One of the ways I like to photograph flowers is to light them from behind. It brings out the translucent nature of the petals, allows the colour to glow, and shows up details that you wouldn’t see under normal front-lighting.
In the photograph of the yellow tulip above, I wanted to show the delicate lines of the veins in the petals. Without the back-lighting, they would have been pretty much invisible, but here, with the light coming through the petals, they are much easier to see.
The layering of the petals where they overlap one another creates areas of varying shade and this helps to give emphasis to the petals’ curving shapes. It also creates variations within the yellow of the tulip – more interesting, I think, than the flatter tones I’d have got if I had just lit the flower from the front.
While the yellow tulip was photographed to give a realistic image, the green clematis above has had its colour exaggerated by the lighting and it was then saturated a bit more in Photoshop. If the flower petals are thick enough, the light from behind can make the colour appear richer. However, if you give this technique a try, you’ll find that the results will vary with the strength of the light coming through the petals and how much the petals themselves allow light to pass through. If you use a flower with very thin petals, the colour may become much lighter and you could instead create an image with very soft, delicate colours – a lovely effect.
I can’t remember the name of the clematis below (this one grew in my garden in Scotland), but I hope I’ll find the same one again because these pinky-purply shades are among my favourite colours.
In this photograph, the petals on the left-hand side have the light coming through them from behind but the right-hand petals are lit from the front. That was because I wanted to light the centre of the flower to capture the detail there. As a result, the veins of the petals on the left show up very clearly, but the petals on the right have a much more solid appearance and you can see the slight magenta marking on the petal’s midrib.
A set-up like this is very easy to do if you can find a lightbox of the kind that’s used for viewing slides and negatives. These boxes have a translucent ‘opal’ top surface with daylight-balanced light tubes behind. All you have to do is lay your flowers on top and add some soft light to the front of the flower if you want to show the detail of the stamens etc. (Otherwise they would be likely to be in silhouette.) For the frontal lighting, you need to make sure that it isn’t too strong, otherwise it would drown the effect of the back-lighting. Soft, overcast light from a window would be the easiest thing to try.
If you try this back-lighting technique, remember to check that the light isn’t making your flowers hot and wilting them. You can always take them away from the lights in between shots, even give them a rest in some water for a while.
Comments are always very welcome – please feel free to add yours!
Sometimes I prefer the look of a photograph that has been converted to black and white, rather than the original colour version. And it can be even better if it has had some ‘toning’ added in Photoshop.
So why should that be? For some photographs, it may simply be that the original colours don’t work well together – as with the ‘Spider Lily’ above. The flower was growing in front of our house, which is painted ‘Suffolk Pink’. I didn’t like the pink wall as a background because it distracted from the flower too much.
Converting the picture to plain black and white got rid of the distraction but the result wasn’t terribly exciting, so the colour tones were added to create a bit of extra interest. This has given a look very like a cyanotype print which has been toned in tea. (Does that sound odd? Ordinary tea makes a great toner for cyanotype prints – takes the harshness out of the blue and turns the white paper a soft cream/brown shade.)
Other photographs may benefit from simplification. With the ‘Crown Imperials’ above, I was attracted by the lines of the veins on the petals, and to a lesser extent, by the way the curve of one of the leaves at the top echoes the curve of the petals below it. But in the original, the orange of the flower and the green leaves that contrasted with it competed too much for attention. Here, with the image as a monochrome, your eye can more easily follow the lines along the petals.
Both of the photographs below worked well in colour but the blue and brown duotone of the agapanthus and the warm pinky-brown monochrome of the astrantia give the images a new life. They have become something entirely different from the photographs I started with. (You can see the original colour photograph of the astrantia here. )
I think that the toned versions of the photographs work because their subjects no longer look as they do in nature. Without their normal colouring, the flowers are somehow unfamiliar. Because of this, they are able to be seen in a different way. Now there is a possibility that you may notice new details or simply react with feelings that the original colour versions wouldn’t have inspired.
