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Capturing Your Garden

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In our February issue, Stephen Orr introduced us to Marion Brenner, a California-based photographer who expertly captures the character and beauty of gardens around the world. With nearly two decades of experience, she’s bursting with tips and tricks for making green spaces look their best.

1. Equip Yourself
For her landscape work, Brenner uses a medium-format Phase One 645 attached to a tripod (it gives her photos a composed, formal look). But for more casual shots, she mainly uses two digital cameras. For professional images, she prefers a Canon 5D, which is much quicker to use and great for catching people or animals on the go. For snapshots, she also carries a Canon G10 point-and-shoot.

2. Take Control
Think like a stylist and physically arrange your shot. Says Brenner: “There are some things you can control and some you can’t, but if there’s a leaf there that’s ruining your picture, move it!”

3. Think in 2-D
Photography flattens 3-D space, so pay attention to how elements in real life will align on the image. Look out for power lines or objects in the neighbor’s yard. Our brains tend to filter those things out when looking at the beauty of a flower bed.

4. Create a Pop-Up Studio
If you like doing close-ups, get a scrim. It’s a lightweight, pop-up translucent fabric that diffuses light for a close-up — and makes the shot look beautiful.

5. Light is the Most Important Thing
Don’t try to photograph at midday or when it’s too sunny and there is excessively sharp contrast. Plants have a lot of visual information in their leaves and textures. The softer light during the magic couple of hours at both ends of the day smooths out harsh edges.

6. Bring the Outdoors In
“I deal with natural light, even when I’m shooting indoors,” Brenner says. Use longer exposure to capture the necessary light.

7. Tell a Story
“You know you can take pretty pictures, but you also want the pictures to tell a story, to be about something,” says Brenner. “It’s something to keep in the back of your mind when you’re trying to describe a garden.”

8. Wait for the Right Shot
When shooting in a public park with groups of people interfering, patience is key. “It’s as simple as waiting for someone to walk by wearing the right color,” says Brenner.

9. Find a Focal Point
Look for a path, a sculpture, or a large container, which can lead your eye into the photo.

10. But Don’t Forget to Fill the Shot
Brenner composes from the edges in, and not the center out. “You want to feel like you’re in the space,” she says.

Taylor Combs is an Assistant Digital Editor at Martha Stewart. She’s obsessed with neon and polka dots and loves cooking Mexican food at home.
(photos: Marion Brenner)

Comments (2)

  • I am reading the post of January 14, 2013, Capturing Your Garden, by Taylor Combs. In the photo there are some tall purple spikes. What are these? They are amazing and I’d love to try and grow them. Thank you. Tim

  • What a lovely article on Marion Brenner’s photos of gardens. I am an amateur photographer gone wild and like way these simple tips were presented. It put words to what has worked for me so that I can share techniques with others and also encouraged me to try a few new things, like the backlighting tip, which I’ve done, but not consciously. Also, filling the frame from the outside, not the center is a great way to describe what so many overlook. Thanks!

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