when I’m shooting combinations, I have to make a conscious decision to grab a horizontal version too, just in case it might be useful later.
When I’m selecting photos for posts, though, I almost always pick the verticals, because they show off a more balanced amount of each plant. In the above shot, for instance, the emphasis is on the ‘Limon Blush’ coleus [Solenostemon scutellarioides]; below, you see more of the Japanese blood grass [Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’ and ‘Australia’ canna as well.
The orientation is something to think about when photographing pathways, too. Horizontals show more of what’s happening on each side, while verticals tend to draw attention to the path itself. They also emphasize the sense of perspective, bringing you right into the picture.
Another way to focus attention on whatever you want to emphasize is to frame it with something within the photo.
Structures such as arches and arbors serve as obvious frames for garden scenes, adding depth to the picture while attracting your attention to the center of the image.
That’s assuming, of course, that there’s something of interest to see in the center; otherwise, it’s just a picture of an arch or arbor and a path. That’s fine if that’s what you want…
…but it’s a missed opportunity from a design standpoint. Photos like the ones above and below remind me that I could do a much better job in using my garden arbors as frames, rather than simply as plant supports.
Back to photography, though…other structures that work well for framing garden scenes include gates…
…and windows (as in this old picture from my previous place).
One tip here: if you’re using some sort of geometric structure as a frame, it needs to be level, both horizontally and vertically. You probably won’t notice deviations much in the garden, but they can be really obvious in photos, where you can easily compare them to the straight sides of the image. (I know that many of my fence posts and arbors could use some serious attention in that department.)
Plants, too, can work as frames within photos. (Granted, the photo above would have been nicer if the viburnum in the center was more mature, but you get the idea.) Distinctly vertical plants, such as tall ornamental grasses and perennials, work well for framing the sides. In the above image, the vertical framing plants are ‘Northwind’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum), with ‘Cassian’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) framing the bottom edge. Below, golden lace (Patrinia scabiosifolia), goldenrod (Solidago), and ‘Dallas Blues’ switch grass frame a bench.
Upright shrubs and trees in pairs or paired rows—such as these Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana)—also serve well for framing scenes, objects (including alpacas), and paths.
Tree trunks offer lots of opportunities for framing scenes in wooded landscapes and shady gardens.
Most of their framing effect is vertical, but if taller trees have horizontal branches, you may be able to use them as a frame along the upper part of your image.
In close-up images, leaves and/or stems may be able to serve as frames. (Below is ‘Oakhurst’ pineapple lily [Eucomis comosa] framed by the leaves of ‘Australia’ canna.)
Shooting over the top of plants or borders, with the foreground plants out of focus, adds a framing element along the bottom of an image, giving much more depth to the scene…
…as well as an extra dash of color and/or texture.
Using out-of-focus plants along the lower edge of the frame serves yet another function: hiding a boring or unattractive foreground. In the images above and below, for instance, you’re spared the view of the unweeded part of a path.
Well, that’s all I have to say about framing for now. Next time, it’ll be May Bloom Day, and there’s a lot of gardening, sowing, and potting-up to get done before then. But before I sign off, I wanted to mention an excellent resource I was recently reminded of (thanks for asking, Eric). If you are considering adding a meadow area to your landscape, or if you have a friend or client looking for more information on meadows, you can find two useful documents on the Natural Lands Trust website:
- Meadows in Southeastern Pennsylvania: A free 7-page PDF document touching on the highlights of meadow ecology, wildlife benefits, and management, including a simple but eminently useful chart to help you decide when and why to mow your meadow. (While you’re mowing, I recommend entertaining yourself with the horticultural version of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”: One Man Went to Mow.)
- Stewardship Handbook for Natural Lands in Southeastern Pennsylvania: A 220-page document with much more in-depth information about land management, including an overview of various cover situations (including woodlands, meadows, wetlands, and more); a step-by-step guide for creating a stewardship plan; details on a wide range of stewardship techniques (including managing wildlife, caring for forests and meadows, dealing with invasive plants, and building and maintaining trails); and charts of native plants for different habitats. It’s available for free as a PDF download (it takes a while but is worth the wait) or $57.50 as a spiral-bound print version.
As you can tell by the titles, these references are meant specifically for the southeastern PA area, but they would certainly be of use to the Mid-Atlantic region, at least, and I imagine that much of the information on land management would apply to other areas as well. If you’re at all interested in land stewardship issues, I definitely recommend taking a look.