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International Garden Photographer blog

Find out about the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition and how you can get involved. It’s the world’s premier competition for garden, plant and flower photography and culminates each year, in an outdoor exhibition at Kew Gardens.

In this blog we will be helping you to get the best out of your photography – both at Kew Gardens, Wakehurst and other locations. We will pack it with ideas for creating your own projects, plus give you professional tips on how to improve your picture-taking.

International Garden Photographer of the Year website

Understanding colour for photographers

By: Philip Smith - 09 Jan 2012
Philip Smith shows you how your garden and plant photography can benefit from a richer understanding of  colour.
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The following blog entry is an abridged extract from Philip’s book ‘Better Plant and Garden Photography’ available from International Garden Photographer of the Year.

How to improve

Just like any visual designer, an understanding of colour theory for the photographer will enhance and improve your work. This is perhaps especially true of the garden and plant photographer who is excited and moved by colour. Skilful gardeners are extremely aware of how colour works in the garden, and it is the photographer’s job to tune into this heightened sensibility.

Knowing how to see and to use colour to create more impact with your photography is a basic part of the art. But it is especially important in a garden where you often hear the phrase ‘a riot of colour’ used to describe a lovely garden – especially in summer.

Harmonious brushstrokes of colour in the garden
Harmonious brushstrokes of colour in the garden. Shot with a 105 mm telephoto lens to foreshorten the perspective and emphasise the colour layers. Photo by Philip Smith.

Editing the experience

We humans enjoy a ‘riot of colour’ because our eyes survey the scene and our brains pick out the various elements of the ‘riot’ one by one. We bring certain bits forward to our attention, so that other bits recede for a moment until we focus on them. But unless we are skilful and take care, our cameras will apply the same level of importance to all of the garden elements, without distinction, all in one go, and will compress them into a little two-dimensional space.

So being selective is all important. And if you can be selective with some knowledge behind you to back you up – then all to the good.

Colour concepts

The colour wheel gives a visual reference guide for using colour. Segments of colour which lie opposite one another are said to be complementary. Segments that lie next to each other are said to be harmonious. 

Colour wheel

Complementary colours are often thought of as ‘opposites’ – red/green – orange/blue – yellow/purple. If these complementary elements are introduced into a photograph it communicates a strong and immediate colour statement.

Close up of a purple and yellow iris
Iris shot with a 185 mm macro lens - focusing almost on colour alone brings out the drama.
Photo by Philip Smith. 

Project idea - complementary and harmonious colours

Experiment with complementary colours. Notice how in summer it is more common to see complementary colours in the border than it is at other seasons, with deep red flowers contrasting with green foliage. See how effective it is when dramatic autumn coloured foliage can be set against a blue sky.

Harmonious colours are those which sit next to or near each other on the colour wheel. When these are used in conjunction, they can inspire a sense of peace and calm. This is especially true of blues with purples, greens with blues. If using harmonious colours from the red areas of the colour wheel the feeling is often more dynamic, with yellows and oranges sitting somewhere in the middle. However it works, using harmonious colours gives you a great chance to get the ‘wow’ factor into your image.

Knautia flower with blurred background
Putting the background out of focus gives you an immediate 'colour wash' behind the plant. Use this colour to create counterpoint or harmony. Photo by Philip Smith.

Project idea - same colour

Choose a colour and create a still life – indoors or in the garden – of a range of shades of the same colour. This will help you to ‘tune in’ your eye to the subtleties of colour shades. Most people can distinguish one million different colours – with women often said to be better at this than men. Whether male or female, a heightened sense of awareness comes with practice.

Bee on a flower
Limiting the colour palette to a narrow range of tones is a technique that often works very well. Colour and tone can be enhanced after capture with Photoshop. Photo by Philip Smith

- Philip -


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Last chance to enter IGPOTY 2011

By: Philip Smith - 21 Nov 2011
Have you entered IGPOTY 2011 yet? If not, time is running out. Here, Philip Smith tells you everything you need to know, together with a run through of next year's exhibitions.
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Excitement is rising as the last of the entries come in from all over the world. This year's IGPOTY competition is open until midnight 30 November - so not long to go now...

Winning entry of 2008 - a snowy Japanese garden
'Kenrokuen Gardens'. The first IGPOTY winner 2008 (Image: Claire Takacs)

Last chance to enter

This year we have lots of wonderful awards - £5000 for the top prize plus many other cash and other prizes. Also, any photographer who does not win a prize can ask for an expert critique of their entries.

Do you want to be part of it?

Are you thinking of taking part for the first time?

Wondering how to enter?

If you're worried about anything technical then please just drop us an email to info@igpoty.com

Exhibitions in 2012

There will be a suitably stunning exhibition opening in the Nash Conservatory at Kew Gardens from 1 March 2012.

Next year we will also have IGPOTY exhibitions in Cumbria, Exeter, Ironbridge Shropshire, Winchester, Falkirk and Chelsea Physic Garden. In addition we will be going overseas to the New York Botanical Garden and the Sydney Botanic Garden, Australia.

