If you’re looking for someplace indoors to hone your photography skills you won’t find a more beautiful place in Pittsburgh than Phipps Conservatory.
When To Visit
It’s hard to narrow it down to a specific season that is best to visit Phipps… Summer is great because the ponds outside are full of life and the outdoor gardens are quite beautiful. Also, if you visit on a Sunday evening you can catch Movie In The Park across the street (it’s worth doing if you have kids). The Fall is nice because, well… what isn’t nice in Pennsylvania during Autumn. Winter is a great time to visit, Phipps decorates the interior beautifully but they also put together the Winter Light Garden outdoors which is worth a visit.
Late winter or early Spring may be my favorite time to visit Phipps (it even gets it’s very own paragraph). Phipps does a Spring show where they have beautifully fragrant flowers and bonsai trees throughout the conservatory that makes you feel as though your taking a stroll on a warm Spring afternoon.
Like most similar places the best time is to visit during the week while everyone else is at work or in school. The earlier you go the less crowded it will be. The exception is most Friday nights when they stay open later than usual (till 10p.m. as of this writing) and there is hardly a soul there (I’m 99.7643% sure that plants do not have souls).
What To Bring
Claritin if you have allergies. There are a ton of photography opportunities at Phipps, you could focus on the old architecture, decorative layout, macro shots of water drops, tiny insects, butterfly’s in the Spring, etc.. If you could only take one lens I would recommend your fastest lens (the lens with the lowest f/number or widest aperture).
I recommend a manual camera because there are areas where lighting may be a challenge, you’re in a glass green house where the sun shines through… Sometimes in the direction you’re shooting towards.
Above is a perfect example of why you’d want to use a manual camera and shoot in RAW. Had I not underexposed this image the detail in the window would have been bright with no details. Had I not shot in RAW I would not have been able to recover the shadow area. As it was, in manual mode using RAW, I was able to increase the exposure slightly and pull all of the details out of the shadows.
Tripods are frowned upon, the paths are narrow and if you’re set up like a “pro” you’ll likely upset others who are there to enjoy the scenery as well. Put your camera on auto ISO with a ceiling of 3200 or 6400 (you know your camera better than I, pick an ISO that isn’t too grainy) otherwise just set it to a high ISO so you can increase your shutter speed to eliminate the risk of blurry images from camera shake.
Leave the flash at home! I know, that’s crazy talk… Seriously though, the lighting in Phipps is beautiful and using a flash makes harsh unrealistic photos. Obviously this is a preference thing but I just prefer natural light images that don’t look unrealistically lit.
Bring a lens wipe. Every now and again there will be a drop of water from the ceiling or splash from a fountain that may find its way to your lens. Having a wipe will eliminate you getting home and finding out you’ve got a spot on every one of your photos.
For The Kiddos
Let’s be honest, if you’re bringing your kids you’ll likely not have much time to take photos otherwise you’ll turn your back for one second and find them climbing a tree like a monkey or picking rare flowers (both things I would have done as a child given the chance). Phipps is more than child friendly, they have a giant model train village with fun scenes as well as an entire wing dedicated to children with child friendly things for them to get their grubby little paws on. There are coloring books, sketch pads, little stations for children throughout.
Bring your significant other with you and make them prove their love by watching the children while you take photos to your heart’s content.
Or just tell your kids to look at something and run…. You’ll have a good 10 or 15 minutes before they find you.