Note: If you want to learn more about photographing plants and small scenes (like those featured in this post), please see our book Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature's Smaller Scenes. You may also view my full gallery of photos from the Huntington Botanical Gardens.
Sarah and I currently find ourselves camped in the heart of the Mojave Desert, an hour from the nearest gas station and in the middle of a beautiful nowhere. After looking at the map, we realized that we are also within a four hour drive of one of the best botanical gardens in the United States: The Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena, California.
We drove 8 hours round-trip and spent a night so that we could photograph the plants in the garden over the course of two days. That may sound extreme, but those of you who are familiar with the garden know that it is superlative in every way and worth the effort to get there.
The good news is that most people do not need to go to extreme measures to find a local botanical garden worth photographing. While living in Denver, Sarah and I made it a point to visit our local garden, The Denver Botanic Gardens, as often as possible, and we try and visit as many botanical gardens as we can while we travel.
Here are a few ways that seeking out a local botanical garden can improve your photography and help you accumulate portfolio-quality photographs.
- Practice. The key to getting better at anything, including photography, is to do it again and again and again. Gardens offer a great place to practice and to experiment. Try different focal lengths, lenses (including macro lenses), different apertures, and different perspectives (near, far away, looking up, looking down on the ground). Photograph through plants. Photograph into the light (backlight) to highlight translucent foliage or flowers, or use front light on an overcast or wet day to show color. Do not be afraid to look ridiculous - your goal is not to avoid embarrassment. It is to get photographs! Harness your powers of observation, which is a key skill to develop as a photographer. Gardens offer many subjects that reveal themselves to a patient observer. These experiences in a botanical garden can enhance your photography skills for when you are out in more wild places.
- Shoot Local. By having a local place that offers easy access, the risk of "coming home with nothing" is greatly reduced. If you made a mistake or want to revisit a subject, you can easily go back with minimal effort. If you stop limiting photography to when you are on vacation, traveling outside your local area, or are on an epic hike and instead fit photography into your normal daily life, you will not only improve much faster but you will come away with some great photographs.
- Learn to Adapt. Gardens are constantly changing with the seasons. Different flowers are blooming, foliage transitions from spring greens to autumn colors, and some plants actually are at their best during winter. The weather can also change, from bright sunlight to overcast rain or even snow. Being able to adapt to the subject matter AND to make the most use of whatever light that is available are skills that will serve you well wherever you photograph. Creativity rarely happens when things go exactly as planned. Gardens give you a moving target where you are forced to experiment and try new things in order to be successful.
- The Exotic, Close to Home. While it is not possible to move entire mountain ranges or coastlines from exotic locations to your hometown, it is (often) possible to do so with plants. Take the Spiral Aloe. The Spiral Aloe is a beautiful plant but most people are not going to be able to travel to Lesotho to see it in its natural habitat. You may live in a wet climate not suitable for desert plants like cactus, but they can be grown in a controlled indoor environment even in rainy climates and still be beautiful to photograph. It's not just exotic plants that look good in a botanical garden - native plants can also look great. For example, you may live in a desert climate and want to photograph desert flowers, but they might not bloom during a dry year. A controlled environment in a botanical garden can produce blooms every year.
- Enjoyment. Gardens are enjoyable to visit - they have been around a lot longer than photography. Even in busy popular gardens, there are usually places to escape the crowds (and a garden's off-season can be less busy and offer different opportunities for photography). Strolling through a garden, learning about the plants, and seeing how they change through the seasons is enjoyable, even if you do not come back with any photographs. It may shock some of our readers, but Sarah and I often visit gardens without our photography gear. Gardens are often community institutions and showing your appreciation (financially or by your visitation) is a good way to support your local community.
If you have not visited a botanical garden for photography, we encourage you to give it a try as a means of expanding both your photographic skills and your portfolio. If you already enjoy botanic gardens and have a favorite one, please let us know in the comments. We are always on the lookout for new gardens to visit and photograph.
Some of our favorite gardens
Here's a list of some of our favorite gardens across the US to photograph. Note that different gardens have different photography policies (not allowing tripods, or charging a fee for their use), please check the specific garden's website or call them to confirm. For some gardens it may be cheaper to purchase an annual membership if you plan on visiting more than 2-3 times a year, and some gardens have reciprocal memberships (for example, our Denver Botanic Gardens membership also allows us membership to the Desert Botanical Garden).
- The Butchart Gardens (Vancouver Island, BC)
- Bellevue Botanical Garden (Bellevue, WA)
- Washington Park Arboretum (Seattle, WA)
- Portland Japanese Garden (Portland, OR)
- Hoyt Arboretum (Portland, OR)
- Denver Botanic Gardens (Denver, CO)
- UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)
- San Francisco Botanical Garden (San Francisco, CA)
- The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (San Marino, CA)
- Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix, AZ)
- Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Superior, AZ)
- Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (Tucson, AZ)
- Tohono Chul Botanical Gardens (Tucson, AZ)
- Atlanta Botanical Garden (Atlanta, GA)
- National Tropical Botanical Gardens (various locations in Kauai, Hawaii)