Like people, some gardens are photogenic and others are not, but clever garden photographers can make ordinary gardens look special. Read on for tips!
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.
2. Experiment taking the same shot in both portrait and landscape formats. Become comfortable with both and learn which works best when.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10. Experiment with framing. Use trunks, pergolas, vegetation, windows, archways and spaces.
And, of course… have fun!