Photo Tips and Inspiration from Longwood Gardens
By Nicola Gordon
It’s early August in the Brandywine Valley of southern Pennsylvania. Dawn breaks over the hills on what promises to be a most glorious day.
And two garden and photography-obsessed ladies stretch and rise in the lap of luxury.
The two ladies are my mum and I, and all that luxury – well, that’s just the way we like it! The Inn at Whitewing Farm is a 44-acre historic farm landscaped with rare trees and clipped hedges.
White-washed cottages dot immaculate emerald lawns. Great Blue Heron Maxine caws to Baby Blue on a mirrored pond. And the aroma of percolating coffee completes the luxurious wake-up call.
Mum and Me
Now mum and me are up and out the door, cameras in hand a full hour before breakfast. We often travel together and here’s why. We get on like a house on fire, mum laughs at all my jokes, and we can fill a ten-hour drive with non-stop talking.
If that’s not enough, we’re both crazy about gardening and crazy about photography. Our trip to Pennsylvania was motivated by the opportunity to visit and photograph Longwood Gardens. With over 11,000 different types of plants, a stately 4.5-acre Conservatory, and 1,077 acres of outdoor gardens, Longwood is considered a horticultural masterpiece. We couldn’t resist – this trip was right up our alley!
Back to our pre-breakfast photographic jaunt around Whitewing. I didn’t get past the pond as it shimmered with the rising sun. Trees and whitewashed cottage and emerald lawns formed a lovely scene. And all this reflected on the water was perfection!
Water reflection tips
Two things will ruin that perfect reflection – ripples and glare. Go out in the early morning when the air is still, and get low to the ground to angle your lens away from the sun’s reflection. Now toss that rule of thirds out and go for perfectly symmetrical for a stunning shot.
Same Two Ladies are On A Mission
While we love our luxury home-away-from-home, we are two ladies with cleared memory cards and charged batteries, and we are on a mission: Beautiful photos – of everything! Mission impossible perhaps with so much ground to cover.
Built by Pierre du Pont from 1907 to the 1930s, Longwood boasts gardens that cover the spectrum from fabulous to quirky.
The Rose Garden is in full bloom with pale pink, and loud red, and intoxicating perfume. The Main Fountain Gardens 380 fountains splash jewels by day, and dance in sync to music and fireworks late into the night.
The Bonsai Display is a forest of ‘tiny trees’ – Ginko and Chinese Elm bent and gnarled like old men.
So many roses, and fountains and little trees – and more snapping as each beautiful image is captured and filed and forgotten. Our focus is ‘to capture’ and mum and I forget to savor our surroundings.
Now we enter the Waterlily Display and we stop to savor. Before us are five black-water ponds, and floating plants of epic proportions.
Leaves of the Victoria ‘Longwood Hybrid’ water-platter grow up to four feet across and can support a small child. Interesting visuals are matched by Victoria’s creative reproductive strategy.
Flowers open at sunset and lay snow-white petals on the waters’ surface. Scarab beetles enter the flowers floral chamber and are trapped when Victoria folds her petals closed with the rising sun.
Day once more turns to night, and scarabs are released with a fresh payload of pollen and a new flower in sight. As writers, mum and I are suckers for a good story and this one was quite fascinating!
I wanted to highlight the epic proportions of this plant. Simplicity and some creative composition accomplished this quite effectively. I took some shots that over-filled the frame with Victoria and just a few much smaller pond floaters. Minimal highly contrasted colors added to the focus on proportions.
Indulging my Orchid Obsession
Longwood’s Orchid House is an opportunity for me to indulge. Warm and misty air channels tropical rainforest ambiance. Walls are obscured by suspended pots and small waterfalls of inflorescence spill color in shades of pink and mauve.
Longwood displays only five hundred of its 7500 orchids at a time. But this is far more than I have ever seen! The macro lens comes out and I forget my long-list of ‘must-sees’ as this is enough to make me happy.
Macro Mania 101
With such a mass of flowers, depth of field is your friend.
Go for a large aperture to blur the background and focus in on a single bloom. Now spice it up with a simple technique. Carry a small spray bottle in your camera bag and spritz a few water drops to simulate rain or early morning dew.
Remember to get permission from the gardens first if you wish to try this technique!
Flower Garden Walk is Buzzing
With the sun now high overhead we take a stroll down Longwood’s two hundred meter Flower Garden Walk. Colors change with the season from cool blue and lavender in spring to pale pinks, then vibrant red, orange and yellow as the summer progresses.
