Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


I’ve said that I am always searching for the perfect place, seeking to capture its beauty in a photograph. And readers often ask me how to take great pictures. In an attempt at self-deprecation I usually reply, “Get a good camera.” There are several factors, however, which can make your photographs better, whatever camera you use.

When presenting lectures on photography I discuss what I call ‘the three muses’ of good photography: Light, Composition and Colour, the three keys to success. I tell my audience that to take great pictures it needs to understand these elements. Great pictures evoke an emotional response from the viewer; we might call this the ‘gasp factor.’

Today, thanks to easy-to-use digital cameras – and even smart phones - taking images of our own garden, or of other people’s, is possible for each of us. Even with fully automatic cameras, however, respecting these three muses, or elements, will maximise the success of our photographs.

As I’ve said, my quest for the perfect picture can take me to some dangerous locations and can lead me into some interesting situations. The desire for capturing place and atmosphere can have me lying on my stomach for hours, waiting for perfect light.

There are many reasons for photographing a garden or a landscape, apart from the obvious: the memory of an inspirational scene. We might want to record ideas from a garden we are visiting, or to take a close up shot of a plant to purchase later. In our own garden we can record the changing seasons. Pictures can be used, also, as a design tool: while the naked eye inadvertently takes in many extraneous elements, the lens will capture layout and focus our attention on any faults.

For examples of my three muses we might visit an art gallery: we need look no further than the impressionist painters for lessons in light, composition and the use of colour. Monet’s Haystack series illustrates perfectly how light changes throughout the day and how mood and atmosphere are influenced by that light. And think of his series of canvasses depicting his beloved water lilies. Beautiful light can make the most ordinary landscape special: capture it, and a plain picture will become a work of art.

To garden photographers, particularly in Australia, where midday light is so harsh, early morning and late afternoon offer the magic hours. When light is your muse you can never rest. Even on rainy days you’re alert for that unique light that can stream through clouds after a thunder storm. The garden then appears illuminated, every flower glowing, every raindrop shimmering.

When I am lecturing on garden photography I often use a favourite image of Bentley, John and Robin Hawkins’ Meander Valley, Tasmania, property, to illustrate the points I want to make. I show the massive hay bales in the paddock, which were lit by the setting sun; the sun also illuminating the house, which is described, in architects’ language, as a ‘19th century Melbourne Town Villa.’ On the evening I took a favourite shot of Bentley the sun was also lighting up Mother Cummings Peak, which we had all scaled the day before.

Again, there is no better teacher than the impressionist painter to demonstrate good composition. You might notice how a river, or a lane, won’t cut through the centre of a painting, but, rather, will meander across it in a diagonal fashion. Notice how tall poplars might frame a view of distant mountains. Keep compositions tight to eliminate distracting details: we are seeking simplicity and balance. Edit is the key word here: we don’t want to capture on paper all that we might see with the naked eye.

And I am always thinking about the position of my camera. I’ll move around with the camera: left, then right. I’ll get down low, a stance which can have me thinking I am encouraging early arthritis! Gardens with a strong structure are easier to photograph well than more natural, free-flowing spaces: think of well clipped box hedges in a formal garden. If a garden is more free form I’ll always look for a focal point - employ a fountain, a tree or a building - to attract the eye and to anchor the scene.

I always suggest that my audience thinks about colour. Colour can be the subject of the photograph, and can transform the ordinary into the memorable. Bright, vibrant primary colours can provide the drama of a shot. We need to keep our eyes open for great colour combinations: cerise bougainvillea romping through a jacaranda, for example, or a jacaranda flowering behind the vivid red bracts of a poinciana tree. In late winter the combination of purple native sarsaparilla (Hardenbergia violacea) with the South American Pyrostegia venusta, the orange trumpet vine, might remind you that nature doesn’t make mistakes.If the subject is of paler tones texture may become the subject: dew drops, perhaps.

Then, I will ask my audience to consider the story their picture seeks to tell. What is the hero of their shot? With a manual focus one might bring the hero into sharp relief, while ‘blowing out’ – or fading out - the background, I suggest. You’ll use this technique when taking close-up pictures – macros - of flowers, focusing on the stamens, perhaps. Again, move around to discover an interesting angle. And the macro shot, with a short depth of field, is a saviour when the background is less than desirable.

And a last piece of advice I give is: Go slowly. Look around. Don’t be hasty; for the law of contrary light dictates that, the moment you pack your cameras away, deciding that the skies are leaden, the dark clouds will part and a glorious green light will shine through, providing you with that winning picture.

So, this campaign for the great shot can have me lying on my stomach at dusk to capture the best angle in the best light, while everyone else might be in the house enjoying pre-dinner drinks. It can have me up before dawn, capturing that pale, milky light that makes watery Venice a photographer’s dream city – and a subject loved by the watercolourist Joseph Mallord Turner (1775-1851). Not for nothing was he dubbed ‘the Painter of Light.’

