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Photographing the winter garden

Philip Smith
13 February 2013
Blog team: 
IGPOTY director Philip Smith is inspired by the colours and textures in the winter garden and suggests some tips and techniques to help you get the best from your chilly images

The winter garden – brown, black, grey – maybe a bit of white snow or frost to liven things up a bit. But nothing much happening. For the photographer, looking out of the window at the chilly scene, nothing looks very inviting. A lot of dead things that need cutting back, certainly. But no inspiration.

But wrap up warm and take a walk around. Some things come into focus and reveal the fantastic beauty of the garden in winter.


                Winter shapes and hedges in sunlight at the Old Rectory, Netherbury, Dorset

It's all about shape 

The bare bones of the garden are revealed. The bare bones of the plants are revealed as well. Yes you can get depressed about it if you want to – but it's also a good idea to see these new shapes as inspiration for your photography – maybe an inspiration to kickstart your photography year, maybe a new way of looking at things, and new techniques to try out.

Winter hydrangea, developed as a Duotone image


And look at the colours!. What looks brown and grey at first, soon reveals itself as a wonderful range of colours we just don't see later in the year.

Yes, there's brown and grey. But the greens are deep and sombre. There are dark blues, wonderful rich purples and maroons, yellow and pale shades of grey and green.

I am doing a series at the moment on a grassy bank near our house (not too far away from the teapot and fire). This is a work in progress – sketches if you like - but they can reveal the range of colours that abound in winter. Just look. 




Sticks, twigs and leaves in a grassy bank


For the Galanthophile 

As photographers, we wait for the appearance of the snowdrops – these little beauties create an instant visual hit. But the results are often disappointing. What seem to us to be delicate little drops of fragile beauty can turn out in the picture to be more like white blobs.

Close-up of a snowdrop

The issue here is light. The white of the snowdrop petals contrasts hugely with the dark earth. Our cameras, particularly small compacts – struggle to cope with this range of contrast. If you add in the extra brightness of a sunny day – the kind of day when the flowers are open and looking at their best – you will find things get more difficult. The white is that much brighter and increases the contrast range even further – then you are in the fast lane to Blobsville.

Close-up of snowdrops covered in frost

If you choose a day that is overcast – even dull – then the range of contrast in the tones is much smaller because the white is not so white. So the camera copes better and is able to reveal detail in the petals like the delicate ribs shown in these pictures.

Close-up of snowdrop flower

If you can't or don't want to choose an overcast day then it's a good idea to make sure that the camera will expose the snowdrop correctly at the expense of the rest of the scene. Many cameras provide the option for different ways of measuring – or metering – the exposure values in the scene. The default setting – or the auto setting - will enable the meter to make a general reading of the scene and then average it out – so most things are exposed correctly.

But it does mean that things at the extremes of the range – like the white petals – are not correctly exposed. If you use a 'spot metering' setting then the camera will only measure what is around the area of focus - so it can be pin-point accurate.

Using this technique you can get the exposure on the snowdrop just right. Other bits of the image will then be 'wrong' – probably too dark – but maybe that won't matter and making these judgements and decisions is one of the things that make you a better photographer.

If the day is really dull you may be tempted to use flash. Or your camera may decide to use it for you. Flash is usually so strong that it will happily get rid of any of the precious detail in the white petals. So avoid it like the plague – that applies to most flower closeups but especially white or pale flowers. If you really have to use flash then put a piece of tissue paper over the flash unit - this will soften and diffuse the light.

Close-up of hellebore flower 

Next time we will look at hellebores and techniques to help you reveal the beauty of these head-hanging beauties. 

- Philip -

Philip Smith runs garden photography workshops at various locations, including Kew Gardens and Wakehurst. Keep an eye on the IGPOTY website for upcoming events. 



The International Garden Photographer of the Year competition 2013 will open on March 1st.

It has a NEW CLOSING DATE - OCTOBER 31 20013.

Go to for all the details.          



14 February 2013
Love reading your blog Philip - inspired to go out and find colour on a grey day! I love the abstract patterns too - some interesting long shadows to be had at this time of year. Thank you, so inspiring!
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