Over the past decade, the hobby has flourished and now has a cult-like following.
The growing talent and quality of photographs means garden photography competitions are inundated with exceptional entries. One leading competition is the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY), which receives more than 20,000 entries.
“We’re looking for images that are absolutely special,” says Clive Nichols, one of the founders of the competition and a judge. “Not just technically, but also in terms of what they show. To win it, you really have to have a standout image.”
Philip Smith, managing director of the competition, has some practical advice (see overleaf) if you are looking to improve your garden photography. His favourite IGPOTY winners from previous years are shown here.
“The first is by Magdalena Wasiczek,” he says. “It is the rhythm of this photograph (Upside Down, below) that expresses its subject so well. The delicate soft light and the impossibly balanced butterfly – all the elements come together in a fleeting moment of fragile beauty. It is like a soft melody in a minor key.
“The second is by Marianne Majerus (Tracery in the Mist, main photo). This photograph is also like music, but this time it’s jazz. Breaking all the rules of composition, it manages to exude life and vitality in a disorganised part of the garden that becomes more harmonious and beautiful as you gaze at it.”
Professional landscape and garden photographer Andrea Jones knows how much work goes into the creation of such images. Jones has spent the summer travelling the country, camera in tow, photographing private and public gardens. Though the evening light can be beautiful, there is something special about the early mornings, she says.
“At this time of year, mornings in the garden are truly magical. There is dew on the grass, the birds are tweeting, there are squirrels running around and you’re starting to get beautiful cobwebs,” she says. “To get the best light for photographs means getting up at 4am. You have to be in position ready for the light to come up. You get a stillness, a mist, a different light quality. It’s a privilege to be in the garden at that time; when no one else is there.”
Clive Nichols, who has been photographing gardens for 25 years, has tracked the rising interest in his area of expertise during that time:
“When I first started there was hardly anyone shooting gardens, you could count them on your left hand. In the Eighties and Nineties, you had an explosion of television programmes – Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock, for example – which, in turn, increased demand for garden images.”
Philip Smith of IGPOTY, a photographer in his own right and author of Better Plant and Garden Photography (Garden Photo Press), has these tips for anyone wishing to take better pictures of their garden:
How do you plan a shoot?
The best planning process is the weather forecast. You need to see exactly what the weather is going to do. If it’s windy, above 10mph, then you may have problems with plants moving. Look out for a nice, still morning with a bit of sun and a bit of cloud. The weather doesn’t always play ball, but that’s part of the challenge. If I’m photographing a garden, I will make at least two visits before I go with a camera. I’ll look at where the best angles are and where the sun is in relation to the garden. If you can photograph with the sun in front of the camera, it can add a magical dimension.
My favourite light changes through the seasons. In autumn, I like late-evening light because it’s very warm and orangey. That light can give a warm and cosy feeling to images of fruits and vegetable gardens. In the spring, I like shooting in overcast conditions. A lot of pale plants are coming through, and it’s possible to achieve a lot of detail. For example, when it’s overcast, you can photograph snowdrops so you can see the veins on the petals, but in bright conditions the detail can disappear and the petals will look uniformly white.
Which colours work best together?
It’s vital to understand the relationship between colours; whether they’re harmonious or contrasting. Both play a big part in garden design. Contrasting colours give you an image full of drama, harmonious ones provide softness and romance. But the most important colour is green. Green sets off everything else in the image. A pale-pink geranium will be very dramatic against a dark green background. My favourite colours would be contrasting blues and yellows. Photographically speaking, I like red and green. But they all work, because that’s the nature of plants.
How do you compose a shot?
With a flower portrait, make the composition as simple as possible. Remove as much extraneous visual information as you can. One way to achieve this is to use a large, wide aperture on the lens. This lets you get the background out of focus and concentrates the mind on the thing you’re interested in – the flower itself.
One way to compose a view of a garden is to look at what the designer has done. They will have created viewpoints that invite the visitor to explore. These could be as simple as an archway through to space beyond, or a statue that leads the eye deeper into the garden. These elements allow the photographer to invite the imagination of the viewer into the space.
There are also compositional techniques that artists and photographers have found useful over the centuries, such as arranging objects in a rectangular frame. It can be useful to follow those rules, but it’s also important to break from them and create a more original image.
What is the ideal time of day to shoot your garden?
In the summer, it’s often best to photograph gardens and plants early in the morning or late in the evening. The sun will be low in the sky and not harsh. Sometimes, it can also be great to photograph gardens at midday, but only if there is some cloud cover. A bright but overcast day can provide good conditions all day long.
In the summer, professional photographers will start at about 5am, but any time before about 8am can work well. At the other end of the day, from about 7pm until sunset can create a lot of atmosphere. At other times of the year, in autumn for example, it can be good to shoot in late afternoon. You’re looking for light that creates a sense of dimension and texture, which means soft shadows. This will give a three-dimensional feel.
What lenses do you need? And what settings do you recommend?
If you have a DSLR camera, it’s essential to have a macro lens of around 105mm in length. If you have a compact camera, without interchangeable lenses, look for one that has a macro setting. This will allow you to get closer to the plant than a normal camera.
Any tips for editing photos?
If you’re shooting JPEG files, find the largest setting on your camera. This will give you the maximum amount of data in your image file, which you can then process. The purpose of processing is to use software to bring out as much detail as possible from the picture that you’ve taken. If, for example, your photograph has a lot of dark shadow, you can use the computer to bring up the levels to show more detail.
Generally, the more detail, the more satisfying a photo is to a viewer. If you’re developing your photography to a more advanced stage, using RAW format instead of JPEG format will vastly increase the amount of processing that you can do.
What makes a winning photo?
The IGPOTY judges don’t look for fixed qualities – they wait for the photograph to talk to them. They want to see a strong element of originality; an eclectic approach to plants and a creative view of how plants can inspire photography. It’s not simply about recording a picture that you might see in a magazine, we’re looking for images that show us how the photographer has reacted to that plant creatively and what emotion they’re able to communicate to the viewer. It’s going beyond what’s there to the feeling that’s communicated by the plants themselves.
The International Garden Photographer of the Year competition 2014 is open for entries , deadline October 31. For further details on how to enter, see igpoty.com.
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