It’s very satisfying to experiment with photographs in this way. There can be a restfulness, even an elegance, to the restricted colours in the final image.
If you fancy trying this on your own photographs, you’ll find that it’s not hard to do if you have an image-editing program. Photoshop, for instance, allows you to convert the photograph to black and white. You can then alter the colour in any way you like, using the ‘Colour Balance’ adjustment on the shadows, midtones and highlights or you can try the more complex controls available in the ‘Curves’ commands. (I should think that there are other possibilities with newer versions of Photoshop than mine.) And, of course, there are many other monochrome effects out there that you can try. You could have hours of fun with these!
I’m lucky that East Anglia has some great gardens to visit. Last weekend there was the chance to get over to the Fullers Mill Garden near Bury St Edmunds, before it closes for the season. (It’s open from the start of April until the end of September every year.)
The garden is entered by a narrow lane that passes through the edge of the ‘Kings Forest’, Forestry Commission woodland at West Stow. So as soon as you arrive, you are surrounded by the sound of the wind rushing in the trees. This changes when you get right into the garden and arrive at Fullers Mill Cottage – now the sound you will hear is the River Lark forcing itself through a narrow weir before it spreads out again and becomes calmer on its journey through the garden.
As you continue into the garden, the sounds from the forest and the weir recede and you’re surrounded by a feeling of tranquility and calm. Even when the garden is full of visitors, you can find a quiet spot just for yourself. (And if you’re lucky, it might just happen to have one of the benches that are dotted around the garden.)
The original garden at Fullers Mill was small when the creator of the garden, Bernard Tickner and his wife Bess bought the cottage in 1958. Over a period of more than 50 years, Bernard was able to gradually buy land from the Forestry Commission and turn it from rough ground into a garden filled with a vast collection of plants, many of them uncommon and unusual.
The first area to be developed was the ‘Low Garden’ (Photographs above and below). The terraces here are full of flowering bulbs in spring, and in summer there are the beautiful flowers of the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum.
Bernard said that his ‘gardening heroine’ was Beth Chatto and reckoned that there was a similarity in the way both gardens grew and developed over time. The gardens now cover seven acres and offer a wide variety of planting conditions. While the Low Garden has a mix of shady and sunny areas that suit woodland plants and lilies, the Top Garden has poor soil and dry conditions, so is much better suited to Mediterranean plants. Moisture loving plants are happy around the mill pond and along the river and stream banks. (The garden has both the River Lark and the Culford Stream running through it.) There are open areas too, so sun-loving plants can also be found a suitable home.
One of the great things about having such a wide range of growing conditions is the sheer variety of plants that can be grown. I was amazed by the huge number of different trees, shrubs and perennials growing here. It made me wish that I had a better knowledge of plants and could recognise more of what I saw. I suspect that even then, I’d still find that there were a lot of rare or unusual cultivars here that I didn’t know.
For me, the wonderful collection of plants was an opportunity to take lots (and lots!) of photographs. I could easily spend days in this garden and still find that I wanted even more time for photographing the plants. (My husband did have some difficulty in getting me to leave the garden. Next time, maybe he’ll just leave me there!)
Despite the fact that there are large collections of plants (around 70 or more euphorbias and the same number of lilies and snowdrops are just a few of these), the garden is designed to be in sympathy with the character of its site. The river and stream areas are allowed to keep a fairly natural, informal look and the planting in the woodland areas feels very appropriate – somehow very ‘comfortable’ there. This is the sort of garden that I love. (I’m much less keen on formal gardens and have never come to like topiary or parterres – or even box edging.) Overall, the feel of the garden is unfussy and relaxed, and extremely welcoming.
