Tricky Manoeuvres: Hellebore Photography

I’ve been waiting for a chance to take photographs of these hellebores for a while. At last the weather has become calmer. The wind has died down again and there have even been a few dry spells.

It felt good to get back outside into the garden with my camera and I was relieved to see that the rough weather hadn’t harmed the flowers.

But actually getting into a good position to photograph them was going to be a bit tricky. At the best of times it can be awkward to get close enough to low-growing plants, especially when the ground has become too much of a swampy mess to kneel on. Hellebores make it even more difficult by insisting on hanging their beautiful little heads down. You have to practically get to worm’s eye-level if you want to see them.

Luckily for me, there was a stack of bags of compost nearby and I was able to drag one over and lie down on it to get my photographs. Having one elbow firmly wedged against a big plant pot helped to make sure that I didn’t take a nose-dive into the mud.

All this makes me realise that I may have to change the arrangement of some of the garden borders. Far too many of the smaller plants are positioned quite far into the border, so that you really need to get right into the border to photograph them. Without standing on the other plants. Or getting jabbed by something prickly. Or even sitting down unexpectedly in the mud! Hmm, this may need a bit of thought…

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Late Winter Colour: Primulas

By the time you’re reading this, the garden here will probably be under attack from gale force winds and heavy rain as storm Ciara passes through.

During this sort of gardener-unfriendly weather, I’m very happy to be able to stay inside, working in the comfort of my tiny studio space. So I am always on the lookout for flowers that lend themselves to indoor photography. For this, primulas are very obliging.

Primulas are easily available at this time of year in a great variety of colours and markings. They don’t cost much to buy and the flowers, once picked for the studio, last well in water.

Primulas-4564

To be able to photograph such short-stemmed flowers, I have a collection of very small containers that act as mini vases. The top photo has a square recycled-glass bottle that is only 2 inches high – just the right size for very small flowers. The container in the other photos is probably an old eye-wash glass and it’s wide enough for several flowers.

Other useful ‘vases’ for short-stemmed flowers include vintage ink bottles, candle and tealight holders and shot glasses. It’s been fun shopping for these in junk shops and vintage stalls – you never know what you’ll find that will help to make a good photograph.

Now that the primulas have been photographed, I must decide where to plant them. They somehow look a bit formal and perhaps too showy for most areas of the back garden (which is now developing a more ‘natural’ look), so they’ll probably be planted in the front garden. Sadly, it seems that these highly-bred primulas are not useful to bees so I won’t be buying many of them. (Instead I could buy the yellow-flowered Primula vulgaris, which is native to the UK and is a good plant for bees, butterflies and moths.)

I hope you enjoy this little bit of cheery colour!

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Indoor Photography: Flowers with Studio Flash

During the winter I’m glad to be able to photograph plants indoors. It feels good to be able to stay warm and dry! And life is much easier when there’s no need to worry about the flower you’re trying to photograph waving around in the wind.

More importantly, taking photos indoors means that there is plenty of light available to me. I have a very small studio space set up in the house, complete with flash lighting, which allows me to be busy taking photographs at any time of day.

Cyclamen-4197
I wanted the light to catch all the little crinkles and curled edges on the petals of the flower.

The photographs here were taken with a very simple setup. The white background is created using a small ‘light table’, which is basically a piece of translucent white plastic which is curved into an ‘L’ shape on a metal support. This gives a base and background that is lit with flash strobes both from behind and from below. These are adjusted to give an evenly lit bright white background to the photo.

The flower itself is lit with a flash fired through a white translucent brolly and a reflector at the side to provide a little bit of light to soften shadows. I like using this particular arrangement because it gives a slightly ‘harder’ light than the softbox that I’ve used for previous photos on this blog. This helps to bring out the shapes within the flower and gives a feeling of depth.

Cyclamen-4155
The shadows help to give a sense of the shape of this cyclamen.

Having the flash pretty much to one side of the flower means that shadows can form in the ripples on the petals. If you look at the photograph below, you can see that there is a slight shine to the area at the centre of the flower, on the left side. This shows where the light is coming from. (More or less at a 45 degree angle, slightly higher than the flower and only just in front of it.)

If there wasn’t a reflector (a silver-coloured disc) at the right side, that side would be in shadow. The reflector is just enough to lighten heavy shadows without removing the shadows entirely, so you’re able to see the flowing shapes of the petals.

Digital photography has made using studio lighting far easier than it was with film cameras. (For years I used film, and I tended to stick with safe setups that I new would work.) Experimenting is easy when you can see the results straight away and you can soon find what happens when you move the lights around.

So when the weather’s turned miserable, I’m quite happy to be indoors, so long as I can find something to photograph…

Cyclamen-4259
The petals seem to swirl around this little flower, almost as if they’re floating.

