How to photograph gardens
What is the best light and conditions?
Use natural light and ideally, shoot when it is bright but overcast – soft, diffused light is perfect to reveal detail. Photographing in the early morning and late afternoon will give you softer light that is more complimentary rather than the harsh sun of midday. Early morning is a particularly special time with its stillness and quality of light. There is also a chance of dew on petals which can look very effective. Don’t use flash – it’s generally too hard.
On a bright sunny day, back-lighting can be effective to show light shining through flowers and leaves.
Wind can be a challenge and will necessitate a fast shutter speed such as 1/500 sec to avoid capturing movement. A wind speed below 6 miles an hour is preferable.
Familiarity inevitably leads to greater success. As with landscape photography, the more you know a location, the better your chance of creating a good image. With garden photography the appearance of the garden is constantly changing throughout the year, as is the light, so look to capture it in all seasons.
- Lenses – for general garden views a wide angle and a medium telephoto zoom (up to 200mm) are good choices (an all encompassing 28-300 or similar often doesn’t allow for close enough focusing and looses sharpness). For close up work, opt for a macro of around 105mm or 200mm
- A tripod that allows low level shooting – to keep the camera steady and aid with composition. It also slows you down!
- For close up work, a reflector can be useful for filling in shadow areas on a sunny day – tin foil wrapped over some card with suffice! (A gold reflector is useful for warming up foliage if the light is too cold)
- A kneeling mat can be useful for lower shots. You may also want to consider a right angle viewfinder.
- A remote/cable release
- Polariser (to take reflections off ponds and water features)
- Neutral density graduated filters to help balance the exposure between sky and land
- Hot shoe spirit level (or you can use your cameras gridlines or virtual horizon functions)
- A loupe – this is useful in that it allows you to see the image on your LCD screen clearly in playback mode on a sunny day.
- A note book and pen – useful for making a note of locations or plant species.
- Shoot in RAW for maximum information in the file and complete control over your images.
Where possible, use a low ISO for the best quality images.
- Keep an eye on your shutter speed and if windy adjust the ISO where necessary.
- Use the AV (aperture priority)setting or work in manual to ensure you have greater control over your camera. Depth of field is the main consideration.
Every garden is unique with its own feel and character. Try to capture the personality or essence of the garden in your images. Spend time walking around the garden and absorbing it before taking any photographs.
- When choosing your composition, consider the light and how it illuminates your subject or scene before you.
- Look for wide-angle views, which show an overview of the garden and highlight its major themes, zoom in for tighter shots and finally, consider close up (plant portraits) or macro.
- Minimise the sky – featureless skies tend not add to the image and draw the viewers’ eye as they are often bright. Try eliminating the sky altogether.
- A high viewpoint can help reveal the design and structure of a garden. With close up images, get down low to get on the same level as your subject and to give flowers some stature. Try shooting upwards to show flowers reaching for the sky.
- Look for shapes, patterns, texture, and also colour combinations.
- Don’t forget to turn the camera around! Consider all angles and experiment with both horizontal and vertical images.
- Only photograph really perfect flowers. Look out for damaged petals and watermarks.
- With the wider landscape images, look for lead in lines such as paths or hedges to draw the eye in. Archways can be used to the same effect, taking the viewer on a journey through the garden.
- When taking a close up shot, keep it simple. Adjusting your composition slightly, by moving just a fraction, can result in a completely different background which may be less distracting/more complimentary to your subject. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to capture the entire flower.
- Before pressing your shutter check all around the edge of the viewfinder and ensure everything in the frame plays a part in the image.
- Look for other features in the garden, such as fountains, statues etc to add interest but, as with other elements in the composition, ensure they do not distract.
- Consider including bees/butterflies or other insects.
- Colour relationships are an important part of garden design. Look for contrasting colours (e.g. red and green/yellow and blue) to create impact as well as those that harmonise and give a softer, more gentle result.
- Try filling the frame with a single colour for impact.
- When taking wider shots, ensure the background colours don’t distract from the foreground – remember that a bold colour will draw the eye.
Working outdoors means the light is constantly changing – as such, ensure that you check your histogram after each shot. You may also find it useful to refer to the live histogram if you are using Live View to compose your image.
Ensure the highlight alert function is enabled on your camera so the playback display reveals any overexposed areas. Apply exposure compensation if necessary or bracket your shots.
Manually focusing using Live View can be a good technique to apply when photographing close ups or macro. If using auto-focus, don’t forget to calculate your hyper focal distance – download a depth of field app such as DOF master which will help you with this. Make sure you check your images in playback mode afterwards to ensure they are sharp.
Experiment with depth of field
Try using a wide aperture to blur the background and concentrate the eye on the subject. Also look to isolate a particular flower that catches your eye.
A smaller aperture, e.g. F11, will be more suitable for the wider landscape views to ensure that you get everything sharp. When photographing with a macro lens, depth of field becomes critical; a smaller aperture is often necessary.