Capture the Context

It’s All in the Context

I was asked by bag from Experiments With Plants,  “Are those ponds amongst the greenery in the second from last photo ?”

Well, I thought this an important enough question to elaborate. To explore the root of the question, not the simplified inquiry, to see how it relates to the photographs supporting a story or premise.

The question was posed on Green Apples in the post, More than the Falls in Ontario. When a photographer or me as an amateur, takes a photograph, a conscious decision is made about context. When editing the image a mindful cropping is to occur so as to relay and support the purpose of the shot.

It is especially important in story telling with images. In fact any design has the element of context and story, sometimes in opposition of, other times in concert with and other times in deference to. Context gives a sense of time, place or even social norms in photography.

In architecture it matters in the utmost and literal way, so as an architect, I am very aware of my surroundings and what and how I want to convey a message or place in a design. It is referred to as contextualism in the field. It is a location or a place that includes various natural features that characterize and create the context of the place. But visual cues in the environment which surround an observer can be complicated at times, yet remains an essential ingredient of the realistic imagery. I digress, but suffice it to say, context is important to so many disciplines of design.

I have to admit, in photography, I often take it for granted a bit by just framing a nice image, but really I am aware. I am just not as interested in placing it in situ, especially if it is a solitary image. But to support the text of a story, photographic context becomes of consequence.

It is like my previous post Some Like it Hot, where I showed a number of macro shots of individual flowers. By isolating the blooms, one can not get a sense of the whole garden. Do I have one flower of one kind in the garden or many? Am I skewing your perception of what my garden holds in prominence? But show the beds in which the flowers reside, and context is created. Questions are answered.

I am guessing a good photographer and story-teller documents location, time, conditions and the such. Maybe giving just a hint of the vernacular in the image itself, rather than a blatant or grand gesture. This is important in architecture too, where you gesture and nod to the context but not copy that which is around. It is not necessary to replicate the sense of place literally.

When you think about it, how many IP photos do you see that literally shred the model of proportionality with grandstanding sensationalism, removing or skewing the story from time and place, make an insignificant story into news of great proportion and national interest? All with the use of a crafty headline and barn-burning photo. Intentional yes, misleading, absolutely. Forcing the viewer to form a mental picture to put a spin on reality.  Just saying…

So this got me thinking about the question. So here is my answer to bag, who wanted to know if the ponds were located in amongst the grasses I had shown in an image similar to the angle in this shot of the American Falls, above. I have to admit, it is deceiving and was done purposefully to make the shot less touristy. But in association with all the images of the ponds, I can see the confusion it created. I can see the mental picture formed skewing the reality of where I was standing to shoot the photo.

But first we will locate my position for the first image. It is quite a distance away. This is the Rainbow Bridge connecting the two countries. Above, I am on the Canadian half of the bridge focusing in on the first postcard like image shown at the beginning of this post.

And not that it matters much, but I made a conscious decision on the image above. Since my post is about decision making and all, I framed the stone wall arch to follow the arch of the bridge.  I should have taken a few shots to get it just right though. A little to the left please.

The third image with the grasses in the foreground of the Falls has the location similar to the one shown on Green Apples. This is the location as follows.

We start to see as I pan back to my location, any drama or natural effect is quickly lost because you can see I am not standing in the grassy meadow artificially shown in the close up below.

In fact it is not a meadow at all, but a quick drop off of 180 feet of rocky gorge. The pretty grasses would not necessarily be here if it were not for budget cuts, either. I talked with a Parks employee and he told me they now cut the weeds back about every three to five years. Spraying herbicides is no longer an option in Canada, but they do spray a horticultural vinegar solution. He explained that this is only a temporary solution and the weeds quickly regrow. I actually like the weeds and they add a lot to my photo, but they are actually the focus of the image and what is causing the confusion.

Let’s keep turning…

Are you getting a sense of where I am standing?

See, no peaceful field behind, just safety and tourists.

Now for the pond in question…

this really throws a wrench in capturing context.

And scale.

