There are literally more than 50 chateaux in the Loire Valley so very few people have actually seen them all. I pity the poor guide book writers who do have to visit every single one and make suitable entries in their notes. This field guide is only for one chateau, and in fact not even the chateau itself – just the gardens of the Chateau de Villandry.
During summertime this chateau has an arrangement to allow visitors to stay late in the gardens long after the chateau itself has been closed up. Enter before 7pm and you can wander the gardens until dusk. That gave me 2 hours to shoot, and yet that was not nearly enough time. This location really caught me by surprise, with such variety of subjects to shoot and an opportunity to use every piece of gear in my kit.
Lavished by Lavender
The lavender garden is a blur of purple tones with both French and English style bushes in full bloom during July. I like composing shots with lavender stems, they always give a rustic and rural sort of look to me and work nicely on shallow depths of field. For even more fun I had my extension tube in the kit which allows me to get macro on the flower buds. In fact I quickly forgot about the flower buds themselves in preference for the big bold bees that proliferate in France. They're gorgeous and colourful and quite happy to be photographed with a close-up extension tube.
If you have a macro lens then great, but if you want a low cost way to explore the world of little things then get an extension tube to match your telephoto lens. I put a 25mm extension tube onto my 70-200mm lens and it's dynamite. I set the ISO a little higher to give me a little extra shutter speed, I set my aperture to f5 to give shallow depth of field but still enough depth to get my subject sharp, I lock off the auto-focus and set the barrel to infinity. At this point I have a narrow distance through which my telephoto lens will now focus. I can no longer shoot normal focal distances once the extension tube is on, I can only get very very close to things. The telephoto range gives me a little flexibility as to how close, and all I need to do is shove that big lens close enough to a subject for it to come into focus. You need to get REALLY close.
This amazing display of colour is created with small hedges, a generous amount of flowering annuals and a wide variety of vegetables and fruits that are presented in the most artistic arrangement possible. Geometric shapes are laid out as though the garden squares belong to a giant carpet, which is pretty much what it must look like from the upper floors of the chateau in the mornings. You can't walk through the individual Potager plots, just around the edge of them. The colours are an inspiration, especially knowing that most of the scene is derived from plants intended for the kitchen. Apple trees are grown into low trained borders, pears ripen on miniature trees laid out like bollards and purple basil throws contrasting hues into the design.
My 70-200mm telephoto lens was useful here to get shots of certain elements in the Potager layout. Not being able to walk through the gardens is a restriction, but the longer lens changes your creative options and can't really replace the ability to simply get closer to the subject. I tried to play with the shallow depth of field that is so emphasised with the 200mm focal length.
Several sections of garden are bordered on the upper levels with a trellis of grapes that extend for 100s of metres. Inside the trellis the scene looks like a shade corridor of leaves, plus you have the actual grapes and vines to shoot for detail.
Behind the grape trellis a simple herb garden is presented with dozens of traditional herbs grown on a large scale. The abundant blocks of leaves are fascinating for macro detail, or for close-ups of the plant tags being over-grown by the plants themselves.
This is hard to photograph as the low light late in the day gets shadowed by the chateau itself. The garden itself is a classic layout of box-hedge arranged in regal patterns with ornamental flowers growing inside the hedges for colour. The bollard hedges rising sharply above the plane of the garden give a three-dimensional layer to the scene. A pathway runs around the side of this garden, up the hill and back into the upper levels of the chateau. From here you can look down over the Love Garden and shoot the designs with the help of the angling light in late evening.
This one is very hard to photograph because its very nature is to offer wild splashes of pastel colour. The lack of order in the scene is a challenge. The pastel tones themselves are hard to ignore however, so close-ups of blooms come to mind immediately. But to get a sense of the Sun Garden you need an alternate subject to focus on, like a person or a chair, and let the wild ramblings of the garden around fill in the scene. One section of this garden is planted out with orange/red/yellow hues, while the other is dominated by blends of blue/purple/white.
Swans in the Lake
Hidden on a higher level is an entire lake complete with two white swans who enjoy each others company more than being chased by photographers. This is another time when a 70-200mm lens can be useful, as I don't really want to get too close to a hissing swan in a territorial mood.
Lines and Paths
The chateau has over 1200 lime tress around the gardens, a fully maintained grass tennis court and a classic labyrinth maze to get yourself lost in. There are many repeating stone balustrades around the garden as well that can become the subject of creating compositions based on “leading lines”. It's an old standard for photographers but it's a good one. Watching what moves into corners, looking for paths that take a journey inside your frame or highlight a single element of a greater pattern.
Painting with Clouds
I was lucky to get such an interesting sunset for my visit. It had rained all day and only late in the afternoon had the winds driven away enough cloud to enjoy a clear and sharp setting sun. There is no substitute for interesting light, its what makes for interesting photos. Shooting the exterior of a chateau is pretty much like a landscape scene. You want a few elements in the shot to make the scene more complex and hence more interesting, and you need some cool clouds to make the sky really interesting too. Clouds make all the difference.
The kind of clouds rising above a castle can set the tone for sinister or charming. The light that falls onto the clouds also plays a part here, and I needed my Graduated Neutral Density (ND) filter to bring it all together. A nice wide shot of the chateau with funky clouds behind it is great, but late in the day the strength of light can be off the boil and the garden itself can easily be 3 stops darker than the chateau or the clouds. The graduated ND lets me take light away from the bright sky and allow me to expose correctly for the flowers and hedges of the garden.