We invite you to be part of this exciting and life-enhancing project!

Good luck!

- Philip -

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Thinking of entering International Garden Photographer of the Year 2011?

By: Philip Smith - 17 Oct 2011
International Garden Photographer of the Year has a first prize of £5000 plus other cash prizes - here are some tips to help you net the big one!
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What does it mean to win IGPOTY?

Whoever wins International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) 2011  will be £5000 better off – often for a ‘stake’ of just £10! For professional photographers, the exposure gained from any of the IGPOTY awards represents a giant boost for their careers.

Abstract Impressions
Abstract impressions by Marianne Majerus

"When I entered for the first time, I didn’t expect anything. Even though I am quite well known in
my field, winning has given me international exposure".
Marianne Majerus

For amateur photographers it can be the starting point for a new career

If you win a category, if you are a finalist, highly commended or commended, you will play a major part in the project for the remaining year. In 2012, you will participate in an exhibition which will be launched at Kew Gardens, then tour to Chelsea Physic Garden, Rheged Centre, Cumbria, and Sydney Botanic Garden, Australia. Other venues will be added as the year progresses. Many thousands of people will see your photographic skill alongside the best in the world.

Your photographs can be included in the many magazine and other articles that are written about IGPOTY around the world. They will be included in a high quality book which you will receive as part of your prize. You may choose to participate in our print sales programme, where you will receive ongoing revenue from the project.

If you win the Portfolio award you get not only a big £2000 cash prize but the ultimate accolade of a Royal Photographic Society gold medal. Above all, taking part in IGPOTY gives you the opportunity, along with us and Kew, to celebrate our green planet, and the essential part that plants play in all our lives.

What do the judges look for?

The judges look for an individual and fresh approach to the subject. This could be a new way of looking at a flower, or a view of a stunning garden or a portrait of a gardener. This year there is more scope than ever to expand your photographic horizons – ‘Greening the City’ celebrates plants in an urban environment – ‘Breathing Spaces’ is all about people enjoying green places, in association with the National Trust. Yes, technical quality is very important – but there is always room for the ‘amateur maverick’ to win through to the final!

Fireflies by Radim Schreiber

How do I give myself the best chance of winning?

  1. Be careful how you select your entries. Make sure that the image you upload is as good as it can be; is it the best shot of the sequence you photographed? Caption it well; don’t write an essay on the image – but give succinct information that may give the judges insight into why you photographed this subject – and may make your shot stand out from the crowd.
  2. Make sure you enter the right category. If you have a shot of a tree, enter it into ‘Trees Woods and Forests’ – rather than ‘Beauty of Plants’. If in doubt you can enter the same shot into two or more categories – they will be viewed by different judging panels.
  3. The more photographs you enter, the better chance you have of winning – but the number of entries does not affect the judges’ views – each photograph is judged on its own merits.
  4. Try not to leave it to the last minute to select your entries; uploading in advance of the deadline gives the option of changing your mind and time to reflect on your final choices.
  5. Don’t be worried about the entry process if you are not confident with computers. It is very simple and many thousands of people use the system – but if you have worries you can always contact us to either sort the problem out or find another way to enter the competition.

Entering IGPOTY can be a gateway to a new career, a new revenue source, and a new dimension to the photography that you love. Whether you win or lose, you will have contributed to the project’s present and future aims of celebrating our green planet.

Selections from IGPOTY 4 are currently on show at Kew's Millenium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, West Sussex.

Find out more about the competition

- Philip Smith -

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Autumn: the best time of year

By: Philip Smith - 15 Sep 2011
International Garden Photographer of the Year's Philip Smith considers why autumn is such a good time to photograph gardens, plants and trees - and how to get the best out of the season's atmosphere.
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Early this morning a Dipper was singing on the stream below our garden – they usually appear here much later in the winter -  so this was a very prompt announcement that autumn is well on its way. And yes, the Liquidambar tree has just started to get its orange tinges.

One of my first professional assignments included photographing a beautiful Liquidambar tree in October on a sunny morning – I remember vividly the thrilling contrast between the bright blue sky and russet leaves.

Light fantastic

Autumn in our northern latitudes is a wonderful time for photography. For one thing, you don’t have to get up so early in the morning to take advantage of early morning light. And what a light it is, with a crispness that is really exhilarating, especially when glinting on dew-laden flowers.

You can look for opportunities to back-light your subject – where the sun is in front of the camera - and create wonderfully atmospheric shots.

Chatsworth House (Image: Matthew Bullen - finalist IGPOTY 2008)
Chatsworth House (Image: Matthew Bullen - finalist IGPOTY 2008)

When you are out photographing – always look for where the sun is. I often stand still and just turn a complete circle – observing how the light is affecting the scene from different angles.

When a subject is lit from behind, the camera probably cannot cope with the wide range of contrast, and so it will make the front of the subject - the surface with no direct sun on it – much darker and more shadowy than it appears in real life. You can use a white reflector to bounce light back into the subject and this will ‘lift’ the shadows and give you more detail. Some people use flash to do this job – but I always find this too harsh even on the low settings, and I prefer the control and subtlety of reflectors.

