December Garden Update: The Secret World: Our Garden Through a Macro Lens

The Secret World: Our Garden Through a Macro Lens

Photo 1

In my job taking care of the 20th Street Garden, I spend a lot of time at ground level. When you get close up, you can see a number of amazing details: flower parts, leaf patterns, insect wings. However, trying to capture these in a photograph can be frustrating. Many of these details don’t show up well in a photo even when you zoom all the way in.

Many years ago, I took a photography class using a 35mm film camera with manual settings and learned lots of ways to take bad photos and waste film. These days I am grateful for digital cameras. I often use an iPhone for garden photography because it is portable and easy to use.

Recently I got an inexpensive clip-on macro lens for the phone to try and capture more closeup detail of the garden world. I was excited to use it for the first time on 20th Street. I definitely need more practice, but the initial results are surreal and surprising:

Photo 2
(Lantana in front of Salumeria)

Photo 3
(Closeup of Lantana flower)

The closer we zoom in, the grainier the picture gets. Some of this blur is due to movement: the slightest breeze or even your own breath and heartbeat are magnified. I’d get clearer results with a tripod, but some graininess would still be inherent. The lack of clear edges lends a dreamy, otherworldly quality to the subjects. Fine for Instagram, not so helpful for scientific or educational applications.

Photo 4
(“Bunny Tails” grass on Florida Street)

Photo 5
(Closeup of “Bunny Tails” grass flower)

Another issue with the macro lens is the short “depth of field” or “zone of focus.” In other words, everything in the picture cannot be in focus. You can really see that in the top picture of the toyon berries outside Sightglass. The berries closest to us and the wall furthest from us are out of focus. Most of the berries in between are in focus. If you don’t need everything to be sharp, you can take advantage of this short depth of field to create interesting, artistic pictures.

Photo 6
(Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ on Florida Street)

Photo 7
(Sedum flowers just opening)

I look forward to playing with this lens and other accessories in the new year. One thing for sure: once you start zooming in, you will never see plants as ordinary again!

Photo 8
(Yarrow on Florida Street)

Photo 9
(Closeup of yarrow flowers)

Photo 10
(Closeup of dried yarrow flowers)

Photo 11
(Closeup of yarrow leaf)

Ellyn Shea is a gardener and garden consultant in San Francisco. Visit her at

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