Photographing ferns for a book cover is tricky.

My professional photographer husband Mike Neal and I have been trying to get a good shot for my newest mystery, Broken Ferns, for over a month. The problem? Ferns. With several hundred types to choose from, they still end up looking like a haystack—especially when you break a few and try to show that clearly.

We have had challenges with each of the covers: finding and properly lighting a red orchid for Blood Orchids was tricky; fending off the elements and finding a proper specimen for Torch Ginger was tricky; finding a (rare) blooming white pikake flower out of season for Black Jasmine was tricky. But somehow, Broken Ferns, the one I thought would be easiest, gave us the biggest headache.

I bought a lush $27.00 hanging potted fern, and we took hundreds of photos of it and butchered it to bits without one useful photo. I foraged around the neighborhood to no avail. I even took my own photos on a hike in California; all were unusable.

Mike walked in the rainforest on Haleakala and shot wild ferns from all sorts of angles. They always ended up looking clumpy, confused, and crushed rather than Broken.

Busy natural backgrounds further muddied the topic at hand.

Through all this, and with a ticking timeline, I realized the vision I had  could only be accomplished by a certain kind of swordlike, arching fern with close, narrow “pinnules”—the petallike protrusions coming off the “rachis” or spine of the fern.

We went to Hana in Maui, a jungle area guaranteed to have a lot of ferns—but now I knew not just any would do. While our young adult children went hiking, I scrounged the lush grounds of our gorgeous vacation rental in search of just the right fern—and I found it!

This time we weren’t messing around—we were doing a “studio shoot.”

I cut several ferns of the necessary narrow type (only a few of them in the whole botanic garden! Yikes!) and brought them back to the house.

Mike had set up his “studio area”—a corner of the livingroom draped in black weed cloth. Weed cloth is great—it has little texture and it’s nonreflective, highly lightweight, cheap, and water resistant. It’s the perfect background material.

Serving as photo designer/assistant, I needed something to hold the ferns up in place. I looked around the kitchen and found a potato, cut it in half, and arranged the ferns in the potato (a bit of ingenuity if I do say so myself.) Then, I stuck a chopstick in the potato and placed the whole rig in a beer bottle. Very professional!


Mike wrapped the beer bottle in weed cloth, and it magically “disappeared.” Periodically I would get in and move the ferns about, but I knew, even before we got home, that we’d got the shot.

Every aspect of my books is a creative learning process, as was this latest adventure. I sent the images to my cover designer Julie Metz at Julie Metz Design this afternoon. Whew! Done before Christmas, a miracle!

We’re still on track for a February launch for Broken Ferns, and the “first impression” of the cover photo is nailed at last. Hope you enjoy this little glimpse behind the scenes of photographing ferns for a book cover. Feel free to ask for more info about the cameras used and other technical aspects in the comments, and I'll have Mike get back to you. Merry Christmas!

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