Schizostylis flowers (Image: Philip Smith)
Schizostylis (Image: Philip Smith)

This plant was photographed with the sun in front of the camera and against a dark background (pond water). It needed a white reflector to get detail back into the blooms. Without a reflector, the shadows on the petals would have become hard and 'blocky' - losing the delicacy of the shot.

Wonderful colour

But in the autumn, it’s really colour we are after. And not just tree foliage – at this time of year the garden is full of reds, oranges and yellows, with Crocosmia, Heleniums, and Schizostylis. This colour range always looks great when contrasted with the deep greens of late summer foliage.

Bee on Helenium flower
Bee on Helenium; don't forget insects are busy on warm autumn days - and often a little 'sleepy' -so easier to snap! (Image: Philip Smith)

Wakehurst Place is a great venue for leaf colour. Keep an eye on the Kew website to see when the trees are at their best. The IGPOTY exhibiton will be there this October in the Millennium Seed Bank.

Other top tips

Keep an eye on the weather forecasts, and be ready to go out when conditions are right. Mist and even fog can give you some great shots. When it’s misty, be careful of your exposures as underexposure is quite common - as mist is so reflective it can trick your metering – just like with snow scenes. I use the histogram on my camera to check exposure, exposing to the right as far as possible without blowing highlights.

When you are photographing trees it’s often difficult to know how to frame the composition. Look for strong branch shapes and build the composition around that. Don’t be tempted to ‘squeeze’ the whole tree in unless it is part of a broad landscape. Pick out a part of the tree and work with that – or even a single leaf or twig.

Autumn Leaf
Autumn Leaf (Image: Olegas Kurasovas - IGPOTY winner 4Seasons autumn category)

Remember that the effect of strong colours is to dominate the image - so handle with care. If your subject is – say, a sculpture with subtle greys and browns, don’t compose it next to a blazing autumnal tree – it will get visually lost.

I am leading a one day workshop at Wakehurst Place on 20 October where we will be looking further into autumn photography - especially trees and colour.  Full details can be found here on the website.

You can find out more about IGPOTY's autumn category this year, and the whole competition here. DEADLINE FOR ENTRIES November 30th.

- Philip -

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An eye for the weather

By: Philip Smith - 04 Aug 2011
Philip Smith, organiser of International Garden Photographer of the Year, discusses how the weather is an integral part of good garden and plant photography.
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For the last few weeks I have been photographing in my garden, inspired by the International Garden Photographer of the Year category ‘Weather eye’. If you like photographing outdoors - plants, gardens, landscapes, animals - then you’ve got to be interested in the weather. Maybe it’s the infinite variety of weather on our little island which is so fascinating. I write this on a day which started as a humid early morning with heavy grey skies, then moved on to a sweltering lunchtime in the garden under an ultramarine sky – and with a prediction of rain this evening.

Raindrops on a flower
Raindrops - my garden July 11

Certainly, comments on the weather are a favourite conversational gambit in this country. Where I live in rural Devon it’s a bit more than that – more like an obsession. At least three people in my small village keep meticulous records of daily rainfall – what's that about?

I’m not quite that bad, but I do enjoy the weather and how it works with what I love to photograph. I think the combination of rain and sun is my favourite. Of course, mist is always a good way to create atmosphere in a photograph – and sun through mist – now I’m salivating. I have about three sources for weather forecasts that I regularly look at to try to predict when the conditions will be right to photograph. In Britain I use the Met Office a lot.

But as my wife may tell you, my big problem is wind. I hate the wind. Anything more than about 12 kph stops me, photographically speaking, dead in my tracks.

The other evening everything looked set fair - I went out to photograph a beautiful wildflower garden with swathes of wild carrot and other native species. I got there about 7pm to find the wind had got up, and my carrot blooms were swaying about all over the place. Yes you can use a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement – but tall plants always look ‘wrong’ if they are frozen in unnatural contortions. And yes, I could slow the shutter speed and let the movement happen and get some lovely impressionistic blurs – but that’s not what I was after in this particular garden. I chose a single bloom, set up a rudimentary wind break and held my breath…

wild carrot flower
Wild Carrot (Queen Anne's lace)

The IGPOTY category ‘Weather Eye’ closes on 31 August as the third of our annual ‘4Seasons’ categories. Take a look at the forecasts and see what you can do to illustrate the relationship between the plant, garden and the sun, snow, rain and fog and yes – if you must – the wind.

- Philip Smith -



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About Philip Smith

Philip Smith with his camera

Philip Smith is a professional photographer specialising in gardens and plants with 15 years’ experience. His photography has featured in many magazines and books including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) , and Gardeners’ World. His work has also featured in exhibitions at Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and London.

As co-founder and Managing Director of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Philip is responsible for the world’s premier competition in the field, which culminates in an annual exhibition at Kew Gardens and other venues. Philip is the author of Better Plant and Garden Photography.

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