The Glorious Garden

May 09, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my camera at the Chicago Botanic Garden - right up there at the top of my hit parade as far as favorite places go.  

At 385 acres, it's one of the largest botanic gardens in the United States: big, beautiful and meticulously maintained, it never fails to make me happy as soon as I step inside. I was especially looking forward to seeing the thousands of tulips I knew would be in bloom.

It's been a long, long time since I've been able to properly enjoy tulips. The intermountain west isn't exactly prolific tulip county, but neither was New Hampshire, at least where I lived. This might surprise you, given that the climate at sea level in New England is tulip-friendly. It surprised me, too. It certainly wasn't what I expected when I moved there. I learned the hard way, after having planted nearly 100 bulbs in one of my gardens and watching them completely disappear after a single season.

That's because tulip bulbs are delicious to the many critters which inhabit the omnipresent woods. I quickly understood why I didn't see many - if any - tulips decorating neighboring gardens. As for my beds, I waved the white flag after that first attempt and opted for plant material that was resistant to uninvited munching.

Feeling a bit starved for tulips after all these many years, I took advantage of the fact that I had some business to attend to in Chicago and scheduled the trip for late April.

The weather was a challenge: April showers are a real thing, after all. Arrival afternoon was a complete washout. I'll shoot in drizzle (actually quite favorable conditions in which to photograph flowers) but prefer to avoid heavy rain. 

Thunderstorms which moved through later that night gave way to mostly clear skies and persistently gusty winds the following day. Another not-so-ideal combination.

The final session at the Garden, though, was much better. It had rained again overnight and the morning dawned overcast, damp and chilly: the perfect ingredients for fog. 

As always, Mother Nature is the boss. Especially when traveling, expecting to "time" the conditions is a big ask - particularly things like bloom schedules or, in the autumn, peak foliage. As for the forecast, it is what it is. Photographers have two choices: let the camera sit idly in the bag, or figure out what kinds of images can be made given the particular conditions.

As long as you're willing to be patient and think creatively, opportunities will present themselves.

If I can find some type of story in the flowers, so much the better. That doesn't always happen, but following is one example of what I mean by that. I saw these two beautiful blooms standing cheek-to-cheek; they looked like they were devoted to one another. The heart which I saw in the red petals underscored the idea that these two were inseparable. 

Even though masses of flowers are stunningly beautiful, I generally look for smaller vignettes and/or details, like these: 

I did want to depict the sea of color in the mass plantings of tulips in an area known as The Crescent, though. Since these particular beds featured mixed and somewhat random colors, it felt a little bit chaotic. I also had high winds and hot spots created by sunlight to contend with on one of the days, not to mention the fact that some of the flowers were past their prime.

I tried two completely different renderings of the scene.

Here's what the flowers looked like "straight up" in the drizzle when the light was evenly diffused and the air was calm. 

In this version, I opted for a wash of color via intentional camera movement when the conditions were sunny and blustery:

Botanic gardens are top-rate locations for photography. I should restate that: they're superlative whether or not you've got a camera in your hand.

That said, you may not live near one. If that's the case, I feel your pain. I don't, either.

Still, you can photograph flowers. If you think in terms of smaller scenes, you don't need huge beds to make interesting photographs. Look in your own gardens, or those of your neighbors. You might find beds filled with annuals or perennials in city parks. And don't forget the floral display nature prepares for us each year: wildflowers.

The earth laughs in flowers.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson   


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