VanDusen Botanical Garden
... How to get your photo groove on!


A picture's worth a thousand words. And VanDusen Botanical Garden is a paradise that inspires incredible photo stories.  Of all the gardens I've visited around the world, it's still my favourite, right here at home in Vancouver, Canada.

Let's go on a 4-seasons' walking tour. There's a lot of ground to cover.

The 55 acre site started out as Canadian Pacific Railway bushland. It began its transformation in 1966 and debuted as a botanical garden in 1975. VanDusen Botanical Garden has so many distinct and well-cared for gardens... it will be your favorite garden, too!

Changing Seasons in the Garden

The place is buzzing all times of the year with...

  • Courses of all sorts and a Master Gardener Program.
  • Flower shows and competitions - enjoy and photograph or compete.
  • Craft shows spring and fall - do your Christmas and birthday shopping, or sell some garden photography.
  • The yearly Festival of Lights is spectacular at VanDusen Botanical Gardens. Whatever you do, don't miss it!
  • A glorious garden shop where my wish list is as long as my arm.
  • Plant and seed sales - great for yourself or gifts for your gardener buddies.
  • It's wheel chair accessible - get a special map from the cashier at the door to the garden.
  • If you need information about your garden, call their Plant Information Line. There's a Master Gardener waiting for your call.
  • Let a volunteer take you on a tour of the garden so you can plan your photography day.
  • The library's a super place if you've got an interest in horticulture. Need information on the plants in your garden pictures? Are you keen on designing your garden space? Everything you need is in the library.
  • So many sub-gardens - like traveling to gardens around the world, without the expense!

More than 400 volunteers feel the same passion for this garden as I do. Each of us think of it, lovingly, as our own. I hope you will, too!

A late autumn morning.  Not your usual cheerful, bright coloured fall subject. The light is quite blue and cold. It rained the day before and then all night. To make these poor leaves even colder, they fell on a stone table in the Children's Garden beside Shaughnessy Restaurant.

The Artistic Touch - Photo Editing

Are you a realist or an artist… or both? This is the part where you learn how I created some of my pictures of VanDusen Botanical Gardens.

I'm in a blissful state in the digital darkroom. Same thing happened to me in the "real" darkroom! I was kind of a die-hard… held on to slide film and chemicals for a long time before I gave in to the digital revolution. Now I'm sold!

If you can press a shutter, you can learn basic photo editing, Download a free or inexpensive lightweight "model" and start playing. Crop, boost the saturation, change the white balance a tad. Some of my photos only get a few tweaks but I'm totally hooked on manipulating pixels!

This photograph is one of my earliest images from photography school... still my very favourite. The translucent petals are brilliant.

And all the little hairs on the stems are also outlined in the bright sunlight.

At the time, digital was not great and we were all shooting film. This is a 35 mm slide. Exposure has to be right on target or the image is a throw-away. A big difference from digital where you can check your histogram for your exposure.

These poppies have very little editing applied. I used a Nikon Coolscan to scan the slide. The exposure was perfect... it only needed some minor sharpening and I added a white vignette.  That's it!

Love The Fog

You'll recognize this scene from above except that photo is horizontal view. When you shoot scenes, tilt your camera and get the image in both views. You might be surprised how much you like the vertical shot.

VanDusen Botanical Gardens, the stream near the Maze.

This image is also edited with HDR but it's not "over the top".  This foggy winter day was cool and humid and the photo editing makes it look cold.

I didn't put a "glow" on since that would make the scene look warmer than it was. HDR makes the edges of the foliage sharp and that's why this image looks cold... like it felt in the garden.

When the fog rolls in, be grateful!  Grab your camera and the photo opportunity. Make a bee-line right to the scene you wanted to shoot so badly, but the background was busy, ugly or just plain gross! 

Fog saves the scene... it swallows up all the cruddy details you just don't want in your photo.  Buildings in the skyline,  trash cans you can't move... abracadabra - gone.

And fog is so easy to shoot in. Your light meter sees it as neutral gray and most of the time, it reads the exposure correctly.

To make the scene look even softer, I shifted the histogram just a bit to the right in Photoshop so the scene looks a tad lighter. Then I gave it lightened up the edges but kept the sculpture and trees sharp.

Compare this image to the HDR just before. It's the same day, but HDR makes that picture look really cold. Because so much of this photo is soft, it looks warmer.

This is one of my favourite photos from my foggy day shoot at VanDusen Botanical Gardens. It's the kinky tree!  Don't you just love the knotted branches?

This is a scene out of some witch fairy tale. And fog makes it so much spookier.

The tree, grass and stone bridge are near the camera, so their colour and texture is clear and focused.  Everything beyond the bridge is muted and softened in the fog. 


Layers and Textures

What's the deal with using layers in Photoshop?  Why not just work on the original and deal with just one layer? 

Here's the deal... whether you work in RAW or you shoot JPGs, you'll always be better off editing your files in layers. The best way to describe a RAW file is that it's like having a negative that needs developing. A JPG, is a file that's already been developed and your camera has compressed it... it's "cooked". Whatever work you do on a JPG is destructive. But, when you work with a RAW file, the original pixel information is always there.

Start out by making a copy of your original file... that preserves the original. Then, for each adjustment, make a separate layer. As you add more layers, you might want to go back to change a previous adjustment layer and experiment with it... or delete it. If you do all your work on your background layer, you can't change anything, it just builds on the previous modification. If you don't like the result, you have to scrap the whole thing and start over. Understand the reasons behind layers now?

The stone arch at the north end of the exquisite formal rose garden at VanDusen Botanical Garden. It leads into the heritage rose garden and the "black" garden.

