Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Think jangly, heterogeneous confusion of a riot …

September 12, 2013

Post image for Think jangly, heterogeneous confusion of a riot …

I’m trying to learn how to use a new  camera, so last week I took a twilight stroll to try it out in low light. The camera is a compact Sony Cybershot DSC-RX100. I’ve been very disappointed with my Canon Rebel DSLR for years; the Sony has received rave reviews and, though it doesn’t have interchangeable lenses, it does have an image sensor considerably larger than the Canon’s, and therefore has more light-gathering power. It’s technically a complex camera so a lot of experimentation is in order (i.e., I need to learn the controls). It will never do what a good DSLR with good lenses would do, but perhaps it’s good enough for my uses.

As my first challenge, I tried to show the full expanse of the garden. This is hard to do. In fact, I’ve never taken a successful picture of the whole garden though the photo above is better than most. The dark tree limbs and shrubs in the foreground frame the view of the distant line of trees, creating a sense of perspective and helping define the volume of the garden in a spatial sense. This photo was taken at 6:57 pm, so the garden is almost completely in shade, while the distant tree tops show the last of the sun’s rays, emphasizing the sense of distance and the spatial void in which the garden exists. Too bad you can’t see any detail or make out the inner structure of the garden.

Zooming in to that mass of Joe Pye Weed in the center left, I was surprised to see how saturated the colors appear …

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… my assumption is that, in dim light, the automatic setting I used set the lens aperture wide open to gather more light, causing the color saturation. The wide aperture would also account for the lack of sharp focus.

Moving to the left, from the center of the garden to the area of the reflecting pool on the north end of the house (into even shadier territory), the colors appear to change.

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The pale mauve of the Joe Pye Weed intermingled with miscanthus below, interestingly, is much less saturated. My guess is that the subject’s nearness to the camera lens and localized lighting conditions capture a truer color (incidentally, the bit of silvery Pycnantheum muticum sparkling on the right tells me I should add more of this extraordinary wilding to the interstices of this tumble-down composition for next year.).

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It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s read this blog that I have a preference for fullness verging on chaos. A lot is going on in the garden, and in the photographs I take of it. I often push the composition right to the edge of disorder, but (I hope) retain what Thomas Rainer refers to as legibility. The next photo is the first example–a Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ just starting to take on hues of red  and a red Sanguisorba to its right perhaps pull together through color, definitely not similar forms (though on second thought I do see similarities in the branching patterns of the support structures) …

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… then in the next photo the color of the dangly Sanguisorba flowers clashes with the background vegetation. Think jangly, heterogeneous confusion of a riot, as if the parts want to fly apart. Change being the essence of this garden, in another week or two, as the autumn colors start to predominate, this visual cacophony will be harmonized.

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Looking up the bank to the house, the camera’s light-gathering capability shows a lot of color and detail, though again the focus leaves something to be desired. (Focus is a problem with all these low light photos; I should have used a tripod.) The color of the fading Joe Pye Weed is rendered rather faithfully, as are the bruised purples and blues of the Lespedeza ‘Gibraltar’ and asters behind. The resolution isn’t fine enough to show you the yellows are Patrinia scabiosifolia, not golden rod. But the overall effect of the bank planting retains the imagery of roiling ocean waves typical of the bank planting at this time of year, as the grasses come into bloom.

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I’m a sucker for Sanguisorba. I have them everywhere and want more. I just need to remember to cut some in early summer so they don’t get too tall and flop into the paths. This one, perhaps because it’s in relatively dryer soil on the well drained bank, is holding its form well.

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Here again are the in-your-face colors. Strange I say this because I’ve been thinking the garden is going through a bland, colorless time. But the new camera brings out the colors even in the browned seed heads of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ … as well as the leaden browns in the dying columns of Silphium perfoliatum in the far left.

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In the next photos you can see the saturated colors of summer are beginning to fade into  rusts, blacks and browns, and fawns of autumn, just a hint here and there. In some images, an obvious change to fall …

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… in others, the colors remain bright. It’s a  mixed bag at present. Below:  Filipendula, Rudbeckia maxima, Calamagrostis A. ‘Karl Foerester’ veering off in every direction …

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The white flowers on the right–Eupatorium  perfoliatum …

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Box, Rudbeckia maxima, Hydrangea quercifolia, bunches of tall, rapidly fading Silphium perfoliatum … if you don’t already know the structure of this planting, I wonder what you can make out looking at the photo. Again, pushing the edge of chaos, presenting a puzzle? This place gives me a good feeling. Hard to know why. It just belongs here. With me.

