BETWEEN THE LEAVES

Picture perfect

Discover the secrets behind those great photographs released by Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden – and taken by photographer and environmental interpretation officer Alice Notten

INTERVIEW BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN. PHOTOS BY ALICE NOTTEN

Picture perfect

Discover the secrets behind those great photographs released by Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden – and taken by photographer and environmental interpretation officer Alice Notten

INTERVIEW BY PATRICIA McCRACKEN. PHOTOS BY ALICE NOTTEN
A group of visitors to Kirstenbosch pause under the African holly (Ilex mitis) to enjoy the shade of the dell.

 

Alice Notten has one of those jobs that any keen photographer would envy – she has the run of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden to photograph what and when she pleases. But that is not what first brought her there just over three decades ago.

“I did a BSc in botany and zoology at the University of Cape Town but I have always been a gardener and decided to switch to horticulture,” she says. “I got that diploma and was lucky enough to get a job at Kirstenbosch, fresh out of Tech. Kirstenbosch was always my first choice.”

“I photographed this forest bell bush (Mackaya bella) in the dell,” recalls Alice. “The trick for taking flowers is to choose a bright overcast day, so the light is good but there are no shadows. I particularly like the dressed stone wall being visible behind the flower because it clearly places it in Kirstenbosch.”

Alice started at Kirstenbosch as the seedroom supervisor. Later, she took on garden interpretation, part time at first and full time after a few years. Her official title today is environmental interpretation officer.

That is how she came to update the new, third edition of the classic Kirstenbosch: A Visitor’s Guide (Struik Nature, R150), first published in 2004. Alice’s role was to bring both some of the garden information and some of the photographs up to the present day.

One of the landmarks of BotSoc’s contributions to the development of national botanical gardens is this gleaming Botanical Society Kirstenbosch Conservatory, built in 1996 and opened in 1997.

WHAT’S IN A SIGN BOARD?

Day to day, Alice is responsible for the garden’s information boards (interpretative signage). These can help give interesting facts behind Kirstenbosch’s theme gardens, such as the water-wise garden or the garden of extinction, and highlight historic parts of the garden or certain plants and trees, such as the wild bananas in the dell. Some boards change seasonally and are displayed only while the plants, such as king protea or watsonias, are flowering. Creating the boards is an interesting challenge.

“They have to cover botany, horticulture, conservation, pollination biology and ecology, history and so on,” explains Alice, “and must be written in simple, accessible language, with as little jargon and scientific language as possible. I also incorporate photos to illustrate the plants, demonstrate a term or decorate the boards.”

This lovely statue of the Cape clawless otter sculpted by Llewellyn Davies is a favourite with Kirstenbosch visitors.

PHOTOGRAPHIC ROOTS

Alice introduced photography into her interpretative work early on.

“I started taking photos at work to use them in media articles,” she recalls. “Later, I used them on the signage when the printing technology improved to allow us to print the storyboards in full colour – it is amazing to think that it was not so long ago that our printers were only black and white!”

Alice had become keen on photography in her teens, borrowing her dad’s Pentax film camera at first.

“I bought my first digital camera in 2005, a Fujifilm FinePix,” she remembers. “It was lovely not having to worry about how many exposures were left and buying film and all that. I upgraded to my current Nikon D90 in 2010 which has been excellent.”

The only downside of digital, she believes, is too many images – “That means keeping a large external drive and being disciplined about naming, sorting and archiving the images so they can be found again!”

 

“The vygies open later in the day when the light can be harsh,” notes Alice. “This photograph was taken in late morning on a coolish spring day. I have used the lovely winding path to lead to the eye to the African mahogany (Khaya anthotheca) and Castle Rock.”

BEHIND THE LENS

Alice says that she tends to “take typically Kirstenbosch shots” because most of her landscape photos are taken to promote the garden.

“I select the most pleasing aspects and views of the garden features and take shots through the seasons. I photograph the flowers and birds and animals as I see them – a lot of that is luck.”
But it is also the kind of luck that happens when you know how to seize an opportunity.

 

“I was heading out from the Garden Office one morning and this caracal walked up the road towards me and past me, completely unconcerned about me,” recalls Alice. “They are seen fairly often in Kirstenbosch, although I’ve seen one only a handful of times.”

 

“Sometimes I will go out in search of a particular flower or bird,” Alice says. “Photographing birds requires a lot of time to watch and wait.

“Some of my best bird shots have happened when I was photographing a flower and the bird obligingly came into the shot. I have to be quite close as I don’t have a long lens – I use a versatile 15-300mm lens. My favourite photos are those that get the flower and the bird or insect in one shot.”

 

Witness to history – Alice on the exciting Boomslang tree canopy walkway soon after its opening a decade ago. The Boomslang was nominated Most Beautiful Object of the Year in South Africa and visitor numbers shot up 27%. Photo by Caroline Voget (former editor of Veld & Flora)

ALICE’S 5 PIC PRINCIPLES

  • Camera ready: My job allows me to be out and about in the garden quite a lot and I almost always carry my camera with me. If I have a particular project that I need photos for, I will go out specially.
  • Morning is golden: Morning is best for photography at Kirstenbosch – that is when the light is best, plants and flowers are fresh and birds are usually more active.
  • Take charge: I am not very technical although I do like to decide my own ISO and aperture or shutterspeed. I generally set my ISO at 200 or as low as possible and set the aperture to get as much depth of field as I can in the light.
  • Travel light: I do not use a tripod or reflectors or diffusers. 
  • Stay true: I do not digitally manipulate the images as I prefer them to be true.

You can spot Alice’s photos on the Kirstenbosch website, social media, in the press and in SANBI brochures, as well as illustrating plants in the Plant of the Week articles on PlantZAfrica, in Veld & Flora and a few other magazines and in one or two plant books.

Kirstenbosch: A Visitor’s Guide by Colin Paterson-Jones & John Winter, updated by Alice Notten, is published by Struik Nature at R150.

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