Before I got a garden and a gardening blog, I wasn’t really in to photography. I used to have a compact (point-and-shoot) camera for holidays, and the earliest photos of my gardening efforts are just snapshots. The photos got a bit better over time, mostly because I was taking more of them and selecting the better ones, but I also learned a bit about light, composition and the wonders of cropping!
The quality of the image itself didn’t matter too much for blogging in the 90s, but when I got the contract for my first book I wanted to include some photos from the garden; I was growing some unusual plants for which stock garden photography really didn’t exist. But my old camera wasn’t capable of producing print-quality images, so I needed a new one.
I bought myself a digital SLR (DSRL) camera – the digital equivalent of a manual film camera, on which you can change all the settings and even the lens. It was a Canon EOS 400D, and it had some presets, but you could also work in completely manual mode. So then I had to learn a little bit of the technical side of garden photography. I could change the lens to zoom, or for one suitable for close-up macro photography, and a lot of the time I took several photos of the same plant with different settings, then decided which one worked best later on.
I take photos mainly to illustrate what a particular plant looks like, or what the garden looks like at any moment in time, although – of course – sometimes I simply take a shot of something which looks stunning because it looks stunning. A lot of that is simply being lucky in the right light falling on the right plant at just the right moment.
This peony was taken with my current camera, an Olympus Stylus 1. It’s a bridge camera, which means it’s halfway between a compact and a DLSR. I can’t change the lens, but it has a built-in zoom. I mostly use it in Auto mode, so the camera makes the decisions for me, but I can manually change the settings to achieve an effect if I want to. It’s what I use when I’m out and about. These days, in the garden, I usually just snap away with my iPhone/iPad.
Light can be a tricky thing. If there’s not enough of it then photos look dull and grainy. But too much sun can bleach out colours and contrast and leave you with a ‘flat’ image. The ideal times for garden photography are often early in the morning, or in the evening, when the light is a bit softer and comes in at a better angle. The rule is normally not to take photos into the sun – but it can work, so sometimes it’s worth trying.
Ryan is a far more technical photographer than I am. He does more arty, abstract things than I do. He rarely shoots plants, although he likes taking pictures of bees and other insects on flowers. When he’s doing close-ups he’s far more demanding about getting the details into perfect focus:
Image copyright: Ryan Doughty. Reproduced here with permission.
So I asked Ryan for his tips for garden photography. If you have manual controls on your camera, he recommends getting used to the different f numbers (also called f-stops), which change the depth of field in the photo. With a low f number, anything physically distant from the focal point will blur out. So you can get a lovely shot of a flower in perfect focus, with the background blurred out nicely. It’s very useful when you’ve got something pretty to photography, but you don’t want people to see the weeds in the background 🙂
f2.8 is as low as my camera will go:
But that might blur out details in the foliage you’d like to keep, and a mid-range value such as f5 is good for when the interesting bits aren’t quite as flat:
Looking through my photos this morning, all of my plant ‘portraits’ and a lot of the general shots are either F5 or lower. The higher f-stops only come into play when I’m doing landscapes:
Ryan’s second tip was to try the shot from different angles – including from above, or below. A ‘bug’s eye view’ very often shows you things you wouldn’t see from eye height.
Unless you want to get into the technical aspects of photography, the thing you have most control over is the composition of the photo. Plants in pots can be moved so that they’re in front of a nicer background; it’s sometimes worth doing a little ‘gardening’ around your chosen subject, to remove any dead leaves and weeds, or to hold back branches that are ruining the shot. I tend to find that the wind gets up as soon as I get the camera out, which can be infuriating, but if there’s enough light for quick shots then you can get some interesting dynamic images if you catch the right bits when they’re in focus.
Ryan’s tip here is to learn about the rule of thirds, which is probably the most well-known rule of composition, and basically tells you the best areas of the photo in which to position the interesting stuff. But it’s not a hard and fast rule – you can break it if you have a better idea! He also mentioned the Golden Ratio, or Fibonacci spiral, which is a more complex composition rule, which you might like to try for something truly eye-catching.
For as long as I’ve had a digital camera, I have had a Flickr account. It allows me to insert photos into blogposts easily, and I’ve moved blogs several times over the year, and not having to move the photos is a blessing! It also serves as a searchable record of my garden, divided into albums, so I can find what I need without too much trouble. I have tried other sites, but Flickr is the one I come back to. It has become a wonderful archive, and you’re welcome to explore my photos. You won’t find many people in them – I tend to leave event photography to the professionals!
What’s your advice for getting the most out of your garden photography?
This post is a collaboration with Bidvine, a website dedicated to helping you find the right professional for your project.