Anyone can take a photograph of a beautiful garden. But taking a beautiful photograph of a garden requires a different thought process. You have to “see” the garden in a different way—to know what compels you, how to compose it so that it works visually within the camera’s frame, and how the camera translates the light falling on that subject. Here are a few tips to help along the way:
1. Seek out well-designed gardens. Although it’s quite possible to take lovely photographs (particularly details) in any garden, in a well-designed and carefully tended garden you can take cues from the design itself when composing your images. In a well-designed garden, there are fewer distractions and more subjects to choose from.
2. Simplify your composition. Gardens, by their very nature, are extremely busy. Just look at all those leaves, flowers and branches! Also, gardeners tend to accessorize their gardens. As a general rule, you get the best shots when you move in a little closer and edit out everything that isn’t essential to the image.
3. Shoot in soft light. That usually means shooting in the early morning light, evening light and on lightly overcast days. Sunrise is my favorite time in the garden, but long days with thin overhead clouds are a blessing to the working garden photographer. Without cloud cover, mid-day light is too harsh and flat for most garden photography.
4. Start with broad overviews to set the stage and to give a sense of perspective. Then move in closer to capture vignettes—the focal points, passageways and destinations in the garden. Showcase the design in the garden—the colors, patterns, form, repetition and texture. And finally, seek out the details that give the garden character—the plant combinations or collections, unique materials, and construction details.
5. Avoid bright spots. Whether it’s a stray white flower, a white chair, a reflection or a washed-out sky, bright spots can ruin an otherwise wonderful photograph because the brightest spot in a photograph is where the eye will settle.
6. Explore your subject from all angles. Too often, we shoot from eye level because we’re simply standing there enthralled with a garden. But get down low; look for a balcony or deck you might shoot from; walk around your subject and see what the other side looks like. Also try looking at your subject through different lenses. A plant combination looks very different when shot with wide angle and telephoto lenses.
7. Use a tripod. If you want to shoot in soft, low light or have tack-sharp images with good depth-of-field, a tripod will greatly improve your success rate. Using a tripod also forces you to slow down and contemplate your composition. (That said, it could also stifle your creativity if you can’t easily remove the camera to look at your subject from different positions, so make sure you have a quick-release plate.)
8. Look around the edges of your viewfinder. This is a good practice no matter what you photograph. Often, we are so focused on what we see in the center of the frame that we miss a distracting limb or leaf that is creeping in from the side.
9. Watch your depth of field closely. I frequently “shoot the extremes” in the garden—either a wide view at f16-22 or zoomed in close at f2-4.5—but a depth-of-field preview button is invaluable when photographing plants. It allows you to adjust the depth-of-field so that the flowers or other important elements are sharp and the background is thrown out of focus so as not to be distracting.
10. Use a polarizing filter to knock out reflections and saturate colors. I don’t shoot with the polarizer unless I need it, but it is extremely helpful for knocking the glare off glossy-leaved plants, saturating colors on lightly overcast days, and eliminating reflections on water, glass and metal. If you have blue skies with puffy white clouds in your photograph, it will help those clouds “pop” in your image and saturate the sky.
For more information or instruction on garden photography, click here for workshop information.
Photos ©2008 Lee Anne White. All rights reserved. Designer Credits (top to bottom): Container garden at Atlanta Botanical Garden, Robinson Garden by Ben Page, Jr., Colocasia 'Illustris' in border by Pam Baggett, grasses at Chicago Botanic Garden by Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects.