Picturing Your Garden

By Walter Chandoha, June 23, 2008

The first few times I took pictures with a single-use camera, I knew the camera would make color images, but I wondered how good they would be. As a professional photographer for more than 30 years, I've been using nothing but top-of-the-line cameras: Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, Mamiya 67, Leica, Nikon, Graflex, Linhof, and even a big 8 x 20 view camera. So why would I deign to use a dinky camera with a plastic lens? Because it produces good pictures quickly and effortlessly.

I found it inconceivable that a $10 throwaway camera (the photo industry prefers the term single-use) could make worthwhile pictures. I categorized such cameras as toys. Then I discovered how good these cameras are.

One year, I decided to take a real vacation in Puerto Rico. By real vacation, I mean lots of relaxing and no photography. To avoid temptation, I left all of my cameras at home.

The no-photography rule lasted for about three days. I visited many magnificent tropical gardens in Puerto Rico and was dismayed that I couldn't make pictures. At one garden, I saw a photographer alternately using an expensive Canon and a cheap throwaway. He said it was the easiest way to get prints (he used the Canon for slides only). I quickly drove to a discount store, where I bought some single-use cameras. I was so pleased with the quality of the pictures from that trip that I now use both kinds -- the single-use cameras for prints and the expensive ones for slides.

Single-Use Camera Specs

According to experts at Eastman Kodak (the makers of the camera I use), the aperture is f/11 and the shutter speed is 1/100th second. The lens focal length is 32.8 mm, which is a wider angle than the standard 50 mm on the average single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. (The closest you can get with a disposable camera and still get a sharp picture is 4 feet--so don't use a throwaway to try a full-frame close-up of a flower.) Several manufacturers make these cameras, and supermarkets and pharmacies often sell generic ones. They are available with and without an electronic flash that's effective to 15 feet, and they're preloaded with 27 exposures of 400- or 800-speed color print film. You can also buy a single-use camera loaded with 400-speed black-and-white film, as well as a disposable panoramic color camera.

When the film is finished, take the entire camera to a 1-hour developing lab (unless you specify otherwise, black-and-white film will be developed in color chemicals that create a sepia or other tint on the print). The $8 to $15 price of the camera does not include film processing ($4 to $8). The total cost for pictures from these cameras, therefore, is two to three times the cost of conventional film with a camera you already own. But it may be worth the extra cost, considering their convenience.

Eight Tricks of the Trade

After 30 years and thousands of rolls of film, I've learned how to shoot good garden photographs. Whether you use a single-use camera or a $2,000 import, here's how to make better garden photographs.

1. Divide scenes into thirds. Visualize a tic-tac-toe pattern in the camera's viewfinder, then divide the scene into thirds vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. If you see an important element you want in the picture, place it at one of the four points where the imaginary lines cross, but not in the center box of the grid. This division of thirds is a basic rule of good composition.

2. Keep the camera steady. Camera movement causes blurry photographs more often than faulty focus does. With a lightweight camera with a 1/100th-second shutter speed, you have to be especially careful when pressing the exposure button to avoid jiggling the camera. Turn your head to the side, hold the camera tightly against your cheek as you look through the viewfinder, and gently s-q-u-eee-ze off a shot. For clearest shots, a camera should be tripod-mounted, but with disposable cameras, use your feet as a bipod: Spread them comfortably apart, keep your elbows tucked against your ribs, and hold your breath.

3. Eliminate distractions. Before taking a photo, look for and eliminate distracting elements in the picture area -- a discarded flower pot, a garden hose, a dead branch or flower, an empty seed packet, a tool. I call this preexposure operation -- cleaning up the viewfinder. Let your eye roam all over the area in the viewfinder -- to the sides, in front of, and beyond the point of interest -- and if anything isn't harmonious, eliminate it or change your vantage point.

4. Look for different vantage points. Look at the same scene from different angles. Get down on the ground and look up, climb a tree, or look at the scene from an upstairs window. Move to the left or right. One vantage point will be better than others. If the scene isn't quite right, don't shoot until you find the best location.

5. Avoid bright, midday sunlight. Don't make pictures in bright sunlight in the middle of the day. The light is too harsh and will create unattractive contrasts and shadows. Shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon to take advantage of low, side-slanting light. You'll get better garden photographs on a completely cloudy day or when the sun is diffused with a slight cloud cover. If you must shoot on a sunny day, look for shaded subjects. Be alert for mist or fog -- these can enhance a scene and make for outstanding pictures.

6. Isolate your subject. To keep backgrounds unobtrusive and uncluttered, and to emphasize your subject, isolate it against the earth, the sky, the side of a structure, a solid mass of foliage of a hedge or big shrub, or an expanse of lawn.

7. Keep it simple. Don't try to include the whole world in your picture. Move in to 8 to 15 feet and concentrate on one or two components in the scene. Good garden photography is a subtractive process: eliminate nonessentials. Get close, but no closer than 4 feet.

8. Include focal points. Look for points of interest, and build your picture around them. They could be walls or walks, fences or arbors, sculptures or sundials. Some of the best focal points are striking plants. Again, simplify. Concentrate on one or two elements.

Other Reasons to Use a Single-Use Camera

Use the camera to create a notebook. When tulips and daffodils are in bloom, take a picture to mark their location. In the fall, look at the pictures when you're planting perennials, and you won't accidentally dig up the bulbs because you'd forgotten where they were planted. Make pictures every week to document the garden's progress; that will be helpful to fill nonblooming gaps and eliminate adjacent but conflicting colors.

Enter photography contests. After you make some outstanding garden pictures, enter the best ones in a photo contest. Check magazines, garden catalogs, and newspapers for information. Prizes in most contests are modest, but some award $500 or even $1,000. That prize money will buy many rare and not-so-rare plants! But apart from prizes, think how satisfying it will be to have a garden in bloom forever -- in pictures.

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