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That's not really how it was

Philip Smith
3 August 2012
Blog team: 
You are at Kew with your camera and snapping away - but when you get home you may be disappointed - we have tips for you!

It’s the holidays! A slight drizzle, an anorak in the bag ‘just in case’ and a quizzical look at the sky as you step out of the door.

Destination? Your favourite garden – whether it be Kew, a National Trust garden, the New York Botanical Garden, or one of the huge number of fantastic public gardens there are around the world.

What else do you take with you? Ah yes, your camera of course – to capture the day, the colour, the wonderful flowers, the sunshine and just the sheer happiness of it all.

But when you get home and get the images on the computer? – Well, maybe it's a bit disappointing.

That’s not really how it was!.

How do you get closer to the spirit of the place in your images?


Igpoty July 1
The spirit of place - Sun-drenched borders by Andrea Jones - IGPOTY 2010. The path leads us in, the light beguiles us.

Here are a few tips and tricks

The trouble with gardens is that there is such a lot to see all at one glance - herbaceous plants blooming left, right and centre. When we look at a wonderful border, our brains edit out all the bits we are not concentrating on – the drainpipe on the wall behind – the plastic watering can left behind by one of the volunteer gardeners - the sprigs of dead wood that haven’t been pruned back yet.

But the problem is our cameras are not as intelligent as our brains and they treat everything in the frame as equal to everything else - so we let things into the frame that ought not to be there - that distract the viewer from the very thing we want them to look at.

So here are some tips:

Don’t just snap your favourite flower and then move on to the next shot. Check out what it looks like on the viewing screen – but really look. If there’s something intruding on the composition then shift your position – kneel down – or change the angle – to eliminate that drainpipe from the shot.

Avoid ‘general views’. Look carefully at the scene in front of you and pick out the dominant feature. Use that as a visual ‘anchor’ and place it to the left or right of the middle of the frame – avoid placing a key element in the dead centre.


Stourhead by Anthony Worsdell - IGPOTY 2010. Notice the relationship between the urn and the 'temple' in the distance; the urn leads you into the scene and 'points' to the building which is the focal point of the image. Courtesy of the National Trust.

Look at what the garden designer has done with the hard landscaping. Designers will create sightlines and vistas to concentrate the eye on specific features – whether particular plants, trees or hard features like benches or statues. You can ‘borrow’ their artistic eye to do the same with your images. Let their paths and steps help you lead the viewer of your photograph around the garden.


Igpoty July 1
California garden by Jason Liske - IGPOTY 2009. This photograph is about the light and the path. Together, they create atmosphere and involve the viewer in the scene.

In Northern latitudes the light changes all the time and it’s light that makes the difference in photography. If you have taken a good shot in a location while it’s spotting with rain, go back after a while and see if the light has improved.

If you are photographing individual blooms, avoid harsh sunlight in the middle of the day – either go back towards the end of your visit when the sun is lower, or use a piece of card or hat to shade the flower – you will avoid hard black shadows on the flower that disrupt the natural shape of the plant.

Notice where the sun is; look across the garden and then turn round 360 degrees – watch what happens to the foliage and colour and the difference between the sun shining onto the view (sun behind the camera) and the sun behind the view (sun in front of the camera). Normally, ‘back-lighting’ will add drama and energy to the dullest view as the sun gives a wonderfully atmospheric illumination to foliage - especially when it’s lower in the sky.


Igpoty July 1
Poppies by Marianne Majerus - IGPOTY 2010. The backlighting gives an atmospheric luminosity to the scene which would be lost if the poppies were photographed with the sun behind the camera.

When you get home take a look at your images on the computer. Play around with them and try different cropping – see if they could have been improved when you took them. In this way you will develop a wider visual ‘vocabulary’ and this will remain with you when you go out again – so you will get more variety and personality into your images.

And when all else fails – go to the tea room and have a very large slice of cake. Actually, that’s really good advice for any situation in life.

Have fun on your holidays.

- Philip -

Related links

  • Breathing Spaces is a category in International Garden Photographer of the Year which is supported by the National Trsut in the UK. You can enter photographs taken in Trust properties for the competition. For full details go to the IGPOTY website.
  • Better Plant and Garden Photography by Philip Smith is now on sale at the Kew bookshop, Victoria Plaza, or online at


18 January 2013
The images here are great made be happier on a snowy day up here. The photographic angles are bringing the best out of them as well.
16 August 2012
A helpful "Tips Sheet" with a lot of good advice prepared in jargon-free language and good humour.
6 August 2012
Very useful thank you! I have recently started up the Hampshire National Garden Scheme facebook page (as a volunteer). I pop along to open gardens and snap away and get back and often the longer shots are the most disappointing. These tips have been very enlightening, thanks again! best wishes Pauline
6 August 2012
Thank you Pauline - don't forget to see the IGPOTY exhibiton now on at Winchester Discovery Centre. I.G.P.O.T.Y Team
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