Garden Theater in Seattle

I spent the day yesterday at the 2011 Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. It’s become an annual journey down the freeway to partake of early-season gardening inspiration, as well as a time to reconnect with many good friends in the garden writing and photography community. The show is one of the world’s best garden shows, both from the standpoint of the display gardens and the array of vendors selling plants and garden goodies. It runs through Sunday, February 27 so you’ve still got a couple of days to make it to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center [map] in downtown Seattle.

For the last couple of years I’ve put together a video slideshow of the display gardens and 2011 is no exception. I hope you enjoy it. Then scroll down for some tips on photographing in the garden show environment.

Photographing the Garden Show

Because the garden show is indoors with theatrical lighting it can be challenging to photograph. I see lots of people carrying digital cameras of all sizes around the show so I know taking pictures is a popular activity. Most folks are just holding their camera out in front and trusting automatic to do its thing. Often they’re using flash. You can do better than that with just a little bit of extra care.


Set your camera for indoor, or tungsten white balance. At least in Seattle, the show lights are big incandescent spotlights. Compared to outdoors the color is very warm, or yellowish. When you use your camera’s flash you’re adding light that is very blue by comparison. You may like the yellow-blue mix but I think sticking with one kind of light source looks more natural.


It’s dark in the display garden area. I used 400 and 800 ISO to shoot the photos in the video. Newer cameras do a pretty good job at noise reduction and the tradeoff of getting a fast enough shutter speed outweighs the quality loss from using high ISO. I don’t like to go above ISO 800 but you may find that the quality at 1600 is acceptable for you.


Again, because it’s so dark you want to use the widest aperture your camera is capable of. I set my camera on Aperture-priority auto exposure and open up all the way. I get less depth of field, but I want the higher shutter speed a wide-open lens gets me.

Hold it Steady

Even with high ISO and a wide-open aperture I still found myself shooting a lot of the gardens at less than 1/30 second. My camera has image stabilization which helps a lot at reducing camera shake. Whenever I could I found something to brace the camera against … fenceposts, stones, walls, pillars, pretty much anything I could find that wasn’t off limits to touch. I also shot a lot from down low so I could squat, place an elbow on a knee, and make myself into as steady a platform as I could. Although I don’t own one, a monopod would be very helpful and they don’t create a traffic hazard like a tripod.

Shoot RAW

If your camera lets you shoot RAW then do it. The lighting is so contrasty that even with good control over your exposures, raw processing software (like Adobe Lightroom or your camera manufacturer’s tools) will often let you recover some highlight detail that would otherwise be lost and maybe brighten up the shadows as well. I did a little processing work on every photo in the slideshow above.

Include Plant Labels

A lot of the pictures people take at garden shows are of specimen plants they want to remember and consider purchasing for their own garden. All the display gardens had labels on most of the plants. It makes sense to include the label in your plant reference photos. This is the opposite of what I do when shooting outdoor gardens for magazines, but that’s a different purpose.


Where else are you going to find twenty-some gardens with cool plants, no wind, and award-winning design all under one roof? Take the time to play and experiment with your camera while at the show. With digital you can always throw out the clunkers that didn’t work later and all it cost you was a little time and pushing your comfort zone.

While you’re enjoying the visual aspects of the show be sure to breathe deeply, too. This year’s fragrant plant of choice seemed to be Daphne odora ‘Marginata’ which has a wonderful sweet fragrance. It will be blooming outside in my garden soon if the current cold snap didn’t freeze all the flower buds.

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6 thoughts on “Garden Theater in Seattle

  1. Mark, this is an excellent tutorial for ANYONE who wishes to get great photos from their visit to the flower show. Promise me that you will submit this talk to Janet Endsley next year. You should give it first thing Wednesday morning so that all the would-be digital photographers attending the flower show have these useful tips to ensure their success!
    Many thanks for your advice,
    from one digital camera owner among many,

  2. One other comment, what lens did you use the most? I’m going today and don’t want to drag my back full of equipment (for easier moving around) so am just wearing the camera with a 28-70 lens.

  3. Colleen, I was shooting with my Canon G12 which only has one zoom lens. Your 28-70 will be fine on a full-frame digital SLR. I was rarely zoomed in very far at the garden show.

  4. Phyllis Gustafson on said:

    Mark had a lot of fun watching your razzel-dazzel slide show so watched it again. I’ve only been there twice and it was fun both time. I heard from Panayoti, guess this years show overwhelmed him! Cheers, Phyllis

  5. Pingback: Northwest Flower & Garden Show 2012 – Plants, Passions, Photography | Turner Photographics