Helen McKerralTaking good garden photos: composition

Like people, some gardens are photogenic and others are not, but clever garden photographers can make ordinary gardens look special. Read on for tips!

Wide garden shot

Wide garden shot

Medium garden shot

Medium garden shot

Read good garden books, look at garden and photography websites, analyse images you like – consider their composition and ask yourself how the photographer achieved that effect. Then aim to reproduce it. Also identify which images you don’t like, and why. After a while, you’ll look around a garden and automatically spot the potential images it presents.

1. To capture the character of an entire garden, you’ll need a mix of wide, medium and close up shots. That’s because, when we walk through a garden, we enjoy vistas and hidden corners, and then exclaim over individual flowers as we bend down to admire them. Identify unique quirks, or the ones that reflect/are important to the designer, and capture those as well.

Close-up shot

Close-up shot

Portrait-shaped photo

Portrait-shaped photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Experiment taking the same shot in both portrait and landscape formats. Become comfortable with both and learn which works best when.

Landscape format photo of the same view

Landscape format photo of the same view

PIC 012 thorpe

A carpet of fallen leaves

3. Gardens should be prepared but need not be immaculate – try to reflect the existing ambience. Usually longer, lusher lawns look better than freshly mown ones, as does a carpet of fallen petals or leaves under a tree, than ground fastidiously raked.

Tuck plant labels out of view and camouflage taps, stakes and irrigation risers (I use a clump of grass, pulled up elsewhere, or a leafy branchlet).

Remove barker eggs and hoses… you’ll be appalled at how obvious these are when reviewing full-size images. I shot a garden that housed two Dobermanns, and I somehow missed an enormous turd in the middle of the lawn that became the startling and unfortunate focal point of seemingly every damn shot! Though photoshop cures that nowadays too!

Check for dead foliage within frame, and prune if excessive. When photographing small areas, use pegs or twist ties to clip unwanted elements out of the way.

Use borrowed landscape

Use borrowed landscape

Beware your own tools: reflectors, photographic cases and tripods at the bottom edges of shots.

Powerlines and poles can now be photoshopped away as well, but it may be easier to move a few steps to the side so they’re obscured by a tree or building. You can also tighten the frame, or shoot from a higher position down into the garden, to exclude them. Conversely, sometimes beautiful features – mountain views, seascapes – can be “borrowed” from outside the garden.

4. Get up high on a ladder, or low to the ground to vary viewpoint. A ladder is especially useful in very small gardens and courtyards. Consider also shooting from a window inside the house, from the roof, or from the verandah.

Use a wide angle lens to capture more of the scene

Use a wide angle lens to capture more of the scene

PIC 014a alru farm

Use depth of field to reduce clutter

5. Use a wide angle lens, especially in small gardens when a wall stops you physically backing up any further. Beware vignetting. Use telephoto, and everything in between.

Take the same shot with different lenses, from high vantage points, and low.

Take shots from inside garden beds

Take shots from inside garden beds

 

 

 

 

 

6. Try shooting from within garden beds, as well as from paths or the lawn in between beds. This means you can get something in the foreground, as well as the mid and background. If you’ve always shot your own garden from your lawn, you’ll be amazed at the difference created by crouching in a garden bed!

Often you'll get the best viewpoint from inside a garden bed

Often you’ll get the best viewpoint from inside a garden bed

Looking along the length of the garden bed, rather than straight at it

Looking along the length of the garden bed, rather than straight at it

Also experiment with shooting beds from the side, not square on, to create depth. Step to sides of paths into garden beds, so paths travel diagonally to the corner of your image, rather than the centre (and try the opposite, especially to emphasise symmetry in formal gardens). Experiment with paths and focal points.

PIC 019 alru farm

Let paths travel to the corner of your image

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Unless you have exceptional skill like those who win the International Garden Photographer of the Year, your first garden pics are likely to be a flat jumble of too many plants in too little space.

