In search of beauty…
Steffie Shields shares ideas to improve your flower photography – and your garden!
Thinking back to this time last year, when we were all weighed down under full pandemic lockdown, I remember casting around for a project to lift my spirits. Unable to visit other people’s gardens in search of images and inspirational stories, I thought I must make do with our own, all too familiar patch, photographed many times in all-weathers and all seasons. How would I keep my hand and eye in? How could I usefully occupy the time, let alone hone my photographic skills?
May sees gardens at their romantic best, a kaleidoscope of pretty spring flowers amidst frothy cow parsley and native bluebells. Somehow, I needed something different on which to focus, something with enough drama to capture the imagination and, whatever the light, hold the attention. I trawled through my digital picture archive looking for inspiration, with hopes of entering the challenging annual International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition.
Coming across some photographs from a few years ago, I paused to relive a delightful June visit to friends near Richmond, in North Yorkshire, Val and Ian Hepworth, who often open their manor house garden for charity. Val is a passionate gardener and conservation expert who also enjoys baking cakes! Waking early, I remember creeping outside with my camera and spending a happy hour exploring their tranquil country garden.
One memorable corner, sheltered by trees, was dominated by groups of perennial ornamental onion known as Sicilian honey garlic, a less familiar member of the Allium family, sometimes also known as Allium bulgaricum. The official botanical Latin name, Nectaroscordum siculum, does not exactly roll easily off the tongue! I much prefer its more attractive, regional name: ‘Mediterranean Bells’. If chiming silently, just coming into flower at several intervals towards the front of a long border, they were swaying prettily in the gentle breeze, leading the eye through to a large patch ‘posing’ in dappled shade on the edge of the enclosing tree belt.
Study the two best photographs I took that day, to appreciate why I had found my lockdown project. The first, a theatrical stand of emerging flowers on tall stems in low morning light, reminded me of a much-loved children’s book of verse Flower Fairies of the Spring by English illustrator Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973). Her delightful paintings invented dozens of tiny, imagined creatures living in the garden, dainty little fairies with sweet, pastel-coloured skirts and delicate, lacy wings and elves with pointed caps.
Thanks to Val’s planting finesse, here was a spring chorus dancing on a stage with a perfect backdrop. The bi-colour bell flowers, cream, striped with deep rose, or even plum, created an unusual contrast together with two companion shrubs: a splendid copper hazel, Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’, and the fresh green foliage of a tree peony, probably Paeonia lutea. I recommend this sophisticated combination if you are looking to update a sunny aspect of your garden. Honey garlic will also attract foraging pollinators, especially bumblebees!
The second photograph, which I christened ‘The Cowl’, is a dramatic close-up of a single stem caught in a spotlight of morning sun. The tissue-thin sheath curved like a monk’s hood, and the balletic form of its cluster of budding florets spilling out, emphasised by deep shade behind, inspired my plant portrait portfolio.
Quite by chance, in November 2019, I had planted ten or so, easy to grow Sicilian honey garlic bulbs to add height and diversion in two flowerbeds facing east with both morning and late afternoon light, in amongst hardy geraniums and Euphorbia robbiae with sprays of acid-green rounded flowers. I would follow their progress from bud through to seed head, using my favourite 80-200mm Nikkor lens and trusty Nikon D810 digital camera.
Over five to six weeks, from mid-May onwards (with Lincolnshire being considerably further south than North Yorkshire), I photographed these ‘flower fairies’ in ‘my green studio’. Whatever the elements, I prefer serendipitous photography outside in natural light, the earlier the better, rather than indoors in a controlled, ‘still life’ setting with artificial lighting. I ended up uploading over 200 close-up photos taken from every possible angle – some sharp, some soft focus.
Hours of deliberation included cropping and Photoshop picture management. Each image must stand alone as memorable with no distractions such as a skyline. Each had to show some varied aspect of growth, form or lighting to earn its place in a cohesive, visual diary. I eventually whittled the collection down to six, enough for a portfolio submission to portray honey garlic’s charm and singular evolution:
• ‘Split’ – 18th May 2020, 6:59am. A splitting sheath reveals enfolded buds, tightly packed like cygnets in a ‘cocoon’. Unbelievably, this narrow sheath might contain as many as 30 buds, each precious promise protectively wrapped in strands of silk!
• ‘Dawn’ – 18th May 2020, 6:55am (a different stem). Escaping honey garlic florets respond to a shaft of soft light, my favourite image due to the early morning glow.
• ‘Cowl’ – 18th June 2013, 8:36am (North Yorkshire). A single stem with budding florets spilling out from a cowl-like sheath, caught in a spotlight against deep shade.
• ‘Cluster’ – 21st May 2020, 7:23am. As the florets begin to colour, a more diffuse light reveals true to life tones, creamy-peach striped with rose, plum and purple, as well as windswept movement, with the sheath for a petticoat, like a ballerina dancing.
• ‘Sunset’ – 29th May 2020, 7:28pm. A lockdown rainbow just before dusk, a parasol umbel of Mediterranean bells in attractive colours enhanced by warmer, low evening light.
• ‘Tears’ – 12th June 2020, 9:17am. Florets of honey garlic begin reverse direction and transform into strange, erect seedpods that, after a shower of rain, look like fairy turrets sprinkled with tears. The party is nearly over.
Sadly, not a prize-winner, I leave it to you to judge which image(s) let the side down. Nevertheless, my attempt to create a balanced portfolio proved a worthwhile learning curve. Check out www.lincolnshiregardenstrust.org.uk for details on how to enter the annual photography competition. Winning images will be published in Lincolnshire Life in January 2022. Enjoy looking carefully and closely at plants, garden views and significant aspects of lighting, whether with cameras or phones, especially now, as lockdown eases a fraction, more local gardens are thankfully opening again to the public. This month will see me seeking one key image that eluded me: a bumblebee in search of honey garlic nectar!