University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

One of the pleasures of having a garden is taking photos of your flowers in bloom to share with friends and family, or to keep a record of the season's progress. While most gardeners take lots of photos in the spring and summer, the majority fail to capture the beauty of fall and winter gardens on film. That's a mistake, for there are many striking elements that make interesting photo possibilities at this time of the year.

In his book Photographing Plants and Gardens, Clive Nichols, one of the world's foremost garden photographers, provides some excellent tips for both beginners and more advanced photographers on photographing gardens in all seasons.

According to Nichols, your first decision should be what to buy for equipment. He suggests choosing a simple camera, one with the ability to add accessories later if needed, and buying new (unless you get good guarantees on used equipment). He also recommends selecting a camera with through-the-lens metering, semi-automatic metering, depth-of-field preview button, and cable release socket.

For lenses, you will need a standard lens for general scenes with extension tubes for close-ups. A wide-angle lens gives a broader view and a feeling of depth. A telephoto lens can be used to isolate selective areas, especially when you cannot get close to the subject. You also should consider a zoom lens with variable focal lengths and a macro lens for close-up work and for sharper pictures at longer ranges.

For film, the author suggests using color negative film if the purpose is for color prints for albums or to enlarge for wall hangings. Color slide film is your best bet if photographs are to be projected or used in print media. As to what film to buy, slow film (ISO25-100) is best for sharp images with rich colors, fast film (ISO800-1000) for impressionistic images. The brand of film you use is up to you. Most photographers choose their film based on previous experience and conditions.

Filters can be used to provide special effects and enhance various conditions. For example, polarizing filters are used to enrich colors and remove glare in very bright conditions. Amber filters will prevent a bluish cast in shady situations.

In strong light, such as at sunset, use a blue filter to correct for the "orange" light and help restore "true" color to flowers. A pale blue filter will prevent certain blue flowers from appearing "pink" on film. When using filters, longer exposure times may be needed, which might lead to unsharp pictures.

When composing a photo, make sure it has a clear center of interest, using mass, color, or contrast towards this end. Consider shooting the subject from unusual angles for a more striking or original composition. Before you click, check the frame for plant labels, people, or other distractions from the main plant subject.

Use garden features such as paths, views, or sculptures to create scale and perspective, as well as a sense of depth. In looking for unusual angles, think about the viewpoint of the subject. Through the camera viewfinder, check out all sides and angles of a subject, then don't be afraid to experiment with different shots.

Try a high viewpoint, such as from a tree or ladder, for a sweeping view of the garden. Shoot from a low viewpoint for hanging baskets, drooping flowers, and tall trees. Again, watch for distracting elements, such as dead flowers, garden equipment in the background, and other undesirable elements.

Light is one of the keys to good garden photography. Nichols notes that early morning or late afternoon light often produces the most effective photos, especially in summer. When there are strong contrasts in the photo between light and dark, expose for either the highlight or the shadow. Camera meters often underexpose a very light subject (so increase the exposure) or overexpose a very dark one (so decrease the exposure).

Use side lighting to emphasize depth and the 3-D aspect. Backlighting (such as behind leaves and flower petals) can create dramatic images. The author deals with various aspects of lighting, such as for intense lighting, back lighting, frontal lighting, side lighting, and diffused lighting.

Most gardeners take photos of gardens when the flowers are blooming in spring and summer. For these photos, think about framing flowering trees against a rich, blue sky or dark background such as dark clouds or tall evergreens. Use soft morning or evening side lighting to emphasize form and color.

With so much in bloom in summer, consider shooting individual flowers or flower combinations, such as a bright red daylily set against a blue spruce background. Don't overlook water and vegetable gardens for subjects to photograph. Summer heat and sun may be too intense for the best photos, so try to shoot in early morning or late afternoon.

But don't overlook fall and winter for garden photos as well. Here are some tips for this time of year.

First, you will need to pay more attention to photo composition in winter when there are fewer subjects and distractions. This includes form and line, such as created from silhouettes or branch structure, or verticals like ornamental grasses. Look for striking bark and stems on woody plants. Make the most of the weather, especially elements like the effects of frost and snow on plants.

Shoot on sunny days and cold nights when leaf colors are most vibrant. Look for interesting late fall and winter effects created by seed pods and fruits. These seasons also are a great time to experiment with various lighting techniques.

For interesting documentation of your garden, try to depict a general view or panorama to set the scene of the garden. Pick out some main design elements and planting schemes to photograph, creating a vista showing the bigger picture within a garden.

Try making patterns or shapes the dominant element in your photo, such as those from a continuous line of a walk or hedge or repeated pattern from similar shaped shrubs or pots. Notice plant combinations or groupings, as well as textures throughout the seasons.

Each garden includes individual elements based on the personal tastes of the gardener. Why not try to capture these, whether a fountain, a view, sculpture, effect such as water, or type of garden. Finally, look for some intimate aspects of the garden such as individual flowers or architectural details, perhaps even a bit of semi-hidden whimsy such as a gargoyle or garden fairy!

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