Natural Sparkle

Because it’s almost Christmas, I thought I’d post some slightly sparkly frost photographs. They go to show that nature can be festive when she likes!

Last Christmas, I woke up to a frosty morning and was able to get outside and spend a bit of time taking photographs of a softly shimmering world.

This year we had a cold period much earlier in the month and I took these photographs then. I don’t think I’ll be outside taking photos this year because the forecast is not promising any frost or snow. (I’ll have a lazy morning inside!)

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Fennel seed head

Seed heads are among the most promising of garden subjects to photograph when they are decorated with ice crystals. For this reason, I don’t cut plants back at the end of autumn. (And, more importantly, really, it gives a better habitat for wildlife and a supply of seeds as food for birds.)

There are several seed heads that I particularly want to stay intact until the frost arrives – agapanthus, fennel, allium and daucus (wild carrot) – because they have the most interesting structures and look at their best when frosted.

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Allium seed head

The arrival of frost is one of the times I most enjoy garden photography. With luck, there will be a moment when the sun comes out. Then the frost will glitter and shine, making the garden come alive with exciting new images to photograph. Plants that may have looked quite ordinary before (like the hydrangea below) suddenly acquire a radiance  that makes them irresistible to me and my camera.

I wish you a joyful Christmas, full of fun and sparkle!

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Climbing hydrangea

Frost-Magic

The frost has been back again, giving us some chilly but sparkling mornings. I’ve been grateful to see it because we’ve reached the stage of the year when there are few flowers or plants left to photograph.

Stalking around the garden, camera in hand, I’m usually on the lookout for images that are only made possible because of the frost: veins on a leaf picked out in white, petal edges encrusted as if they’ve been dipped in sugar, or tiny crystals of ice building up on frozen plant surfaces.

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Tiny, frozen winter jasmine flowers with ice crystals building up on them.

The shady areas of the garden retain the most frost, and that shade can give a slightly blue tint to the white, which creates an even colder appearance. The lack of light makes it hard to get much depth of field in the photographs, even at fairly high ISO values. (I could use my tripod, but it’s much too cold to stand around for long and my feet feel warmer if I keep moving around.)

As the sunlight gradually starts to seep into the garden, I look for places where the frost has begun to sparkle in the sun. There won’t be much time before the frost begins to disappear as it warms up. This means I have to work quickly to capture the images that have attracted my eye.

Frosted Hydrangea-3967
This climbing hydrangea is in one of the coldest parts of the garden, shaded by the fence and a tree.

Eventually I’m either too cold to stay out any longer or the frost has started to melt and drip off the wet plants. So it’s time to head indoors, first wrapping my camera in a large plastic bag to protect it from getting covered in condensation in the warmer air. (Outside, it’s all to easy to let the viewfinder get steamed up by my own breath – a frustrating interruption to taking the photographs!)

Once indoors, it’s time for a well-earned mug of coffee and a chance to get warm again while looking to see what new photographs I have. Frosty mornings can be productive and very satisfying!

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The frost on this fig leaf will soon be gone, now that the sun has reached it.

Frozen Flowers

On Monday we had the first frost of the year. Up until then, the weather had been mild and wet, so it felt as if it had come suddenly. There were still a few flowers in the garden, lasting much later than you might expect. And, of course, they were caught by the frost.

As you may imagine, this meant that I had a busy morning padding about the frozen garden with camera in hand.

Now that the plants are beginning to die back for winter, there’s not much left to photograph, so the intricate effects of frost give an opportunity that’s too good to miss. I took as many photographs as I could before the sun melted it all away. (And there will be more in later posts…)

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A passionflower bud, caught by the frost.

The echinacea flower (PowWow White) was frozen through, and this has enhanced the green tinge to the ends of the petals. The emerging flowers start off pale green, with a vivid green cone, gradually maturing to a white flower with a golden-yellow cone.

This colour-change makes for more photographic potential. The plant is a new addition to the garden and I’m looking forward to following its progress with my camera during the next year.

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Frosted penstemon ‘Raven’ – hope it can cope with the cold!

The passionflower is ‘Constance Elliot’, which I wrote about here. It was planted just last year and has flowered well during the late summer. The bud seems to have escaped any serious damage from the frost and the plant’s leaves are still firm and healthy-looking, so I reckon it hasn’t come to any harm. Even so, as it gets colder, I’ll protect the base of the plant with either mulch or frost-fleece.

If the winter gets really cold, I may also put fleece around the penstemons. I’ve lost a few of these in cold winters, but some varieties have gone on for years – especially ‘Garnet’, which seems to be hardier than most. (Pictured is ‘Raven’, which came through last year’s fairly mild winter easily. I hope it turns out to be thoroughly hardy too.)

The rose below is a tough old girl who doesn’t let anything bother her…’Zephirine Drouhin’, a rose that is both delightfully scented and thornless. This is probably my favourite plant in the whole garden. I’m glad that she doesn’t mind the frost!