But you can see how context and scale are creeping in by a change in location and camera view.

You can start to read location. The Sheraton is reflecting in the water and more overtly, the sign tells you exactly how close you are in relation to the hotel.

If we turn around, we see the lily pond and how close it is to the boulevard. It is funny too being this close, how easily these ponds go unnoticed by tourists. Because… across the street…

the sounds, bright light and feel of the mist draw your attention away. So if an image is purposefully framed like the one below or cropped like the one above,  figuring out how it relates to its surroundings is not always so easy. Above, it looks like the Falls is right in front of you and you can reach out and touch it. But in reality, it is quite a distance away. A whole county away as a matter of fact. Take that in context.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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42 Responses to Capture the Context

  1. GirlSprout says:

    Donna, context is so important – even though I ignore it in my photos most of the time. I was sharing some photos of my garden with my co-workers at a work related lunch. And one remarked how sparse her garden looked in comparison to mine. I mentioned that most of the photos were isolated shots of blooms so you couldn’t see that garden hadn’t quite filled in yet. Great post.

    • Ignoring it was what my post was all about. My mistake was in the grouping of images then writing a story (actually, just a description) about them. When I read the comment, then looked at why it was written, did I then understand what bag was saying. Bag was right to think what was said. It really did look like the ponds were near the grasses, when if fact, they are across the street at the hotel, (which I also did not show).

  2. Really nice post! I am guilty of providing macros sometimes because the bigger picture isn’t so pretty. But I also like the details of blooms and texture of plants that can only be appreciated in macros. This has given me food for thought andI need to show a sense of context more often to show the “reality” of the garden. Thank you for your amazing photos and insight!

    • Me too. I have been doing macros because they turn out much nicer than the ‘big’ landscape shots. I have loads of images from my jobs and designs, but they are always the panorama shots, taking in the whole site or large drifting beds. They always tend to turn out poorly. I know some of this is the time of day, because I am not on site early in the morning or late in the afternoon generally. I have only a handful of images that are good enough to post because of this. But in my own garden, I can get up early or go out late. Plus, I don’t care too much either if the beds are disarrayed. Mine are pretty much that way currently since the boxwood and yews have yet to be trimmed or the paving cleaned and weeded. LOL.

  3. Laurrie says:

    Fascinating post. There’s a lot here to pore over, and your progression of shots to illustrate the context issues is very helpful. Of course the dramatic backdrop of the Falls is always amazing in every shot, no matter how it’s framed.

    • How true. It is almost impossible to take a bad image of the Falls. Any shot with even a smidgen of the Falls always seems to announce where the viewer is at. Even on dreary, cloudy days, the Falls still commands and steals the show.

    • I am really not certain what you mean in your comment. The post is referring to a mistake I made by posting an image out of context to the rest of the images grouped in the post and in relationship to the title on GA. I confused the ‘where’ in the shot. There is not art in my images, just documentation and a bit of selective framing. In architecture the art arises out of how well a building fits within its environment, yet while still retaining originality and timelessness, among other things. It is a hard thing to accomplish in areas rich in history and character.

      When writing a story the images seem to need some bit of context to help support or make reference to the story. Since I am not a photographer, I tend to shoot then think of something to say, where a photographer may shoot to support a story or advertisement. Or may make the story with a well done shot, but the intent of a story is there in the first place. I have been trying to work on this and be more patient and thoughtful in shooting. It seems only professionals are the ones to make the real art, because it is not done by accident.

  4. Holley says:

    This is exactly why I love to see garden pictures, and not just close up flower pictures. Good explanation.

    • I think combining both is a good idea. Like I said to Cathy, it is nice to see it performing and coexisting. Plus, another nice thing too is documenting the garden weekly. So much changes in a week’s time that images help greatly in fine tuning bed design. All ready in my front bed there are plants that need to be relocated for one reason or another. By following tag descriptions only, plants I was unfamiliar with are now not growing the way it was shown. Part is that the nurseries much generalize and can not be expected to cite all planting zones as to plant performance. But, it still would be nice to have both a macro of the flower and a photo of the plant at maturity.