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Need I say Rudbeckia maxima again? This time the seed heads are in focus but the Button Bush behind isn’t. I know this is because the wide aperature of the lens creates a very shallow depth of field. That’s my problem, really, controlling depth of field, thus range of focus, in such low light.

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Rudbeckia ‘Henry Eilers’ and one blue spire of Lobelia syphilitica …

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The path heading around to the circle of red logs, with Vernonia, the skeleton of Teasel, many miscanthus …

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The textures and shapes are what keep this area interesting now, after the flowers have faded and before the autumn colors arrive. You can’t see them in the photo above, but you can below.

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At the back two Wave Hill chairs sit empty amid the celebration of tall Inula racemosa ‘Sonnerspeer’, Miscanthus purpurescens, Silphium perfoliatum, Joe Pye Weed … The resolution in these photos is sufficient to make a satisfying aesthetic effect but I’d like more sharpness.

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So I have to keep at this, read the manual, perhaps? Practice and see how these posts change over time.

A view up to the house. The reflecting pool is straight through though you’d never know it. This area will become a riot of color as autumn progresses. (Autumn color is very forgiving of poor camerawork.)

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My little sitting area buried in hydrangeas. The tawny grass at center right is native self-seeded Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). Another bit of the original landscape growing through. (And what is the original landscape? The land before I started the garden? The open field that was here before the Howeths built the house in 1965? The orchards that probably grew here in the late nineteenth century? The centuries of native American habitation before the Europeans came?) It’s all quite mysterious, trying to say what is real, what is original, what is authentic … it almost makes you think everything is, or nothing is.

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So what am I trying to capture with my learning camera work?

The truth? Or just hydrangeas?

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This mysterious corridor at the back of the garden? Why does it appeal? Why do I call it mysterious?

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Plains of Pycnanthemum muticum with leaning towers of Inula? Is this just a visual diversion or does it “hook” into my consciousness, my being at some deep level?

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Magic? Visual poetry?

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Phil reading the Sunday Times? A quotidian activity, but the context seems to lend the act a more significant meaning.

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Control?

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Incipient chaos?

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A sense of fullness?

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Complexity?

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Words fail. Yes they do.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Weber September 12, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I think that look of fullness and complexity you mention is one of the things I love about this time of year. There is an abundance to the garden that I find so appealing…almost like our ample reward at the end of the growing season.

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James Golden September 12, 2013 at 8:08 pm

The association of ripeness, fullness and that edge of increasingly complexity and even death is an ancient trope that I think affects all of us, though we often hide its meaning from ourselves.

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Of Gardens September 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm

There is so much in this post! I, too, am moving on past my Canon Rebel. I’m in the market for a new DSLR…I am looking at Canon, of which I have been a stalwart supporter of for many years, but also at Nikon. I will let you know. In addition to garden photography, I do a lot of sail boat racing photos so I need a fast, wide angle zoom…but I digress. I also adore sanguisorba, especially Red Thunder. It flops into the path, but is so pretty obstructing I let it be. It also self seeds so I like it even more. My Filipendula Venusta is completely prone this time of year, I wonder if it is not getting enough moisture, or if it is custom to flop this time of year…do you know? It is so stately up til September, and then it crashes pushing down the phlomis and joy pye weed around it. As for the fullness of your garden, I can identify everything you mention, so it is not so full as to obscure. Good luck with the new camera.

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James Golden September 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Please let me know when you make a decision about your new DSLR and also tell me what lenses you get. I think I’ll eventually have to upgrade. This small camera is a wonder, as far as it goes, and if I ever master its controls. We’re planning a trip next winter to Australia and New Zealand and I’d like to be able to take good photographs with this small, convenient camera, but it certainly has limitations. My Filipendula started leaning in the repeated heavy rains of late summer. Parts are still upright enough to have substantial visual impact but it’s leaning steeply. I think that’s just what it does. I’m happy to report that the Sanguisorbas have been seeding about in a controlled way.

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Cindy at enclos*ure September 13, 2013 at 9:57 am

I may need to upgrade to a Canon Rebel, as I have always admired your photos. I’m using a slightly souped-up point-and-shoot, which seems to have a huge number of setting options — yet even after resorting to reading the instructions and experimenting, I don’t much like the results. I’m particularly unhappy that I rarely can get it to focus on what I want it to or, sometimes it seems, on anything at all.