A few Octobers ago the quest for the great shot had me wading into Lake Bled, a glacial lake in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, to capture the autumn colours reflected there – much to the consternation of my intense, knowledgeable and fascinating guide, Dragan, who was worried I might fall in. But the greatest danger of the lake was the coffee topped with a mountain of whipped cream that was served in the castle café on its shore, and to which I became somewhat addicted.

There are dangers greater than calorie-laden Viennese coffee, however. It was the search for the perfect picture that took me to the wild cliffs of Western Australia’s Margaret River. In February 2012 I was photographing a biodynamic vineyard, Cullen Wines, for the final chapter of my book, Country Gardens: Country Hospitality.

Western Australia is known for its majestic eucalypt forests of karri and marri, its pristine beaches and jewel-like turquoise oceans. While the climate can be harsh, and the soil most often sandy, the state has plenty to offer the horticulturalist as well as the adventurer. There are over 8 000 species of wildflowers which burst into flower between August and November, particularly if there have been good winter rains.

Driving north, or south, from Perth, you’ll find pale swathes of smokebush, (Conospermum spp.), thought to have possible curative properties for cancer. There is also Dryandra sessilis, a favourite with the beekeepers as it flowers in winter to produce a unique honey.

The fabulous Eucalyptus macrocarpa, with its large silver leaves and spectacular red flowers and fruit, is indigenous to the northern sand plains, along withblue boy (Stirlingia latifolia), named after Sir James Stirling, first Governor of Western Australia.

If you are driving north, along the Brand Highway, you’ll pass a mass of the brilliant blue Lechenaultia biloba, growing with the buttercup-yellow Hibbertia hypericoides. A little further north are wide expanses of Banksia hookerana, a favourite for cut flower market. In all directions you’ll find low-growing cat’s paw (Anigozanthos humilis) and the slow-growing native grass trees, (Xanthorroea preissii).

The everlasting daisies, in particular, form a finely detailed tapestry of pinks, whites, yellows and blues in spring. In early summer in the Margaret River the delicate donkey orchids flower.

The oceans that lap the region provide a gentle, maritime climate, cooler than Perth just three hours to the north, but still frost-free. The region runs from the wild Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, to Naturaliste Bay in the north.

My host in The Margaret suggested we go to the Willyabrup cliffs, near her straw bale house, at sunset so that I could photograph the cliffs as they took on glorious colours – pinks, ochres and reds – as the sun dropped to the ocean. While it is a popular spot for climbers and abseillers, I found clambering down the treacherous cliffs to a ledge to photograph from the best angle was frightening, and difficult with my heavy camera – but I captured some great shots.

Trekking home, across the windswept fields to my friend’s house, she suddenly pulled me backwards. On the ground was a small, green-grey snake. “Well, that’s just a tiddler,” I said. “Can’t have much of a bite.” “It’s a Dugite,” was her reply. “One of the deadliest snakes in the world.”

I must admit I have a phobia about snakes. As well as the near miss with the dugite, I’ve had two ‘run-ins’ with tiger snakes – and am still talking about the experiences. The first was in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, near the town of Walcha. I was looking for a property I was to photograph, and had been given very specific directions by the owner. However, the directions – or the distances at which he told me to turn off the main road – were wrong. I drove up and down the road, following his instructions, which had been so specific, exactly. I could not find the turn, however, and eventually stopped at a lovely old stone house to ask directions. As I wandered around the garden, hoping to find someone at home, and pushing past dry stone walls, a Jack Russell terrier was leaping at me, running in front of me, and yapping fiercely. Suddenly I trod on what I assumed was a piece of poly pipe. As I looked back, however, I saw it was a large snake, it’s thick body protruding from the dry stone wall. I was so lucky its head was already in the wall. That clever dog had been trying to warn me!

I rushed onto the road, almost hysterical, and flagged down a car. The driver knew the property I was trying to find and guided me there. When I arrived (much later than the appointed time) at the garden and described the snake, with its diamond pattern on a gun-metal grey body, the owner said, “Oh that was a tiger snake.” And his wife said he had given me inaccurate directions! Years later I was still telling the story, and rubbing my leg, prompting one friend to ask if I was sure I hadn’t been bitten. Not that I would have been there to tell the tale!

My second encounter with the lethal, and usually very aggressive, tiger was on a trek to Mount Kosciuszko, one Christmas. It’s a walk of about four hours to the peak: at 2,228 metres above sea level it is Australia’s highest mountain. On the way to the summit you pass several beautiful alpine lakes and, in summer, meadows of wild flowers: billy buttons, paper daisies and alpine celery. On this day I stepped off the iron, above-ground pathway to crouch down low to photograph Cootapatamba Lake, beyond it Dead Horse Gap, and foregrounded by a meadow of wild flowers. And I stepped straight onto a tiger snake. Luckily for me, he was dozing in the sun, and I had leapt back onto the path before he had summoned the energy to strike.

Snakes are not my only encounter with wildlife. I have discovered that roosters can make great guard dogs. A few years ago I turned up, at the appointed time, to photograph a marvellous rose garden in central Victoria. As I was wandering around the garden, calling out for the owner, a huge rooster suddenly flew at me, hitting me in the face. Ah: a photographer’s life is full of danger.