If you received a digital camera this holiday season and hope to take great pictures of your garden, Rob Cardillo has some simple advice to start off: Read the manual.

That said, the garden-photography pro offers no hard-and-fast rules, just these thoughts before you point and shoot.

Take care

with lighting.

"It will enable you to make an extraordinary picture out of an ordinary subject," Cardillo says.

The best garden light typically can be had at dawn and twilight. He'll shoot from 5:30 to 9 a.m. and return at 4 p.m. Bright light washes everything out, he says, but "if it's overcast, you can shoot all day."

And try backlighting your subject. "Light coming through leaves or petals can be like stained glass. Try to capture it," he says.

Think three, five and other odd numbers.

One flower can become a bull's-eye. If you're shooting two, make one more prominent or find a bloom and a bud. Three or five flowers are easier on the eye, which likes triangles inside square frames.

"On the other hand, three dahlias all the same size can be very static," Cardillo says. Try to emphasize or exaggerate one, or shoot the front of one, the side of a second, the back of a third.

Use a tripod.

It will keep things steady and create background and depth. If there's wind or snow, one part of the picture will be in motion and one part still. "Very dramatic," Cardillo says.

"Wander without purpose" around your subjects.

Pick a strong focal point - a statue, person or bench, or a spot of color- that will tell the people looking at your photos where to start.

Try to keep more subtle colors - lavender, for instance, or soft yellow - in the front. Red or pink in the foreground can be a roadblock.

See joy in imperfection.

"Something really beautiful needs to have something slightly flawed to be believable," Cardillo says.

Capture botanical gesture.

Find something that animates a photo, perhaps anthropomorphically, such as one flower leaning into another or caressing a smaller one.

Cardillo describes a shot of five pitcher plants of different sizes. "With their mouths open, they looked like a family from Disneyland," he says.

If you shoot in a public garden or at a flower show, lose the crowd and look for an unexpected view. If there are lights, glass and columns, probably best to stick with closeups.

Consider your garden

a sculpture.

In other words, something to be admired from every angle. Cardillo calls this "doing visual pushups."

He loves to photograph sunflowers and alliums, hates bright white flowers, though snow is dandy for revealing a garden's structure. "Wish we had more snow," he says.

Be patient and flexible.

Light and weather can change quickly in a garden. You'll learn by doing; fortunately, with digital cameras, this won't cost a fortune.

"But," Cardillo says, "you still have to shoot 10,000 pictures before you understand what makes a great photograph."

- Virginia A. Smith