  5. Cathy says:

    Ditto to what Holley said. I love close-ups as I can get a good idea of the attributes of a variety, but I also like to see it in the context of a bed. Sometimes that changes my opinion entirely of the plant! Great post. Like size, context IS important!

    • You are so right. I have been tricked by catalog macro shots and descriptions, that upon buying the plant, it does not look like or perform like anything that was described. If they would only show it blooming in a bed, it would have changed my mind most likely.

  6. Thanks for all the great tips! Now I just need a new camera. 🙂

    • I am surprised when I visit some professional photographer sites that on occasion, they use pretty small and simplified equipment for certain shots in certain circumstances. My little Nikon point and shoot has had some pretty amazing results and it is not anything I did to get the image. Same with my iPhone. It too has surprised me sometimes. In fact, the image I first posted when I started the blog, of the Falls, was from my little Nikon, and I think it was the best shot I ever took of the Falls. Go figure.

  7. debsgarden says:

    Great post! I enjoy photographs that are stories unto themselves and also those that are accessories to a story. A photograph directs our attention, be it toward a panoramic scene or a minute detail that the eye could easily miss, and it’s really fun to see what perspective and context can do!

    • Photos are powerful tools and it is just a enlightening thought, one as an amateur, I rarely think about as much as I should. A learning process too, where as in architecture, there is power in seeing. We were taught to ‘see’ in architecture school and it was far more intense than the word implies. Relating it to photography makes a world of sense.

  8. b-a-g says:

    Donna, Thanks for your detailed reply to my question! I have just spent half an hour scrolling up and down and I can almost feel the spray on my face. Generally, I have absolutely no sense of direction or distance, I rely on land-marks. The stone wall definitely helps me with the context. Also the curved building with long windows at the left of the I Am Here photo, which can be seen on the right in the photo after. I guess it was my over-active imagination thinking there was a link between the falling water and the water in the ponds.

    • Your question gave me the idea for the post, thank you. I never really looked at context playing into photography before, yet it is really important in building design. It made me realize that an image is but a snapshot in time and place and to tell a story, must speak to both in words and pictures. You were so right, when I looked back at the images, I could see why you posed the question. It is hard when only writing a quick post to avoid ambiguity, especially because I know my subject so well, yet others may not have a clue about the Park. And being such a large landscape, there is little reference if I frame an image to avoid the commercialism and commerce.

  9. Excellent article on how pictures can appear to change the reality of our posts. I’ve started adding more shots of my entire garden so readers can get a feel for what the various beds look like at a distance. It gives it a greater sense of reality.

    • Great idea. I for one enjoying seeing the larger picture. It gives a better sense of the garden and gardener. My garden is so tiny, it is difficult to get it all in with one shot. I just can’t get back far enough. And in the front yard, I get more vehicles than garden by stepping back. Rare day when everyone in close proximity is away for the day.

  10. Alistair says:

    Donna,what an interesting post, you have definitely given me food for thought. I sure am guilty of just adding photos and not considering the full picture. The close up shots can look fantastic compared to the bigger picture on some occasions, I think I will try to reach a balance which I am happy with.

  11. Hi Donna – its something I always appreciate about your gardening photos – most blogs (me included) only show close ups of the flowers and not the full plant and how it relate to others in a real garden setting. Your blog mostly does. For newbies like myself, its very helpful to see the full plant next to others to give us a better idea of how to place them and with what.

    This was a great post. The photos are quite superb – you are so talented!

    • I hope it helps to show the beds because what is interesting is how they change over the season. The front bed is brand new and I am working on having it have the same look as the rear, but with many different plants of course. I have boxwood surrounding it too, though the front ones are little. Once the Concolor becomes my Christmas tree, the bed will have many new flowers.

  12. dona says:

    Hi Donna! I absolutely love close-ups, and most of the time I absolutely ignore the contest. I find this way of taking photos more imaginative, creative and amusing (for the photographer).

