Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pursuing the Nature Photography Certificate

Photo by Leonard Beeghley
by Erika Zambello

I was on my belly in one of the Terrace Gardens paths, hoping I wouldn't get in the way of other visitors. My camera in front of me, I placed the lens as close as I could to a patch of delicate blue and purple pansies bordering the trail and reaching just a few inches above the ground. Sure, I could have taken the photo standing up, but I had just learned about the importance of different photography perspectives in "Learning to See in Nature," and I was already impressed with how interesting my image looked as I got down to the plant's level.

The photography courses at Duke Gardens have opened up a whole new world for me, changing the way I see the natural environment when I am photographing. I am pursuing the Nature Photography Certificate, which requires four core photography classes, 30 class hours of electives, and three Home Horticulture Certificate required courses. I am nearing the completion of my certificate, and the difference in the technical quality of my photographs as well as composition is obvious.

Beautiful redbud blossoms
As I learned about my camera itself in "Introduction to Digital Photography," and explored composition, light, focal point, and so much more in my other classes, I found myself in all sorts of interesting positions around the Gardens. I lay on my back along a stone ledge to take pictures of grasses waving in the wind above me, I bent and stretched with a reflector to diffuse just the right amount of light over a yellow poppy flower, and I got up on my tippy-toes to take a close-up shot of a cherry blossom overhead. Was it good for my photography? Yes. Was it also a ton of fun? Yes!

Monocot cells under the microscope in Basic Botany.

The largest surprise in my certificate journey has been how much I have enjoyed the Home Horticulture Certificate courses. Though I am an environmental student, I actually know quite little about gardening basics or plant identification, and it was a true joy to recognize plants in the Gardens after taking a tour with Education Director Jan Little in "Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens;" to look through the microscope with Duke professor Alec Motten, who taught the Gardens' "Basic Botany" class, as we differentiated a monocot from a dicot; to pull apart an onion plant as my first propagation practice in "Gardening 101." As an ecologist, I'm usually focused on the big picture - a forest, a landscape, a park - and it was really great to focus on individual plants, or even individual cells!

Learning tree identification in "Landscape Plants" class.
My last photography class will be "Macro Photography," a two-day course in which fine art photographer Les Saucier teaches participants the best techniques and practices for macro shots, photos that will get the most from your camera and lenses and create astonishing close-up images. I'm excited to finish my last photography class but sad that my certificate program is almost over. Lucky for me, I can continue to take as many photography class as I want, even if I have already earned the certificate.

As I near the end of my Nature Photography Certificate, I find myself recommending the courses to new and experienced photographers alike. There is always something new to learn, and I pick up helpful tips from both the skilled instructors as well as my fellow students!

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying ecosystem science and conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

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