Yearning for closeness after months of social distancing? Nature photography is the perfect antidote to the six-foot rule. The gardens abound with photogenic subjects that beckon visitors to get close. Pictured: An industrious ladybug helps pollinate a sunny yellow buttercup. Photo by Martha Benedict.
With the reopening of the Botanical Gardens following a three-month COVID-19 closure, visitors have been eagerly returning to The Huntington to enjoy its well-loved landscapes once more. Physical distancing requirements are still in place to reduce the risk of infection, but there's one thing visitors are encouraged to get close to: nature.
Cameras of all kinds—even cell phones—are excellent tools for exploring nature up close. A viewfinder not only frames a subject, but also invites the viewer to really see it: to notice the texture of a rose petal, observe a honeybee at work, or discover how light and shadow play on the overlapping leaves of a desert succulent. Looking closely trains the eye to see—and seek out—beauty that might otherwise go unnoticed.
A bullfrog contemplates a potential snack perched upon its nose in an image filled with whimsy—and suspense! Photo by Andy Sae.
The 130-acre gardens offer unlimited opportunities for close encounters with the natural world, and there's no need to maintain a six-foot distance from your subjects. (There are a few notable exceptions, of course, including geese. These migratory birds can be aggressive, especially when protecting their young, so please give geese and their goslings plenty of space. Staying about 15 feet away is recommended.)
Docent Andy Sae has been volunteering at The Huntington since 2005, sharing his love of the gardens with other visitors. When not leading tours or answering questions, he can frequently be found trekking through the gardens with his digital camera, an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II equipped with zoom and macro lenses. “Photography allows me to ‘isolate’ the beauty of nature—the flowers and birds—and also how human activity blends into nature,” explains Sae. Even after 15 years, he’s found no shortage of sights to discover in the gardens. “Plants, animals, insects, and people are always changing, so every time I come to The Huntington, there is something new to take photos of.”
In the Chinese Garden, a lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera ‘Giant Sunburst’) catches the sunlight and appears to glow from within. Photo by Andy Sae.
One of Sae’s favorite photographs, which he titled “To eat or not to eat,” shows a bullfrog chilling out among the aquatic plants in the Japanese Garden pond. At first glance, the viewer might see only the frog, but a closer look reveals a small insect—most likely a young dragonfly—perched on the amphibian’s nose. Did the bug end up as the frog’s lunch? Sae isn’t sure. “It sat there for a long time until I left. The frog must’ve been full and not interested in a meal.” That interlude of peaceful coexistence—with its undercurrent of suspense—made for a memorable photograph.
Freelance photographer Martha Benedict has been capturing the year-round beauty of the gardens since 2009. Her botanical images can be seen in the Year in the Gardens calendar, sold in the Huntington Store, as well as in many Huntington publications. Prior to the COVID-19 closure, Benedict usually visited at least twice a month, toting her Nikon camera and Zeiss macro and zoom lenses, taking advantage of all the seasonal variations of light, atmosphere, and ever-changing blooms.
A female Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) hovers next to a cluster of brilliant blue Agapanthus ‘Ellamae’ blooms near the North Vista. Photo by Martha Benedict.
“This quarantine time has been a dreadful deprivation,” she says, echoing the sentiment of many other visitors, volunteers, and staff. “I missed the puyas and the wisteria blooms!”
Benedict doesn’t cite any particular garden as her favorite; she tends to let her camera determine the route she takes on any given day. “The Desert Garden is endlessly fascinating, but everywhere you look at The Huntington there is wonder.”
You don’t need a fancy camera to snap great nature photos. These vibrant cactus flowers (Echinopsis ‘First Light’) were captured in the Desert Garden with an iPhone. Photo by Lisa Blackburn.
Many of Benedict’s published photographs are broad vistas that capture the glory of the gardens throughout the seasons—the Rose Garden at the peak of spring bloom, or the Chinese Garden on a rainy winter day. But it’s often the smaller, more intimate glimpses of the gardens’ thriving ecosystem that catch her eye. A photograph of a ladybug, dusted with pollen and traversing the petals of a shiny yellow buttercup, is one of her personal favorites. “It was a special moment,” she recalls of taking that shot: crouched at bug’s-eye level and drawing curious comments from a passerby. The cheerful colors, the charismatic insect, and the vivid illustration of pollination in action all came together in one perfectly composed image.