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Rose ‘Zepherine Drouhin’, covered in frost now, but her flowers will perfume the air again next summer.

Passionflower Constance Elliot

Last year I wrote a post about passionflowers and said that I’d just planted the passionflower ‘Constance Elliot’ in the garden. I’m happy to tell you that it has come into flower for the first time. Hooray!

The flowers are smaller than those on the other two passionflowers I grow (‘caerulea’ and ‘Amethyst’) but that may be because the soil where it’s growing isn’t exactly wonderful. Luckily, passionflowers are drought-resistant, so the low rainfall here isn’t a problem.

The passionflower is now spreading itself comfortably around a vine-covered arbour and helps to create a shady sitting-place. (Very much needed this year!) The vine is in need of a good haircut, so it may be tricky to avoid cutting the passionflower by mistake. Passionflowers grow fast, but I want it to get well established so that it isn’t simply smothered by the grape-vine.

(And if you’re wondering, yes, we do get edible grapes growing in the garden here in Suffolk. But only just! They’d probably be sweeter if I knew how to prune and look after the vine properly – that’s a project for the near future.)

Passionflower Constance Elliot 2672
With its white petals and filaments, Constance Elliot is more subtle than Passiflora caerulea.

For the past week or two, I’ve been happily photographing the newly-emerging flowers. They don’t last long, so you need to be quick to catch a flower that’s still fresh. And, in this garden, you need to be especially fast to get to the flowers before slugs or snails can take greedy chomps out of them. (They sometimes eat my clematis flowers too – nothing more annoying than finding that the beautiful flower you wanted to photograph has suddenly got a big hole in it!)

The flowers photographed outside have a freshness and elegance, particularly where they have a background of lush green leaves. However, to get close to the detail of the flower, I picked one and brought it into my little studio.

The flower was set on a small ‘light-table’ that’s lit from below, with a soft light coming from above. This shows up the difference between the heavier sepals that provide the outer protection to the flower while it’s still in bud and the thinner, more translucent inner petals. You can see that there is quite a lot of green in the sepals – much more than you’d think when you see the flower growing outside.

Well, I’m going to go and take some more passionflower photos. And I’m hoping that ‘Constance Elliot’ will survive the next winter and provide more lovely flowers (and the opportunity for more photographs). You can see my earlier post about passionflowers here.

Passionflower Constance Elliot
Here you can see how translucent the inner petals are in comparison to the more solid outer sepals.

Elderflowers: Pink Fizz

Time moves fast in the garden. One moment a plant is in full flower and the next it’s covered in seedheads or berries.

This year especially, with so much new work to do in the garden, I’ve been finding it difficult to keep up with all of the plants and flowers that I want to photograph. Sometimes I leave a plant too long and then find that the flowers have gone over before I get near them with my camera.

A few days ago I realised that the flowers on our bronze elder were almost gone and I really didn’t want to have to wait a year to have another chance.

Having chosen one of the last few flowers, I decided to photograph it indoors. This was the easiest way to get a sharp image. It has been quite breezy here recently and it takes very little to make the elder’s long branches sway – so not much chance of being able to focus on the flowers!

Of course, I could have collected some of the flowers to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’. The flowers can even be fried in batter to make fritters. Or the flowers could be left to produce berries for making an elderberry syrup.

(The syrup really doesn’t appeal to me because the berries contain cyanide and other toxic substances. These are destroyed in cooking, but  I still wouldn’t fancy chancing it!)

Other parts of the elder tree also contain cyanide, which may be behind the superstitious belief that burning the wood is unlucky.

There are many old beliefs surrounding the elder tree. These are a strange, inconsistent mixture! One one hand, it was said that if you burned the wood, you would see the devil but on the other hand, having the elder planted near your house would keep the devil away.

In early times, the elder was thought to be a protection against witchcraft and evil spirits but by medieval times, it was reckoned to be both the wood used for Christ’s cross and the tree on which Judas hanged himself.

Well, there’s no confusion for me. I simply enjoy the pretty flowers while they last and the beautiful lace-like leaves and dark berries too.

Flowers of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'-2121
The tiny pink flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’ – and it will be pink!

In Evening Light

After a busy day, getting out into the garden for a while is wonderfully calming and restorative. The garden can look its best in the evening light too, when the low-angled light creates long shadows and shows up the textures of the plants. Colours come alive in this light, especially where the sun passes through flowers and leaves. (Just like sun coming through a stained-glass window.)

If I can, I like to spend some time in the garden at this time of day. Maybe I’ll do a bit of weeding or simply sit for a while. What I prefer to do, though, is to take my camera for a wander around the garden.

Yellow broom (Cytisus) flowers
Yellow broom (Cytisus) flowers gleam in the sun.

