Helen McKerralTaking better garden photos – light

Have you ever wondered how professional photographers capture the images that so beautifully encapsulate the gardens you see in magazine feature spreads? Or despaired when the photos of your own garden never seem to reflect its best? Read on for all the trade secrets!

Pukeiti Gardens NZ Photo Helen McKerral

Pukeiti Gardens NZ Photo Helen McKerral

Some time ago, Catherine Stewart asked me to write a blog about plant photography. I’ve sold many plant and garden images and features to gardening magazines after learning garden and plant photography from Gary Chowanetz, long-time and prolific Pacific Magazines contributor. His eye was practically infallible, and he could shoot pin-sharp images at 1/15… in the days before image stabilisation technology!

Publishing stories and photos in Your Garden magazine

Publishing stories and photos in Your Garden magazine

I met Gary when he flew to SA to photograph my feature stories – an intensive week when we covered two gardens daily. Later, we did the same in other states. I’d interview gardeners and write stories, while Gary supplied images. Gary was enormously generous in sharing his skills, knowing that he was teaching me his job. He let me look through the lens to identify shots within vistas, explained why and how he created certain effects, and taught me numerous other tricks until I was able to shoot the images that accompanied my feature stories.

The old days of slide film

The old days of slide film, when every shot cost money


Digital and photoshop have revolutionised imagery, but conventional photography skills help enormously because, although digital techniques may solve many of the issues below, it is almost always faster, cheaper and easier to get a shot right first time.

This blog is too short for general photography and compositional tips like golden ratios, or basics such as aperture and shutter speeds. Google them for all the free advice you need.

So below are my (and Gary’s) tips for garden photography – light/technical issues here, with 2. compositional and 3. macro photography following in the next few weeks. But don’t bother trawling through the happy snaps in previous blogs looking for the (many!) places where I’ve failed my own advice, because of course the requirements for the pics here aren’t the same or, should I say, reimbursed the same, as those for magazine features! Some of the images I’ve included here are low-res digital thumbnails of slide film, reproduced to illustrate a certain point. Also, as they were originally for print publication, most of these images were shot at a slightly wider angle than ideal to allow cropping to size and shape for layout.

Garden photography – Lighting & technical issues

In my opinion, although both are necessary for perfect photos, composition trumps technique every time ie a well-composed photo that’s not pin sharp, is preferable to a pin-sharp one with poor composition. Nevertheless, your image needs to be in focus to be enjoyed, so both skills are required!

Pic 007 Juttner Garden

The overall effect can be a bit flat with light but grey sky

1. Shooting in overcast conditions guarantees soft light but sometimes the effect is a bit flat for gardens, especially if the entire sky is grey yet bright. Very early morning can be the same, even though many photographers swear by it. My favourite conditions for garden photography are blue sky with scattered dense cumulus clouds (YMMV). Set up shots in blue, then shoot during cloud cover like the photo below. Evening light is often lovely too.

Bright blue sky with scattered cumulus clouds

Bright blue sky with scattered cumulus clouds – pick the slightly overcast moment

2. However, shooting reasonable images in sunny conditions is possible, especially in very open, spacious gardens, but dappled shade on sunny days is nightmarish (compare the two photos below). To begin with, shoot with the sun at your side or back.

Difficulty of photographing a garden with dappled shade with bright sunlight

Dappled shade with bright sunlight

Dappled shade when overcast

Dappled shade when overcast

In full sun, use a circular polarising filter to prevent reflections washing out your shots. The sky can ‘black out’ if you overdo it, and the shots may be contrasty but, sometimes, sunny conditions more accurately reflect the nature of a garden, such as ones in Mediterranean or arid environments, than do muted light – see the photo below.

Effect of using a circular polarising filter

Effect of using a circular polarising filter

Besides who has the luxury while working, visiting an open garden or travelling, to wait for perfect light? In the olden days(!) we used fill flash or (preferably) a reflector to light dark areas but, today, photoshop and features within your digital SLR camera excel. Warm-up filters to correct blue in shady conditions are no longer essential either.

3. Without a very fast, expensive lens, windy weather is challenging for garden photographers. You will need patience – sometimes 30 minutes – waiting for a lull to take a shot that would have taken a minute in still conditions. Use pegs, adapt UV screens and reflectors into windbreaks but accept that it may not be possible to freeze movement. Sometimes it’s easier to exaggerate the movement instead with longer shutter speeds, as long as there are also stationary objects (structures such as buildings, bridges, gazebos) or landscape (rocks, timber etc) in the shot.

Use a tripod and small aperture for crisp depth of field

Use a tripod and small aperture for crisp depth of field

4. Use a tripod for the smallest apertures and greatest and crispest depth of field, especially for those wide garden shots like the one above (and for macro). Learn to manipulate depth of field as I have in the 2 photos below, so you can emphasise certain features within your shots.

PIC 026 tipsy hill

Short depth of field for strong foreground

PIC 026a tipsy hill

Emphasising the middle ground











5. Understand the histogram function of your camera. Then USE it to tune exposure! On the other hand, don’t be a slave to the histogram – in certain conditions (lots of bright sky, or dark vegetation, or macro with white or dark flowers), it will lie to you about the quality of your image! A guide is that very pale areas, such as clouds and flower petals, should retain detail and not be blown out to a uniform white. Darker areas should also retain detail.

6. Understand flare and eliminate it with a lens hood, hat, or whatever is on hand. Some lens hoods provide less protection in portrait format. Once you understand it, you can shoot into the sun for backlit images.

Flare can spoil a photo

Flare can spoil a photo

7. Understand parallax, especially when buildings and structures are in your garden shots, or when you’re using a wide angle lens. Ladders are useful. Ensure your camera is level, especially with buildings, horizontal roofs or structures in your shot. Again, nowadays you can straighten your shot digitally.

The effect of parallax on vertical elements

The effect of parallax on vertical elements

8. Beware vignetting, especially when using wide angle lenses and/or lens hoods.

Example of vignetting. Photo Stefan Jurca

Example of vignetting, where the photo perimeter becomes darkened. Photo Stefan Jurca

Once you understand the rules, be prepared to break them. Some of the best garden photography I’ve seen includes a feature shot on a very misty day, another in pouring rain. Another was in full sun. Stormy weather can be fabulous.

Finally, unlike the days of film where every shot cost money, the digital era means you can take hundreds, even thousands, of photographs and review them immediately… free. It’s so cheap to improve your skills, and the functions of SLR digital cameras mean you get instant feedback! If you have any lighting/technique (composition and macro next blogs) tips specifically for garden photography, please share them below!

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

2 thoughts on “Taking better garden photos – light

  1. Alison on said:

    A really good and informative post Helen. Well worth reading for all keen garden photographers.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thanks, Alison!

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