This photo is too busy and looks flat and cluttered

This photo is too busy and looks flat and cluttered

Zoom in to eliminate some plants

Zoom in to reduce the number of different plants

Use depth of field to eliminate clutter

Use frame to eliminate clutter

While learning to see elements within your shot, consciously frame to eliminate, rather than include (however, always leave a little extra for cropping to alter composition later).

That is, zoom in and frame to exclude all but a background, and/or use depth of field to eliminate clutter. Think about focal points in your shot, and how to create them. The most difficult gardens to shoot are cluttered, unstructured ones – just keep tightening the frame or altering the perspective to eliminate unwanted elements until you have a good image.

Use texture contrasts to create interest

Colour and texture contrasts to create interest

 

 

 

8. Look for contrasting or complementary colours and textures including wood, bark, stone, glass, paving, still water, and so on, not just leaves and flowers.

Composition of timber, stone and water

Composition of timber, stone and water and example of an angled shot

 

 

 

Poorly designed – and I emphasise poorly designed – Australian native gardens (unlike Baghurst, a beautifully designed and planted native garden featured in the photo below) are often difficult to photograph well because of the similarity of leaf size and colour and resultant lack of contrast, and several of my editors over the years refused to accept native garden stories for this reason. When I told this to a group of amateur garden photographers at a native plant gathering, it generated an unpleasant amount of hostility from several offended attendees who could not seem to grasp that I was simply a freelancer with no editorial control of the magazines to whom I sold. It was an aesthetic preference of the editors, not me, and the misplaced outrage of these Native Plant Nazis was such that I resolved never again to speak to such a group.

Baghurst, a beautifully designed Australian native garden

Baghurst, a beautifully designed Australian native garden

Framing the view

Framing the view

9. Angling the camera is fun too. Sometimes it’s appropriate to emphasise the open spaces, such as paths, which then highlight the plants. This is also a garden design concept.

Framing the view

Framing the view

 

 

 

 

PIC 032 wyndbourne park

 

 

 

 

 

10. Experiment with framing. Use trunks, pergolas, vegetation, windows, archways and spaces.

And, of course… have fun!

 

 

 

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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

14 thoughts on “Taking good garden photos: composition

  1. Great tips and reading here, Helen. I am always amazed at how much response a close up shot of a flower or foliage brings – more than a vista of lawn and trees and shrubbery etc

    I will be using your hints for future post pics. The contrasting texture is one to watch for, certainly. Thank you.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thank you, Julie! And close ups next blog!

  2. Judi New on said:

    Thank you Helen, for this very useful article. I really enjoyed looking at the photos you included. Your advice makes so much sense but is often the type that is overlooked – especially by me.

  3. Your skill with a camera is amazing Helen. I’m also reminded of another wonderful photographer’s advice – Lorna Rose once said to me “look through the lens for all the things you DON’T want in your picture” – hoses, dead leaves, airconditioning, pipes, irrigation heads, poles etc. I hadn’t thought about it from the point of view of that those unwanted things might also be nice things, like pretty flowers, but they should still be excluded from the composition so that they don’t overwhelm or unbalance it. Excellent advice, thank you!

  4. Yes, very helpful advice. I like the idea of getting in the border and taking the photo from there.

    Some people get rather precious about ensuring photos are somehow “truthful” – by which they seem to mean not manipulated by the photographer. Do you have rules about things you won’t disguise or change beforehand – or about how much digital manipulation you will do afterwards? If airbrushing out the dog turd is acceptable, where might you draw the line?

  5. helen mckerral on said:

    Thank you, Catherine. Gary was a skilled photographer and teacher.

    Landscapelover, I have never digitally altered my images (except to erase dust specks) – they have always sold as is. This isn’t for any special moral stance, but because 1. I don’t have the editing skills! For print publication, the artists do their own thing with colour saturation etc anyway (the left hand ‘framing the view’ and one ‘colour texture’ shot above are images colour-corrected by in-house magazine editors – I couldn’t find my originals). And 2. because only in relatively recent times have I abandoned my beloved Velvia and gone to a digital SLR, so just a tiny fraction of my work is digitised. I do have thumbnails of a small proportion of my slide images! Yes, I hear the words dinosaur!