Of course, not every visitor to The Huntington comes equipped with an expensive digital camera with interchangeable lenses. The majority do not. But great nature photographs can be taken with that ubiquitous item found in just about every back pocket or purse: the cell phone. Its portability and ease of use make it perfect for exploring the natural world’s everyday wonders. Cell phones also make it easy to share photos with others on social media. (The Huntington invites visitors to tag their pictures taken in the gardens with #AtTheH for a chance to be reposted on The Huntington’s Instagram account.)
Color, texture, and shape are some of the elements that make a great photo, as seen in this iPhone portrait of black-eyed Susan blooms (Rudbeckia ‘Chestnut Gold’) in the Shakespeare Garden. Give yourself some bonus points if you capture a bee or a butterfly at the same time. Photo by Kelly Fernandez.
Kelly Fernandez, head gardener of The Huntington’s Herb and Shakespeare gardens, often uses her cell phone to take photos as part of her job. “I like taking pictures of plant combinations, taking note of how well the color, size, and structure are integrated. And I document the seasons and take note of what has worked and what has not,” she explains. “I use my iPhone most of the time. Sometimes I get out my digital SLR at the peak of spring or for a special project, but most of the time, it’s more convenient to use the iPhone.”
Another cell phone photography fan is Karen Zimmerman, succulent propagator for the Desert Collections. Zimmerman enjoys taking nature photos as a hobby, and she primarily uses her Android, which, in addition to being convenient, takes outstanding photos. Working at The Huntington provides plenty of inspiration, and her phone’s camera is well up to the task of capturing nature at its most engaging—and in vivid detail.
Succulent desert plants, with their unusual forms and textures, are endlessly rewarding to photograph. A beautiful example is this rare Crassula ‘Buddha’s Temple’, with its tightly stacked column of leaves, shot with an Android camera. Photo by Karen Zimmerman.
One outstanding example is a dragonfly portrait that Zimmerman shot with her Android camera, handheld only, without the aid of a stabilizer or special lens. “The dragonfly was just sitting on a yucca leaf,” she recalls. “Usually they fly away as soon as you show interest in them, but this one stayed still. I took several shots; this one was the best, and because it was so clear, I needed to crop it only a little to bring it closer. I was amazed the camera focused so well, showing the details of the eyes.”
What brings a photo to life and makes it stand out? Zimmerman notes the importance of light. “Morning or late afternoon light is warmer and is wonderful for photography,” she says. The midday sun can often flatten a subject and create harsh shadows—although it can also create stunning effects of its own: Sae’s lotus photo was taken at around noon.
Yes, believe it or not, this dragonfly’s portrait was snapped with an Android cell phone camera, without the use of a stabilizer or special lens. The insect’s uncharacteristic willingness to hold a pose helped insure a sharp focus. Photo by Karen Zimmerman.
“I love color, texture, and shape,” says Fernandez (and visitors can find plenty of all three in the gardens she maintains). For Benedict, an animating quality can make all the difference. “The best shots display some action,” she says. “Something needs to be going on. A buttercup needs a ladybug. A Nile lily must have a hummingbird.” Sae emphasizes the importance of a strong composition. But in the end, he says, it all comes down to the splendor of the gardens themselves. “I personally look for the beauty of the subject, the scenery, and the wonder of nature.”
Other things to look for when exploring with your camera: the way sunlight and shadow can create intricate patterns. Notice the way an overcast sky can make colors stand out. Keep your eyes open for the whimsical, the unexpected, or the humorous. And before you snap the shutter, take a moment to frame the composition in your viewfinder so that all the elements are arranged for maximum visual impact.
Not suitable for close-ups: geese, which can be very aggressive. “Social distancing” (and a long zoom lens) are highly recommended. Photo by Martha Benedict.
With the future of the pandemic’s course still uncertain, many people are scaling back their summer travel plans. “We’ve cancelled some trips already,” says Sae, whose previous sojourns with his camera have included trips to China, Iceland, and Alaska, among other destinations. For now, he and his wife plan to focus on sights and scenes closer to home.
Luckily for Sae, Benedict, Fernandez, Zimmerman, and all the other shutterbugs out there, the sights and scenes of nature are pretty hard to beat right here at The Huntington—especially when viewed up close.
Plan your visit: Timed entry tickets are currently required for all visitors and must be obtained in advance. Please go to The Huntington’s website for complete details about ongoing COVID-19 requirements.
Lisa Blackburn is senior editor and special projects manager in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.