Late in the day, the light is warmer and yellower. (More of the blue in the light is absorbed by the atmosphere when it’s at this low angle.) It warms and intensifies the colours of flowers. Quite ordinary looking flowers like the broom above become much more appealing photographic subjects when the strong side-lighting shines through their petals and makes them glow.

In the apple blossom photograph below, you can see that the evening light has an attractive warming effect on the petals of the flowers. This brings associations of pleasant evenings spent outside and can conjure up thoughts of the summer to come, or past memories of time in the garden. Just with the difference of the colour in the light, you can give a photograph a little suggestion of emotion and make it a bit more than a straightforward record of the flower.

Blossom on a Braeburn apple tree.
Blossom on our Braeburn apple tree.

Because evening light creates excellent side-lighting that picks out the texture in petals and leaves, it makes them appear more 3-D. (Like the rather crinkly surface of the apple blossom petals and the hairy calyx behind them.) The shapes of flowers and details such as the stamens are also highlighted and the whole flower can be ‘spotlit’ in a way that helps to bring it out from its background.

Early morning light has the same beautiful low-angle effects as evening light but there’s rarely time to take an unhurried stroll around the garden at that time of day. (Not here anyway – there’s cats to be fed, humans to be fed and other distractions!) And as the dawn becomes earlier and summer approaches, it’s less likely that I’ll be out of bed to catch that very early light. (But doesn’t it feel quite heavenly to be up really, really early, when no-one else is around but the birds, and you have the whole world to yourself? I love it if I can manage it! Sadly, that’s not very often.)

So evening time is, for me, a time I look forward to with anticipation on clear days. And when I’m gardening, I try to place plants that are especially colourful, or that have delicate structures, where the late sun can make the most of them. That smoke bush in the top photograph was planted where the setting sun could shine through its deep red leaves. It makes the shrub seem as if it’s alight. It’s amazing what a little bit of evening sunlight can do!

Camassia leichtlinii
This Camassia is in the last area to catch the sun and for a little while the colours become richer.

Snake’s Heads and Crowns of Leaves: Fritillaries

Snake’s head  fritillaries and crown imperial fritillaries are strange-sounding names for very unusual plants. For a photographer, the flowers make an enticing subject and I was lucky enough to be able to take some pictures of them in my friend Judy’s beautiful garden. (Thanks, Judy – I had a lovely time!)

The snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) gets its name from the shape of the unopened flower bud – long and pointy at the tip – a bit like a viper’s head. It has other folk-names, according to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ (a fascinating book, worth dipping into if you happen to get the chance). These include crowcups, leper’s bells, sulky ladies, and frawcups (possibly derived from a place-name).

These fritillaries were recorded to be growing in gardens in the UK in 1578 but not recorded in the wild until 1736. Some say that this suggests they may not be native to the UK but, even so, they used to be seen in their thousands growing in damp meadows.  Sadly, as agriculture developed over time and land was drained and ‘improved’, they lost these habitats. There are still a few places where they can be found growing wild and, thankfully, they’re popular with gardeners, so they are still able to create a magical sight every spring.

Close-up of Fritillaria meleagris flower.
The markings on this fritillary look as if someone painted them on!

The tiny chequered markings on the snake’s head flowers are irresistible. They make me want to get as close as I can to photograph the flower, in an attempt to show how much they look as if they’ve been carefully painted on by hand. The graceful shape of the flower, with those almost umbrella-like ribs at the top adds to the attraction. (Doesn’t it look just as if the petals are fabric, stretching over the ribs that are holding it in shape? Umbrellas for the ‘wee folk’!) The way the bell of the flower hangs from its curving stem, with one or two long and slender leaves soaring up from it, completes a very elegant flower.

Yellow 'Crown Imperial' flowers. (Fritillaria imperialis.)
The crown imperial has an extraordinary top-knot of leaves!

The crown imperial fritillary is very different from its serpent-like sister. A dramatically long stem holds the bold cluster of flowers up high. Instead of the one or two leaves rising above the flowers, there is a generous top-knot of leaves, giving a very distinctive appearance. This ‘crown’ of arching leaves is said to have given the plant its name, due to its resemblance to the shape of an imperial crown. However, a competing claim suggests that the name derives from the plant having been grown in the Imperial Botanic Garden in Vienna after the plant was brought there from Persia in 1576.

Like the snake’s head fritillary, I wanted to be able to get close enough to the flower of the orange crown imperial to show the markings on its petals. (The veins on the petals of the yellow version are barely visible by comparison.) These darker veins create a strong pattern of lines that make the flower even more pleasing to photograph. These flowers are such star performers when you come to take their photograph, that I think I will need to try growing some fritillaries in my own garden.

Orange 'Crown Imperial' fritillaries. (Fritillaria imperialis.)
The prominent veins of these orange crown imperial flowers make them all the more striking.