The Wakehurst blues (and oranges)
‘I must hire someone else to do this kind of thing’ I thought as I stood at the side of the road in the pouring rain, unfashionably early for a 7.30 am meet up with Jason and the boys who were to install the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Wakehurst. Everyone else - quite sensibly as it happens - turned up at quarter past eight. As the rain eased I had plenty of time to contemplate the key issues of the day: what is the point of intermittent windscreen wipers? Can you get a half-full English breakfast? But in between musings I looked around at the marvelous trees at Wakehurst and noticed the early transformations in colour as the leaves begin to turn.
In these northern latitudes, photographers are blessed with some of the best visual conditions of the year during autumn. The sun is low and creates drama and depth in any scene. The early morning flowers and leaves are laced with dewy cobwebs – very romantic and the stuff of competition-winning photography.
Many of us go to foliage colour for our inspiration. The yellows, oranges and reds – maybe set against a bright blue autumn sky – the big, bold graphic shapes of leaves – the Acer, Liquidamber, the wonderful Tulip tree. The gardens at Wakehurst have one of the best shows of autumn foliage in the UK. And this year in International Garden Photographer of the Year we have a special ‘Best Image of Wakehurst’ award.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) by Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 28mm lens.
What our eyes see and what our camera sees
One of the problems we have in photographing these trees is that often, they are so big and spectacular in real life, in the little rectangle of our camera image they look a lot more puny - stripped of their grandeur and vivid spectacle. One of the reasons for this is that our brain – thankfully – is a lot more subtle than the camera sensor. When we look at a scene with our eyes, we edit out what we don’t want to see and we fill in visual gaps with our imagination.
Our brain says: “Wow! What a big tree that is and how colourful and wonderful the individual leaves are. I am going to fit the whole thing in the frame and I will get a really spectacular image.”
Our camera says: “Wow, what a perfectly normal-sized tree when compared with the surrounding objects which I am going to give equal importance to in my picture. And what quite ordinary leaves they are since I can only see them from a distance as a disorganised clump. I am going to register everything I see without emphasising any one element and I will get a really ordinary image.”
Where the photographer steps in
We must tell the eyes, to tell the brain, to tell the camera to get its act together and to help us communicate what we are seeing. But before telling the camera what to do, it’s vital that your eyes get involved. They are the leaders, the generalissimos, of this process.
Walk around a tree checking it out from all angles. Some views will be better than others. Look what’s happening in the background. Spend time and thoughtfulness doing this. Walk up to the tree. Look at the bark. Look out from under the leaf canopy. Look up, look down. Look at the leaves close up and from further away. Look at groups of leaves against the sky. Look at the roots along the ground. Do you still want to get the whole tree in the frame? Have you got three or four closer or more unusual views that will help you communicate your enjoyment of this tree?
Euonymous alatus 'compacta' by Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 105mm lens.
Now your eyes have told the brain to tell the camera what to do. You know you want a wide angle shot. Or you want shallow depth of field. Or you want a long shutter speed to blur movement. Or you might need a blip of fill-in flash because you want to do a backlit shot, and want to keep detail in the foreground.
Handle colour with care. The colours at this time of year can be so vivid it’s tempting to saturate them even further when you get them onto the computer. If you’re shooting jpeg, there’s a chance your camera will ‘overcook’ (technical term) your images to start off, with much too vivid colour. It is better to shoot RAW and then use RAW processing to control the delicate range of shades and not hit the viewer between the eyes with reds and oranges.
Visit the exhibition
The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition is now up and running at Wakehurst, and will be there until mid-January. If you're visiting, make sure to head for the Mansion House to see it.
You’ll be pleased to know that I did eventually dry out after my day at Wakehurt too. Back at home, the entries for the ‘Trees’ and ‘Autumn Shapes’ category of the competition are rolling in – will you be a winner this year? A trip to Wakehurst before the end of November might set you up well.
I will also be signing my book at Wakehurst on October 30 and 31 - do come and say hello!
- Philip -