The last couple of times photographer Maggi Keith has gone to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, she's been on a "hummingbird quest."
She is determined to get a nice shot of the tiny birds — a species that sports "a little bit of green on their backs" — before they head south for the winter.
Keith has spotted hummingbirds in and around the dahlia display near the Snyder Building, but they move fast. That's the main challenge, aside from the fact that their wings are constantly in motion.
Whenever she ventures to the 1,000-acre nature center in Chanhassen, Keith, always with her camera, finds something new to focus on. She's played around with perspective, getting everything from close-ups of flowers to long shots of the landscape.
She belongs to the Arboretum Photographers Society, which makes the arboretum its muse. For the 60-plus dues-paying members, up from the original eight, the society is a fun way to immerse oneself in nature, to sharpen photography skills and to meet others who share a common interest.
Nancy Westby and Michael DeSmit founded the group in 2008 after taking a photography class at the arboretum. They were inspired, and they wanted to keep the momentum going, according to Todd Mulvihill, an early member who joined the group after stumbling upon it online.
The group's mission is twofold. It strives to serve the arboretum "through photography and visual media while fostering an environment of learning for our members," its website states.
Members, acting as volunteers, supply the arboretum with images for promotional and archival purposes. Early on, the group tackled a project to document the arboretum's memorial benches. The photos are donated, and the arboretum can use the images as it pleases, Mulvihill said.
The photographers also pursue their personal work, often turning to each other for tips and tricks. "We keep things fresh by trying to find things our membership can learn or teach," said Mulvihill, who is also the society's webmaster.
Many of the photographers, who range from beginners to seasoned professionals, are putting together their submissions for the juried member show in January 2015. Some will also participate in the arboretum's annual student art show and sale in early December.
During monthly meetings at the arboretum, members show-and-tell about other projects they have in the works, as well.
Keith said her photos have improved greatly since she started with the society. "People are always willing to help and give advice and offer criticism," she said. "If I look back at old photos and compare it to my newer work, there's such a big difference. It's a lot of little things, not just one 'oh my gosh' element."
Sometimes just watching other people work can be helpful. Through group photo shoots, which can be at the arboretum or elsewhere, "You get the benefit of the knowledge of the other photographers," she said.
A place for all seasons
At the arboretum, where the terrain changes quite a bit, it's an advantage that one can take in "a lot of varieties of plants and wildlife without having to travel far," Mulvihill said.
For example, the shady Hosta Glade "is a sea of hosta plants with all different shades of green, different textures, big and small leaves — all under a canopy of maple trees. You can't see the sky," he said.
By contrast, the prairie garden is mainly grass and open sky. The juxtaposition appeals to him.
"Sometimes I go there with a specific plan to shoot in a particular garden. Other times I just go to see whatever is happening," he said.
Mulvihill recalled a January snowstorm during which not another soul seemed to be out and about. He snapped a photo of a bench that stood under a snow-covered oak tree.
"I enjoy the isolation and serenity that shooting outside in nature can afford," Mulvihill said.
Another member, Vienna Volante, goes frequently in her spare time. A couple of Sundays ago, she started out in the recently renovated Azalea Garden "enjoying reflections of fall color in the koi pond," she said. Volante then moved on to the Japanese Garden and Home Demonstration Garden.
At one point, Volante followed a flock of wild turkeys from the wildflower garden as they meandered down the trail. After lunch, she joined in the hunt for hummingbirds.
Each of the seasons brings new beauty to the place. From early spring to late fall different flowers begin to bloom each week. "I was surprised by a fall-blooming crocus last week," she said.
"The wide variety of trees provides spectacular color in the fall and interesting bark and tree shapes in winter," Volante said. During the colder months, the sun "casts long shadows on the snow and highlights the shapes of trees and shrubs." In the spring, she notices the blossoms on flowering trees.
Volante encourages people to visit year round. On a rainy or cold day, "I can escape to the arboretum to see tropical plants and cactuses in the Conservatory and seasonal displays in the Visitor Center," she said.
She has fun with the arboretum's photo requests, too. For children's field trips and summer camps, she goes for candid shots. "I try to catch the concentration of young learners or aha moment or the joy of discovering a dragonfly or frog in the garden," she said.
Barb DeGroot, a spokeswoman for the arboretum, said, "The group is a wonderful asset to us. It takes beautiful photos of the gardens and events," she said.
Additionally, "We are undergoing a lot of growth here and the photo society is documenting lots of new features," including a new gatehouse and entry.
She recalls society member Al Whitaker's spontaneous snapshot of Iris Pond, which won a national photo contest. Whitaker was trying to get photos of turkeys. When he caught sight of the pristine pond, he took "the most classic picture," which is on display at the center, she said.
The photographers add to the ambience at the arboretum, DeGroot said. "I think it builds enthusiasm for what we have to offer scenically. Everyone's into selfies these days, but it's nice to turn the camera around and shoot your surroundings," she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.