THE ANNUAL VEGETABLE garden is, by nature, an ephemeral wonder. Raised beds fill slowly with greenery in the spring, overflow with chaos during the summer and die back to withered vines by late fall. Even gardeners who plant tomatoes every spring find it miraculous how 7-inch-tall seedlings in May can result in 7-foot-tall shrubs by July.
Indeed, mid- to late July is the perfect time to appreciate the full, strapping beauty of the annual garden. During this period, many crops are at their full size, but not yet exhausted. They look so healthy and vigorous, it’s almost impossible to look the other way. If only we had some sort of technology that could help us capture the beauty of this moment …
Actually, I’d wager that most of you technophiles already own some sort of image-forming device. So, grab your camera and charge up the battery, because it’s time to start a new artistic journey: photographing the annual vegetable garden.
To help get us started, I tracked down Hilary Dahl, one of Seattle’s premier garden photographers. I asked her how to make the most of this endearingly short summer photography window.
Q: Why is July a good time to photograph the annual garden?
A: Although annual crops have different life spans, in late July, many are at their peak. There will be healthy foliage, different textures and infinite shades of green. Fruiting crops like tomatoes, squash and beans will be in bloom. It just seems to be the perfect moment between a garden of young transplants and a garden of vines snapped and twisted by loads of heavy fruit.
Q: What time of day works best for garden photography?
A: The most dramatic light is usually very early in the morning or late in the evening. Due to our long summer days, the sun can already be overhead and glaring by 7 a.m. To capture early-morning light, you want to be outside ready to shoot at 5 or 5:30 a.m. In midsummer, it can be challenging to shoot in the middle of the day if there are no clouds, because the light is so intense. However, a little bit of cloud cover will diffuse the sunlight, making midday shots much easier and more effective. Fortunately, if you are creative, there are shots available any time of day.
Q: Do you have other tips for managing challenging light situations?
A: If the garden is backlit, don’t try to take a full garden photo. Instead, take photos of a specific plant or leaf. If you narrow your focus to a small section of the garden, it is usually possible to find an area with just the right amount of light for a beautiful image. Even in summer, we have a lot of days that start with a few hours of cloud cover. Take advantage of these conditions to take photos of the full garden or landscape. At these times, you can get more definition between colors and textures across the entire space.
Q: How do you compose an effective photograph?
A: There are infinite ways to compose an image, but here are a few good places to start:
• Use the rule of thirds. The heart of this idea is not centering the photo on the primary subject. Instead, put the main focus either one-third to the left or right of center. This often creates a more compelling composition.
• Find a distinct vanishing point. Arrange the image so that there is a line such as a pathway or edge of a raised bed that disappears at the back of the shot. This will lead your eye through the photo as if you are actually walking through the space.
• Provide context. Have something in the foreground or background that is out of focus. For example, if shooting a row of beets, try setting the depth of field so that part of the row is in focus and part of it is blurry. A shot like this can make you feel like you are right down in the garden bed looking at bug’s-eye view.
Q: How do you prepare the area for a shoot?
A: Make sure you do a walk-through of the garden, and pick up random debris. You’d be surprised how a stray glove or broken branch can distract from the composition of your photo. Weed your garden paths, and rake them smooth. You can remove yellowing, damaged leaves or anything that might distract from the goal of your photo.
Another great way to prepare your space is to include props. While probably not technically a prop, try to include people in your photos. This helps tell the story of the garden. People can be harvesting, weeding, planting or just hanging out in the space. Wildlife, garden tools or harvested vegetables can also help tell your story.
Q: Do you photograph the garden throughout the rest of the season?
A: There are always interesting things to photograph in the garden. In fact, taking photos during the slower times of year actually gives you an excuse to go poke around and see what is happening. Also, if you photograph the garden regularly through the season, you can look back and have a visual record of where crops were placed, what time of year they started producing. This can help you plan crop rotations and remember how certain plants performed.