  13. Greenearth says:

    Great post and just love the photos you have achieved.

  14. Donna says:

    Fabulous post and so fascinating to consider…I loved seing how you captured where you were and what reality was… especially knowing the area a bit…still the photo is wonderful no matter the context…I love to capture close ups because they are a challenge and you miss such details of the plants that are so lovely…many times we cannot capture what our eyes are seeing on camera…it is then that I may discard a garden picture for a close up…it is also fun playing with collages to compare the full image with close ups…of course I love pictures of gardens from above for a perspective too..

    • It is true nice photos can be merely nice photos, but if they have a story to tell, sometimes more needs to be said. The details are fun to capture. Seeing what is so small and would go unnoticed if the photo was not taken.

  15. Very thoughtful discussion. I think about this a lot when I want to show flowers on a perennial or shrub without using more than one photo. A close up of the flower usually wins but it is not that helpful without a shot of the whole plant.

  16. BumbleLush says:

    Great post. WIsh I had found this post before I visited Niagara Falls last September. Of course I missed the ponds because I was focused on the falls. Next trip….

    Thanks for visiting my and commenting on my blog. I got a kick out of reading that you give cayenne peppers to your cockatoo!

  17. lula says:

    Context is almost everything: deciding the perspective, frame, proportions, etc., but it is also the concept, what is to be said and how. Sometimes, maybe most of the times, is organising the shoot. I always have in mind Ansel Adams words: “see the picture with the mind’s eye”, and the mind is always putting things in context to understand! beautiful images of your area, by the way Happy 4th of July!

    • You really expanded the definition so concisely and made it so easy to understand.. There is so much meaning in a photograph when you consider all the aspects of the word context. It means the same pretty much in architecture too, but this would be such a long post to get into how it spans so many visual fields.

  18. This was a very interesting post. As I am an amateur garden photographer, I am amazed at all the possibilities. This narrows it down a bit for a mindful reference when taking a shot. I think the shots of the falls are so lovely…almost any shot of them would hold some of the beautiful elegance they display.

  19. Great post Donna, context does make a huge difference to how you understand an image. BTW, I had wanted to leave a comment on your end of month view post but it seems comments are closed. Its pertinent though, because I was going to say how much I enjoyed putting the lovely macro images of your lilies into the context of the bed you have so often talked about. I love the way all that exuberant colour is contained within that neat and tidy evergreen boundary.

    • Thank you so much Janet. I should increase the number of posts for comments. It is most likely because I am a designer, that I always want to see and understand more, and blogging is not always the format for that since it is usually a quick read. But, it does help those wanting to see how a bed is designed or how it progresses.

      Today I went out to see those lilies and just as I expected, the Monarda is now towering over them. This is good because as they fade, the Monarda takes over the visual prominence in the bed. I am sure to show that for GBBD. I try to have a constant change in this bed through the seasons and some of the plants are new to the bed this year. So it is a wait and see for timing. The boxwood are my winter interest and they help keep all the inhabitants tidy, standing straight and contained within a boundry.

  20. Jennifer says:

    Hi Donna, I wanted to go back and comment about this because I have been thinking about this a lot myself. Recently, I have been making a definite effort to show more of my garden warts and all and not just the closeups. I bloom without context doesn’t give a blog reader any idea about what the full plant looks like. Endless macro shots also does not speak to garden design and layout which are probably one of my biggest interests. I am making it my own personal goal to show more plants in context.

    • Thanks Jennifer. I am glad to have a convert. Since design is my interest and having a continued showing throughout the season, I am very appreciative when bloggers show the garden in context. It gives me many ideas for my own designs. I absolutely love macro shots and am guilty myself of too much monster sized images of one bloom, but started to bore myself of this and thought pretty hard about changing my perspective. This garden walk season, I plan to show more expansive images if I can due to constraints. On my client’s properties, that is all I really can show because the properties are designed to see as a whole. The individual plants are just a bonus when strolling through. Most of them also have tremendous borrowed views, so I must be careful about infringing on the grander scenery.

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