Cameras at our sides, the conversation is all about the visuals and our ‘Oohs’ and ‘Ahhhhs’ express a gardener’s appreciation for layered banks of color in summers vibrant hues.
While I love this garden, the bugs love it even more. A quiet hum grows louder as we approach the brightest and most fragrant blooms. Now hum turns to frenzied buzzing over Globe Amaranth.
The color and diminutive proportions are more like the shy child of the flower world. But to a hungry bee or butterfly, multiple upright florets and abundant nectar make this little flower just delectable.
Tips for Shooting Busy Bugs
I find a virtual city of buzzing bugs on my mid-day stroll down Flower Garden Walk. With the sun and the warmth, they are on a mission to find food, and my frenetic efforts to capture a shot mirror their frenetic quest for food.
Try bug shots in the early morning and you’ll have more luck if you know where to look. Check under flowers and leaves and you’ll find sleepy critters with no plans of moving until the sun warms them up.
Towering Plants in Whimsical Shapes
Mum and I are both inspired by the opportunity to photograph something really different. We wait for the sun to start heading for the horizon and stroll over to the whimsical Topiary Garden where fifty towering and carefully clipped yews display the prowess of masterful gardeners.
Most specimens were planted in 1958 and have been shaped by half a century of meticulous pruning. Emerald lawns are now dominated by a crouching dog, birds, cones, and spirals.
Cloudy Days are Your Friend
Our late afternoon rendezvous with the topiaries is no coincidence. These towering shapes have no cover, and the only shade is the harsh shadows they cast across the lawns and each other.
For such a challenge the best defense is a cloudy day or the diffused light of the late afternoon. Or try a wide-angle shot for more emphasis on shape and size.
And We Finally Slow Down
Longwood Gardens ranks as one of the great gardens of the world. But ask any visitor, and they’ll tell you – it’s just beautiful. Simple. After a long day with mission accomplished, two exhausted ladies put down the cameras. And take time to smell the flowers.
Garden Touring at Longwood:
1001 Longwood Rd, Kennett Square, PA 19348, United States. Phone: 1.610.388.1000
Hours: 9-5 daily
Where to stay
The Inn at Whitewing Farm
370 Valley Road, West Chester, PA, United States. Phone: 610.388-.2013 website
Innkeepers Lance and Sandy Shortt welcome you to this luxurious inn just minutes from Longwood Gardens.
Stay for $135-$245 mid-week to $145 -$269 on weekends.
50 Sweetwater Road, Glen Mills, PA, United States. Phone: 610.459.4711 website
Sweetwater Farm’s fifty acres include Grace Winery. Enjoy your evening on the porch with a glass of Grace Winery 2009 Chardonnay overlooking the vineyard. Just 20 minutes from Longwood. Rooms range from $190-$355 per night
Homewood Suites by Hilton
4109 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, United States. Phone: 215-382-1111 website
Stay in downtown Philadelphia with all the comforts of a well-known hotel chain. Just 45 minutes from Longwood. Rates start at $159 per night.
Where to Eat
Longwood Gardens, of course!
Phone for fine dining reservations: 610.388.1000 See above for website.
Enjoy a meal of unique culinary flavor and fresh local ingredients prepared by Executive Chef Jason Belkov or enjoy pasta, sandwiches, and fresh-baked desserts in the cafeteria. About $35 for lunch starter and main course at 1906 Fine Dining Restaurant, or $12 for lunch in The Cafe.
Bite of Italy
847 East Baltimore Pike, Kennett Square, PA. Phone: 610.925.2762 website
Bite of Italy specializes in brick-oven baked specialty pizza and pasta from all regions of Italy.
About $20 for starter and Margherita Pizza lunch.
914 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills, PA. Phone: 610.459.2400 ext 5 website
Terrain’s restaurant serves meals that ‘celebrate the cycle of the seasons and the bounty of the land’. Enjoy your delicious meal in the horticultural ambiance of the antique greenhouse.
Then shop Terrain for ‘Outdoor Living’ at its best! About $25 for Truffle Polenta Pizza and Camembert Tartine.
Nicola Gordon is a travel writer and photographer based near Toronto, Canada. Writing interests include luxury and exotic travel, gardening, and wine. Most recently Nicola has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Edmonton Journal.