In 2013 Fullers Mill Garden was gifted to Perennial, The Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society to ensure its future and keep it open for visitors to enjoy. Bernard remained involved with his garden right throughout his later years. (He died last year, at the age of 93.) In a radio interview when he was almost 90, Bernard said that he didn’t believe a garden was ever finished. ‘I’m still buying plants, much to Annie, the head gardener’s distress, because then she’s got to find a spot for them. And I say, ”You can find somewhere Annie, to fit those in”. And she does eventually…it may take a little while.’
You can hear the radio interview with Bernard Tickner here. It’s easy to hear, from listening to him talk, how much he loved the garden at Fullers Mill and how how happy it (and gardening) made him. That happiness is something that the visitors to the garden can’t help but share. It’s a delight to stroll around the peaceful grounds along the banks of the river and stream, to walk under the trees and to discover all the wonderful plants tucked into every corner of the garden.
Fullers Mill Garden is now looked after by head gardener, Annie Dellbridge and her team of gardeners and volunteers. They tend the garden with obvious loving care and make visitors very welcome. (The garden is open from the start of April to the end of September, on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can find full details on their website here.)
I fell in love with this garden and I know I’ll be back for several visits next year. And I even managed to bring a little bit of it home with me by buying a couple of white Japanese anemones and an aster, ‘Les Moutiers’.
Bernard Tickner said he liked the idea of buying a plant raised in a garden as a memento of it. But then, he was a man thoroughly in love with plants. I’ll give him the last word here, because it’s something I feel too (and I do hope he’s right!): ‘I love plants. Once you’ve got the ”disease”, you’ve got it for life. It doesn’t ever desert you.’
There’s been a change in the last week or so. Early mornings have been misty and daytime temperatures have dropped enough to make it feel like time to put the summer clothes away. (Though after the extremely hot days we’ve had this summer, anything ‘normal’ will feel very cool.)
We’re no longer woken by the light in the early hours of the morning and the evenings suddenly feel darker.
I love the beauty of autumn – the changing colours and (especially) the softer light that it brings. It’s a light that has lost the harsh glare of summer, making it much better for photography.
Even so, I always feel a slight melancholy at the ending of summer. It’s something I’ve felt since childhood. I was brought up in Caithness, the ‘far north’ of Scotland, where it seemed to hardly get dark at all on summer nights. That, coupled with the long school holidays created a marvellous feeling of freedom and unlimited time. (And the windy winter days, when darkness would fall by about 4 pm were, by contrast, something to dread.)
Now, as a keen gardener, it’s not just the leisure of summer that I miss, but all of its plants and flowers too. I miss watching new leaves unfurling and buds fattening up and showing that first little sliver of colour before they pop open and reveal their glorious petals…..but this year is different. Because I can see that I need to be more positive and enjoy the moment rather than regretting the fact that summer is ending. Instead, it is time to plan for next year and to do the work that was impossible in summer. (Right now that means digging. A lot of it. The hot weather meant that the ground became rock hard and my plans to dig a pond and new borders have been put off until this last couple of weeks. It’s amazing how much easier a drop of rain makes the work!)
Of course, new borders means new plants too. The fun part! And time to indulge in a bit of fantasy…. That’s where the photo at the top comes in. I saw the acidanthera in a garden last September and was impressed by how graceful they looked. (Much taller than I expected too.) So now I’m imagining how lovely they would look reflected in the planned pond and thinking what else might look good on that side of the garden – particularly if it’s a plant that looks good now and helps to extend the life of the border later into the year. (My overall plan is to have a garden with plenty to photograph for as much of the year as possible.)
The white hibiscus was in a garden I visited a few weeks ago. It has a simple elegance which I think would look good if I keep the planting around the pond fairly unfussy. (And I already have a couple of other hibiscus bushes in the garden which still have some flowers, so there’s a decent length of flowering period.) The white hibiscus with red markings (below) would echo the colouring of the acidanthera but would be a bit much if planted close to them and could look too fussy in the pond area.
Other flowers that could look good planted in my imaginary (so far!) border would be white gaura, with it’s flowers that look like dancing little moths or tiny butterflies and the dark buttons of the tall red scabious that already seeds itself around my garden.
