Shooting Journal: Charleston, South Carolina

Traveling to Charleston, South Carolina early in April seemed like a good idea. The azaleas and camellias would be in full color about then. Unfortunately, we had not counted on the effects of our strange spring this year, with March seeming like April and vice versa. By the time we arrived, the best of the flowering spring plants had faded.

Despite that issue, this turned out to be a good trip both personally and photographically. Late March and early April is the time of year when the Historic Charleston Association schedules their House and Gardens Festival. As part of this month-long event, they offer walking tours of the historic area of town - history and garden tours as well as, this year, a jazz concert featuring the musical history of the city. These are an opportunity to learn about the art and architecture of the town is addition to the history and horticulture.

When we signed up for two tours - history and garden - I was dismayed to learn that no photography was allowed in the gardens. However, the history tour docent clarified that, as with every place else in the country, photographers are allowed to shoot anything visible from the street. As it happened, the gardens were so full of visitors and docents, shooting would have been difficult. Based on this rule, I had decided not to carry my D-90 and heavy Tamron lens, choosing instead to use my iPhone's camera and the Notes app to keep a record of places I wanted to return to later.

This turned out to be a good idea. The walking, especially for the garden tour, was somewhat challenging as it was warm and humid after a morning rain. The walking surfaces in town are difficult - cobblestone, bricks, uneven pavement - and we were chronically lost. Fortunately, the Association had volunteers strategically placed to direct us to most of the gardens. We visited nine gardens in three hours. This would have been much harder to manage carrying heavy equipment. Having a record of places to return to allowed me to spend more time just appreciating the gardens. Sometimes I forget to just enjoy rather than shoot. Later, I went back to the places I had recorded and was able to photograph them at a more relaxed fashion, taking more time with each shot than would have been possible on the tour.

Sunrise on Charleston Bay is the best reason to be up and out early. The city glows in the magic hour light and there are few people around. The pedestrian pier that leads out from shore offers pleasing views of the town and reflections in the water can be clear and serene. (Unfortunately, few places offer even coffee before 7:30 AM.) The rest of the Historic District is a visual feast. There are endless variations on wrought iron gates, balconies, window coverings, stair rails, fences, etc. Architecture is varied but most homes have a piazza or sheltered porch. Window boxes overflow with color. Many gardens are visible from the street. Rainbow Row, a long stretch of pretty pastel homes, is lovely but difficult to photograph due to the cars that are always parked along the curbs in front of them. A good place to have lunch and enjoy views of the city is the Library Roof, reached by means of an elevator. The menu is reasonably priced bar food and, from the top level, there are views of the Historic District rooftops and glimpses of the harbor.

There are a number of plantations, about half an hour by car from town, that are worth a visit. We managed time to visit Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place. While they are adjacent on the Ashley River Road, the character of each is very different. They were both rice plantations and contain much swampy land but at Magnolia, you get an idea of the plantation owners life while at Middleton, there is a better feel for life on a working plantation.

At Magnolia, we avoided the peacock in the parking lot who was primarily interested in his reflection in our vehicle. Bypassing the train ride and the house tour, we chose to walk the extensive gardens and take a boat ride on the canal through the former rice fields. This last provided a great opportunity to photograph herons, gallinules (common moorhens), redwing blackbirds, anhingas and alligators, and to hear the history of how rice became a huge cash crop in the antebellum South. The gardens were of course past full color but there was still much to see and shoot. A large pond, for example, was covered with duckweed and ringed with yellow iris. A small alligator's eyes poked up through the weeds. There is so much visual stimulation, it helps to have more than one pair of eyes to observe. Another photographer pointed out a stand of wet purple iris. I later learned why the flowers were still wet when the sprinkler system came on suddenly and I became wet as well. Fortunately, a small lens cloth was adequate to dry the few drops that hit the Nikon.

If you walk far enough along the garden paths, you come to an observation tower from the top of which you can see a panorama of the low country landscape and marshes. We finished this part of our tour at the lunch stand and watched while we ate as two peacocks began a dance competition. A third bird, all white, kept his distance but had his display out in full as well. Meanwhile, the ponies in the field began arriving to see the show.

For me, the most enjoyable part of Magnolia Plantation was the Audubon Swamp Garden. This is accessed from a parking lot near the exit from the plantation. By following the boardwalk, we were able to stroll through swamps with stands of tupelo, along the perimeter of the garden, around and through a heron rookery. There were snowy and great egrets, green herons, little blue herons and ibis nesting there. Yellow bellied sliders ( turtles) abound and, while I fortunately encountered none, there are snakes as well. Wear high-top hiking boots. Check for ticks.

Another day, we toured Middleton Place with its stunning terraces and landscaping. According to Frommer's "The Carolinas and Georgia", this National Historic Landmark was home to Henry Middleton, president of the first Continental Congress, and his son Arthur, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. To begin exploring the estate, we decided to try the carriage tour. This was actually an open wagon with seating for about 8 people, drawn by two Belgian draft horses. The driver/docent was a gold mine of knowledge about the daily life of a working plantation, the lives of the slaves who worked the fields and the women who processed the grain. The ride itself, through a bamboo forest and the former rice fields, now swamplands, was bumpy enough that it wasn't possible to use the camera. Later, we walked through the extensive and photogenic grounds. Live oaks, including the famous Middleton Oak, dripped Spanish moss. A pair of white swans floated on a reflecting pool. There were formal gardens, swamp gardens, ponds and lakes, all so calm and lovely.

We finished our walk at the stable yard where there is quite a menagerie of animals that would have worked on the plantation 150 years ago. Two water buffalo were a surprise. That breed was beginning to be used in the rice fields just prior to the Civil War when the experiment had to be abandoned. There were Belgian draft horses, cats, chickens - including a little bantam rooster living up to its name - geese, and guinea fowl. We watched as a group of six lambs frolicked around the rest of the flock. Nearby, shops were set up to demonstrate the crafts that were needed to maintain a working plantation - a pottery, a farrier, a spinning shop. We came away with a better sense of the history of of the area as well as some pleasing photos.

There are other plantations - Drayton Hall, Boone Hall, Cypress Gardens - that we'll have to save for another visit. The Nikon D-90 and my Tamron 18-270 VC lens together made it much easier to get good shots. I kept the white balance on Auto most of the time due to the changing light conditions. The ISO, set at 400, allowed fairly sharp images of birds taking off in flight. It helps to keep the camera on continuous fire mode for situations like this that come up suddenly.

Charleston Charm

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Charleston Reflections

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Charleston Window Boxes

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Circular Church

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Green Heron

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Let Me Out!

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Lily Pond at Middleton Place

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Little Blue Heron

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Middleton Pottery

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Middleton Reflections

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Middleton Water Buffalo

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Pink Azalea

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Swamp Iris

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Swamp Pond at Middleton Place

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Sweetgrass Baskets

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White Ibis

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You Lookin' at Me?

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