I tried editing this photo two different ways. The first version had only minor adjustments... the exact way I saw it.

But I prefer the softening and glow to "reality". Maybe because this was shot in bright sunlight (not a good plan) ... it's a high contrast image. Blurring tones down the dark shadows.

Vancouver is big on Cherry Blossom Festival and this garden makes it's contribution of spectacular cherry trees every spring. 

This is an older image from my photography school days... 35 mm slide film, scanned on a Nikon Coolscan.  It's an apple tree on an espalier running right alongside the Children's Garden at VanDusen Botanical Garden.  At least it was. it's not there anymore.  But I love the photo for a few reasons. 

  • the delicate white apple flowers
  • the image is such a great example of perspective
  • it follows the Rule of Thirds
  • old wooden fences have lots of texture
  • the fence creates parallel lines and angles

This espalier was in the Children's Garden. It was removed at the time the new VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre was being built.

One board starts at the lower left corner and angles across the image.  The top board sits in the upper third (Rule of Thirds).

The posts angle across the photo and come closer together on the right side... that creates perspective. Our brains interpret this flat image as a 3 dimensional espalier.

Cypress Pond is camouflaged with waterlilies and lots of photos there!  Use the wooden bridge to get a nice close up shot of a blossom.

You can tell I'm partial to lightened edges and white vignettes for so many of my images. There was a period of time when I applied very dark textures to  my images... there are several of those that I still really love, like the two blue waterlilies on this page. But we're all allowed to change and my editing has evolved as well.

iPhoneography... Textures and Apps

There's a lot more you should know about layers, especially about editing JPGs. If you're shooting with your cell phone, you're shooting JPG. Editing is fun, but it's always destructive for JPGs. There are some "best practices" to make sure you're being the least destructive as possible during the process.

Cell phones only shoot JPGs, at least for now.

My iPhone is the camera I use the most now... because it's always with me! Learn about getting the best cell phone photos possible here.

The original JPG photo looks a lot different than this finished file.   I saved it to my computer and edited it in Photoshop... no editing in my cell phone.

The file has 2 texture layers that gave the tree trunk even more texture and changes the colour from a gray to brown.

It's warmed up  a little to give it that "golden hour" feel.

The hydrangeas are along the Rhododendron Walk at VanDusen Botanical Garden.  The tree trunk is made into a sculpture and acts like a frame.

This is a fun app... it's called "You Gotta See This".  Shooting panoramas takes a bit of practice, especially using this app, but the results can turn out really awesome.  You tilt the camera on different angles as the app automatically shoots the scene and, in the end, it puts the images together into a "collage panorama". You can choose from a few different backgrounds and different ways the app stitches the images together.

You have to practice with this one so you move the cell phone at the right speed for your specific scene.  You may have to try several times and check the results so you can make adjustments. 

It took several trials for this image.  First I moved the camera too slowly, then got the angles wrong.  For this lake scene in VanDusen Botanical Garden, it didn't work well if I tilted the phone excessively.

The layer on layer build up of the cobalt sky is nice.

Close Up and Macro

Lavender is always an excellent choice to photograph. 

The best time to photograph it is in the very early morning before any wind comes up. We could say that for all flower and garden photography! But lavender is very light and blows around in even a teensy breeze. Wind is not your friend if you want sharp images.

Though, I've seen lovely, dreamy images of flowers taken on windy days or with a slow shutter speed... the difference is, those images were planned to show movement. Don't shoot flowers on a windy day unless you can find a sheltered area or it's extremely bright and you can use a super-fast shutter speed to freeze any movement.

This was shot with a Nikon 105 mm macro lens, though it's a close up and not a macro. The lavender flowers fill the entire photo so there's no wondering what the subject is. Two-thirds of the image is in sharp focus ... the lavender in the background is out of focus and makes a lovely soft purple scene.

Furry young ferns... some type of Japanese fern but I can't remember. That's a reminder to take a notebook with you and write down all the names of the plants you photograph.

It's amazing, the way these fuzzy brown babies burst out of the ground. Get your photos before they transform into mature green ferns!

Spiral shapes and curves make for great photos.  Get close and fill the entire frame with your subject. It's obvious what the subject is here.

These young ferns are beside the Rhododendron Walk at VanDusen Botanical Gardens. They're curved into  a fibonacci spiral, a shape you'll find throughout nature.  A fascinating read... grab your camera, go outside and find some of Fibonacci's living, breathing spirals to photograph.  Hint, any sunflowers nearby?

Wrapping It Up.

Hope you enjoyed the tour and the hints for your garden photos.

Walking through a peaceful, beautiful space like VanDusen Botanical Garden is one way of becoming closer to the natural world we're so blessed with. Looking through your camera lens forces you to pay attention to the details... to be in the here and now.

If you let it, your camera can become your connection to nature. Just picking up your camera will be the stimulus to unwind.

And maybe you'll see me here on your next visit to VanDusen Botanical Garden.  Take a look at the VanDusen Garden's official website.

Information About VanDusen Botanical Garden

Accessibility - VanDusen Botanical Garden is wheelchair accessible... but there are a few steep or rocky areas in the 55 acre site. They have some wheelchairs available and you can ask for one at the main entrance.

It's a very popular place for wedding and wedding photos. There are several areas, either on the Great Lawn or near the lakes. The garden setting is spectacular for an outdoor wedding and you absolutely want to have your camera if you're a guest.

Movies - Hollywood discovered Vancouver and VanDusen Botanical Garden years ago and it always seems to be buzzing with film crews. You might be able to catch a glimpse of the stars. But don't expect to take pictures when a movie set has taken over... they get very upset when cameras pop up!


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