More than any other group of plants, I love to photograph grasses. They bring light, motion, and texture to gardens. They range widely in size and color, and mix well into all garden styles, from beds and borders to meadows and in containers. Because they are so versatile in blending into gardens they can be hard to photograph.
I began to understand how to capture their ornamental effects years ago while working on my Grasses book with Nancy Ondra. Of all the pictures in the book, the one above in Linda Cochran’s garden, of the tall arching Toe Toe Grass (Cortaderia richardii) was to define how I saw grasses and how I photographed them.
Placed at the end of a mixed border that reached like a peninsula into the garden, the Toe Toe Grass dominated every view of the garden. When the sunlight kissed the grasses’ plumes, it revealed itself against the shaded forest beyond the garden. This separation allowed the grass to shine.
That’s the trick. Grasses are often wispy, almost ethereal garden plants. To get their picture you need to isolate them from the background. There are several ways to do this.
Look at this picture of Wallis Fescue (Festuca valesiaca) in the Chicago Botanical Garden.
Saying the grass is indistinct is understatement. So let’s look for a different view and a dark background.
I found this angle by walking around the plant and using a lower point of view so that I did not see so much of the neutral gray color of the path.
Sometimes you can use the sunlight itself to isolate a grass from its surroundings. In general I advise students to keep away from strong light when photographing gardens, but grasses have a way of harvesting light, revealing it. In this California native plant garden, the grasses nearly disappear in soft light.
But in sun, in this next view hardly moving the camera, we see the grass snap out of the background.
This works for several reasons. It is now isolated from its background. Technically, the extreme dynamic range of exposure from sun to shade can not be captured by a camera, so an exposure to show the grass highlighted will make anything in the shade go particularly dark, darker than the eye will see it.
As I have better understood this lighting phenomenon, I now look for situations where grasses are in sun against a shaded background to get dramatic shots.
Backlight will often give a glow through the grass making it stand out even more.
But not every trick to photographing grasses is about light. There are other ways that grasses separate from their companions in the garden. Understanding how grasses are used will often determine how you will photograph them. Look closely at the garden and decide what story the grass is telling. It is not always a story about light. It could be about color, or texture, or shape.
Many, many more examples in the e-book…