    I remember one designer wanted significant changes made and I refused, but after seeing the way I’d shot the garden she was happy with what I’d achieved without a single tweak (eg using depth of field to blur out unwanted elements, shooting from a ladder, tightening the frame etc).

    My aim is to present the garden at its best, not to change its character. I prefer to shoot gardens after interviewing the designer/owners, to better reflect *their* vision of the garden, not mine. So yes, dog turds are fine to be erased, power poles and wires, taps, hoses etc (leaving these things would be akin to attending a glamour photo shoot wearing curlers and daggy trackies!).

    If I were into photoshop I would draw the line at changing the structure of the garden, adding extra flowers etc. I’d even be a bit reluctant to remove brown patches in lawns. We don’t want garden photography going the way of fashion and beauty imagery, where the women bear no resemblance to real human beings – and in the same way we’d be setting unattainable standards of aesthetics to gardeners as well.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Helen. I like the idea of a rule that says you can present the garden at its best, but should baulk at changing its character. On a recent discussion on my site, people were happy to ‘prepare’ a garden for photographing – tidying, dead-heading, shielding etc – but much less comfortable with making similar changes digitally after the event. I am still musing on whether I see a real difference.

      • helen mckerral on said:

        Interesting, and I think I agree with the what you say re the respondents on your site (could you link to the story, please, so I can see?). I believe the difference between tidying and digitally altering is that one is achievable in real life, and the other may not be. If it is achievable (eg brown patches in lawns), well I guess that’s a grey area! However, if my photos sold without alteration to almost every gardening magazine in Oz, and if the gardens look beautiful – genuinely beautiful – already, then why gild the lily? And is perfection essential for beauty to exist?

        How do you edit your images, Landscapelover?

          • Catherine, thanks, yes, that’s the post I was remembering.

            To answer Helen’s question, I don’t have Photoshop and just use the editing software available with Apple’s iPhoto. It crops, addresses problems with colour casts etc, and allows a limited amount of retouching – basically you could blur out the now infamous dog turd from the lawn but nothing more sophisticated.

            One thing that strikes me is that our eyes are very good at filtering out distractions and unattractive elements, while the camera tends to over-emphasise them. I recently took a photo of a beautiful lake scene in Kashmir, with a single woman canoeing in the early morning mist – and when I looked at the resulting image, all I could see were the ugly electricity wires running right across the sky, which my eye had not registered at all. So I removed them digitally, not just because it made the picture more pleasing, but because it better reflected what I saw.

  6. helen mckerral on said:

    Addendum: Really good portrait photographers can find and capture (not manufacture) the beauty and uniqueness in any face, even ones you’d assume were ugly or plain, and IMO that’s what good garden photographers tend to do as well.

  7. steven on said:

    Thanks Helen for a great article. I’ve always loved seeing how people photograph gardens and similarly how people then respond to garden photography. The old adage of “perception is everything” is quite often true. A well captured photograph can evoke great responses (ohhhs and ahhhs) and give the impression of a wonderful broader garden, when in fact that may not be the case. But what has happened is that the skilful photographer has done a brilliant job! (incorporating your hints!!)

    As a garden designer and also a bit of a photography dabbler I photograph my gardens. However I always find it really interesting and enjoyable to see how other people photograph my gardens. In designing an aspect of a garden I may often make a ‘picture frame’ with my hands and look through it to see what the garden view will be. So it is then fascinating for me to see what other creative people observe and capture.

    Thank you for your article, keep up your great work and I look forward to your next one on close ups!

  8. sandra pullman on said:

    Hi Helen
    Great article. I have trouble shooting blue/purple flowers. They wash out wondered if you had any tips.
    Kind regards Sandi

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Hi Sandi
      If the flower colour is relatively dark and fills most of the shot when you’re shooting on an “auto” setting, then it may be because your camera is misinterpreting the light levels and automatically overexposing the shot. It may also be because you’re shooting in full sun. A polarising lens or a diffuser will help in that case – check out my next blog when it comes for details on all of the above!

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