By F.M. Kearney
If you’re a regular reader of this piece, it’s probably no surprise to you that the New York Botanical Garden is one of my favorite go-to places to shoot nature photos within the city. Located in the heart of The Bronx, this 250-acre oasis is the largest botanical garden in the United States. It houses 50 specialty gardens, copious open-air grounds and the Thain Family Forest – the largest uncut expanse of New York’s original natural landscape. The NYBG is visited by over a million nature-lovers each year. Needless to say, despite its vast size, it can get quite crowded at times.
Years ago, I used to have an Early-Morning Pass. It allowed me to enter the Garden as early as 6a.m. – a full four hours earlier than its official opening to the general public at 10a.m. It was a huge godsend to have that entire place practically to myself. In the middle of the busiest city in the country, I was able to shoot early-morning landscape images that looked like they were captured miles away from civilization. Unfortunately, Early-Morning Passes are now only available if you have an upper-level membership with the Garden – requiring a very substantial annual fee. In other words… it’s back to regular visiting hours for me!
Of course, at mid-morning, the lighting isn’t as great and I occasionally have to contend with people straying into my shots. But, this isn’t always a bad thing. A few months back, I visited NYBG to capture some early signs of spring. My first stop was a Daffodil Valley – a rolling field showcasing an expansive array of white and gold flowers. I shot a series of low-angle images with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, with an extension tube attached. My goal was to isolate one or two single blooms within a large cluster in order to create a soft color wash around them. I shot the opening image at 200mm and f/3.3. I like to close down a little from the maximum aperture to give myself slightly more depth of field. Although it wasn’t a particularly windy day, the flowers would often sway back and forth in the gentle breeze. Whenever I shoot flowers with a limited depth of field, I watch them very carefully – waiting for those motionless moments. So focused was my attention on the flowers, I wasn’t aware that people passing by in the background hadn’t yet completely cleared the frame. The dark area on the left is a tree, but on the right are actually people passing by. Now, don’t get me wrong, even though the Garden was full of people, it wasn’t like shooting on a busy street. I could have easily waited until the area was completely empty – which was exactly what I did when shooting other versions of this scene. But, those shots just weren’t that interesting. The people broke up the monotonous green hues of the background – creating an image I much preferred over the others.
Photo A: Highlights positioned in lower-right. Photo B: Highlights positioned behind leaves.
Later in the day, I made my way to the Cherry Collection. Not far from the Thain Family Forest, it houses some of the 200+ cherry blossom trees found throughout the Garden. This area overlooks a parking lot for the Garden’s utility vehicles. In the midst of so much natural beauty, this parking lot is an absolute eyesore – something you really wouldn’t want in the background of your photos. At the time I was there, the mid-afternoon sun was reflecting heavily off the white vehicles. The natural inclination for anyone not into photography would be to turn as far away as possible from this blinding glare. But I was instinctively drawn towards it, because I knew it would provide a great source of amazing bokeh in the background. Photos “A” and “B” are just two of a series of photos I shot facing this “eyesore.” By using my 70-200mm lens (again, with an extension tube attached) and a fairly large aperture, I was able to render the harsh reflections as soft, decorative orbs of light. In Photo A, they’re quite obvious in the lower-right, but I took a more subtle approach in Photo B. I partially hid them behind the leaves at the top of the blossom. The possibilities were endless! Now, had I used a shorter focal length lens and a smaller aperture, the increased depth of field would have revealed the true identity of these highlights… and it would not have been pretty, or welcomed.
I should also mention that I used a flash. Strong highlights like that can only be created on a bright, sunny day – a day you might not think a flash is needed. But sunny days produce heavy contrast, which doesn’t look good in most photos. It’s for that reason why most photographers prefer to shoot on overcast days when the lighting is flat and even. Flat-lighting is great, but I sometimes prefer the contrast for special effects I might want to apply at some point in the future. In any event, the contrast still needs to be controlled. For both of those shots, I used a flash at a reduced output of around -1 stop. This helped to open up the dark shadows, but not blow out the highlights. I also used a warming gel to counterbalance the artificial-looking, white light of the flash. The point here is that even though a flash was definitely needed, it shouldn’t look as though a flash was actually used.
I used to try very hard to eliminate all traces of man-made artifacts when attempting to shoot nature subjects within the city. But it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” endeavor. Sometimes, it’s the inclusion of these so-called “distractions” that can give your nature images a unique flare. By cleverly disguising them (either through your choice of aperture, focal length or some other method) you can include them in your shots and turn lemons into lemonade!
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).