I was remarking to someone today that I missed my old college starter SLR , a Pentax K1000, which had real moving parts and no automatic features except the light meter. But I don’t really miss film.

And your late-summer garden is looking beyond-words lovely!

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James Golden September 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I think I’ll pull my Cannon out and make a comparison shoot next time I’m out at the garden. Looking over these photos from a “distance” I see a lot of blue in most of them. I did edit them, but I can see the Sony behaves almost like a color amplifier. This is going to take some getting used to. I already know the untouched jpegs from the two cameras are vastly different.

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Paul Steer September 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Together with nature, you have created a beautiful garden. Perhaps that is an uncritical and unhelpful thing to say when you have asked so many questions, but I cannot help but feel drawn to it in spirit, even through your photographs.

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James Golden September 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Thank you, Paul. I don’t really expect answers to the questions. I have none myself. If you feel “drawn to it in spirit,” that’s enough.

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Emily September 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm

I have the same problem with too much intensity in the colors when photographing in lower light situations. If you learn how to overcome this, will you share the answer? I was thinking that I’d maybe have to go for a longer exposure, but then I’d need to haul around a tripod and I don’t want to do that.

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James Golden September 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I don’t seem to have that problem with the Cannon Rebel, but most of the photos I get from it are very low in contrast and seem drained of color, almost the opposite of the Sony. I wonder if the light sensors in these cameras have their own “personalities.” I’ll certainly let you know if I learn anything. I do have a tripod but carrying it around the garden and adjusting it constantly is a real pain–perhaps because it’s not an expensive tripod.

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Ruth Hopper September 17, 2013 at 11:04 am

Loving the colours of these late in summer/late in the day photos. The transience is tangible as Autumn approaches…

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James Golden September 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm

I hope I’ll find some autumn color in the grasses when I see the garden next. It’s a rather dull time, though the twilight photography does amp up the color that’s there.

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Tony Adams September 17, 2013 at 8:49 pm

The magenta in the color balance is out of whack. You can see it even in hte gvel and the rocks and the tree bark. Or maybe its that color’s specific saturation. I assume that as the controls that are now “old school Photoshop” become more commonplace on cameras, perhaps your new one will let you make that selective color range adjustment. Anyway, the vistas are magnificent.

One difference between non-gardeners and gardeners is the gardener’s seasoned appreciation for the pale or the drab or the sun-bleached colors. The Joe Pye Weed is like oatmeal on a menu. The pale pink hollyhock like a well washed, faded and thin cotton shirt. The pheasant eye daffodil rather than the King Alfred Trumpet….

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James Golden September 17, 2013 at 9:15 pm

You’re right, Tony. And those red logs are far redder in the photos than in real life. Yes, subtleties, subtleties. I favor the colors of many plants after they’re dead. I only wish you could tell me how to adjust the color balance. But maybe I can find that book I ordered from Amazon.

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Tony Adams September 17, 2013 at 9:26 pm

I will run that adjustment past Chris who knows that stuff better than I.

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Christina September 19, 2013 at 12:07 pm

your images are certainly totally different from your usual colours. For a small camera that I can have with me always I use a Panasonic Lumix, it has a Leica lens. It has the widest angle of any digital camera which was hte reason I bought it, but then I discovered it has a better macro zoom than almost any camera including DSLRs. Obviously it doesn’t do what DSLR’s can achieve but then I would want to have to carry a DSLR with me always.

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James Golden September 20, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I’ve been reading up on the Sony camera and it does have controls for both color and saturation, so I’ll do some experimentation.

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Kerry September 22, 2013 at 10:58 am

What a joyous garden and the photos are wonderful! You might want to start experimenting with using the RAW, instead of JPEG setting on your camera. You will have much more control over color (and everything else) though it will mean a bit more work in post-processing.

Also, try shooting in Program mode or Aperture Priority, so you can play with your depth of field, and your ISO for low light situations. There are some great online photo tutorials to get you started with using more of the manual controls. Lynda.com has some good ones.

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James Golden September 23, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Thanks, Kerry. I think I’ll check out Lynda.com, and experiment with using aperature priority and program mode. I’m hoping I can get satisfactyory results with this small camera. I don’t want to have to lug the big one to Australia and New Zealand.

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Kate Sparks December 31, 2013 at 9:52 am

Good morning and happy New Year. A friend sent along your link thinking I would enjoy the garden photos. I love your esthetic. Thanks for the wonderful photos, and explanations too. I’m a flower farmer who just ordered her first DSLR camera and can hardly wait to use it.

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