My mother would never have approved of this white and red border – she always said the two colours should never be used together for cut flowers because it was unlucky. (The colours suggest blood and bandages, apparently.) And this was from someone who denied that she was the slightest bit superstitious…hmm. (Anyway, a real border would have other colours too – not sure what yet.)
It’s quite fun to design a fantasy border, and to finish with, I can’t resist adding a clematis to the mix. (They’re one of my favourites and I find them very hard to walk past in the garden centres. This one is in my garden already and it’s called ‘Ville de Lyon’.)
If you have any suggestions for planting to go around my pond and the border behind it, please do add them in the comments. I’m happy to gather as many ideas as possible because the pond and border will be a reality next year – I’m digging them at the moment!
I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy visiting other people’s gardens. They’re a great source of both pleasure and inspiration. One of my favourites to visit is the lovely garden created by the late Beth Chatto at Elmstead Market in Essex.
Fortunately for me, I live in the neighbouring county (Suffolk) and I’ve been able to visit the Beth Chatto Garden many times over recent years. But my first visit to the garden was much earlier, while I was still living in Scotland. At the time I was still fairly new to gardening and Mrs Chatto’s book, ‘The Green Tapestry’ had just come out. The book soon became one of my most relied-on sources of information about how to create a garden, so it was a great treat to actually be able to visit the garden that had inspired it.
As you walk into the main part of the gardens, your eye is caught by a series of four large ponds that form the impressive centrepiece of the garden. The water-garden was created to take advantage of water coming from a natural spring and to solve the problem of what would otherwise be heavy, waterlogged ground. The results are beautiful and invite you to wander and linger or just have a seat on one of the benches and relax.
It was late spring when we visited and there was new growth everywhere. The garden changes a lot with the seasons and can be dramatically different when the plants have grown to their full size later in the year. Our previous visit had been last autumn, so this felt like quite a contrast, with everything very fresh and green and full of promise for the summer.
Many of the plants here are familiar to me from Scottish gardens – candelabra primulas, gunnera and ferns particularly – but sadly they won’t grow well in my own very hot and dry garden. (One of the things I learned through reading Beth Chatto’s books was the importance of choosing the right plant for the situation. I’m afraid I condemned a few plants to a slow death by putting them in entirely the wrong place in my earlier gardening days!)
The planting in the garden is a delight. I love to see the way texture and shape are contrasted (as in the photo above). Actually, I’d really like to grow Arum italicum ‘Pictum’ in my own garden because the lines on the leaves make it a great subject for black and white photographs. (The wild arum keeps popping up here, so it should do well enough.)
Our visit to the Beth Chatto Garden was partly prompted by wanting to get ideas for making a pond in our own garden. (OK, so our pond will be absolutely tiny in comparison, but you might as well look for inspiration from the best!) And there’s a nursery at the garden, so inspiration can easily turn into a few plants to take home with you…
Of course, there are plenty of familiar plants that I can (and do) grow, like the alliums, camassia and forget-me-nots in the border above. And then there’s the plants that I could grow when I lived in Scotland, like the rhododendron below. (Ah, now I really wish I could grow that here!)
The gardens have far more than I can possibly describe here. There appears to be just about any habitat that you can think of – water garden, woodland, shady areas and the sunny scree beds. And then there’s the famous gravel garden with its drought-tolerant planting – it has been a great source of inspiration for our own very dry garden. It’s a garden that I feel I can thoroughly recommend to anyone visiting this area, at any time of year. There’s a nursery and a good tearoom too, so you can easily spend a few hours here.
As you will probably know if you read gardening papers or magazines, Beth Chatto passed away in May this year, aged 94. She has been an inspiration to many and I know that a lot of my own enthusiasm for gardening has come from reading her books. I feel that her legacy is not just in the beautiful gardens that she has created, but also in the love of plants and the understanding and knowledge of them that she has shared with other gardeners.