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.
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 - 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 (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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We just starting to recover from the installation of this year’s International Garden Photographer of the Year awards day and exhibition, running near the Pavilion restaurant at Kew Gardens. It was a very busy time, but hugely enjoyable for everyone who came to see us.
We received these kind words in an email from one of the International Garden Photographer of the Year finalists this year. He had travelled from the USA to take in the exhibition.
"As for the outdoor display, I felt that the photos had been extremely well arrayed and sited and the visitors that I saw seemed to be completely engrossed. Enormously satisfying for me to experience my familiar pictures taking their places as small voices in an extremely beautiful and varied chorus of images from around the world.”
International Garden Photographer exhibition at Kew Gardens
Talking of enjoyment, as organiser, I am often asked ‘what’s your favourite picture?' By the time of the exhibition opening, Mary Denton and I have become very familiar with all of the images, and exchanged emails with most of the photographers, and often spoken to them personally. So, by the time the public gets to see the photographs we have ‘lived with them’ for many weeks and months. So, when I'm asked that question, I like to think about three different responses:
- the 'grabbers’ – the ones that struck me immediately when I watched the judging process
- the images that are ‘slow burners’ – ones that I didn’t ‘get’ when the judging was taking place but now I really like
- the ‘quiet ones' – the ones I just didn’t really notice one way or another, until I suddenly look at them afresh and see the real value of them.
Here's my personal top three:
My favourite ‘grabber’ – ‘Unmistakable Similarities’ Ute Klaphake
This photograph leapt out at the judging panel because it is so amusing.
‘Unmistakable Similarities’ Ute Klaphake
My favourite ‘slow burner’ - 'Autumn is Coming’ by Gerard Leeuw
An image that is quite difficult to ‘read’, but reveals itself over time – distinctly weird!
‘Autumn is Coming’ by Gerard Leeuw
My favourite ‘quiet one’ - ‘Martina and Peter’ by Magdalena Strakova
This one isn’t in the exhibition, but was ‘highly commended’ and included in the book of the exhibition. Just a great bit of photography – absolutely captures the decisive moment.
‘Martina and Peter’ by Magdalena Strakova
- Philip -
- Visit the exhibition at Kew Gardens
- International Garden Photographer of the Year competition
- Buy IGPOTY prints online
- Buy the book of the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition
*Ralph Waldo Emerson – thanks to Sarah-fiona Helme
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Last month we looked at macro photography and issues such as depth of field and what sort of lens to use. So what else can you do to get the best from your macro photography?
God of Small Things by Sam Kirk; one of the inspiring macro images in this year's International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition, now open near the Pavilion Restaurant at Kew Gardens.
Attention to detail
When you are concentrating on a tiny part of a flower, small things that you don't normally notice can become very intrusive. So no wandering shadows, twigs, bits of dirt. Don’t expect the viewer of your photograph to do your editing for you! Look at the frame before you press the trigger – is there anything in the shot that shouldn’t be there? Can you move anything you out of the way that you don’t want?
Accurate focus is the key
Think about your focusing strategy. If you want to use autofocus make sure you understand its limitations and the possibility that it will lock focus on to the wrong bit of the picture at the moment you press the shutter. Most pros use manual focusing so make sure your eyes are in good shape! Focusing manually requires more concentration but it is more flexible and offers greater control- especially if the subject is not moving a lot.
Eliminate camera shake
Vibrations of the camera, even if you can’t feel them yourself, will create enough movement for tiny subjects go blurred. Make sure you use a tripod and remote shutter release at all times. The tripod should be a good sturdy one, especially if you are using long - and heavy - lenses. Check out magazines like Amateur Photographer and What Digital Camera who regularly run reviews of tripods.
No really, eliminate camera shake
If your camera supports a 'mirror lockup' function – use this. In your DSLR or SLR light passes through the lens from the scene in front of you. In the camera body you have a mirror that bounces that light up into the viewfinder - so you can see what the lens is seeing. When you press the shutter this mirror flips up out of the way so that light can now get through to the sensor or film. This happens very quickly and normally it makes no difference to the shot; but with macro, the tiny amount of vibration caused can be big enough to move the camera and so blur the subject. With mirror lockup, the mirror flips up a nanosecond (technical term) before the shutter is released, so the vibration has already taken place before the picture is taken. The result: no blur.
Shine a light
We like to take pictures of stamens inside its enclosure of flower petals – a real ‘alien landscape’. This space can be surprisingly dark, and so you may well need to bounce light into this area. Flash is usually too harsh so use a reflector - a piece of bright white card will work - to do this. If it is really dark try a piece of silver foil. But don’t overdo it. You may not see the effect of subtle reflected light with your own eyes – but the camera exaggerates the effect so check it when you review the completed shot.
Shine a brighter light
You can use flash to create highlights and to even out shadows. But even the most subtle flash ‘blips’ can be too harsh for flower subjects; or it can be so subtle it makes no difference!
Horses for courses
Work with the equipment you have, not against it. The importance of a solid tripod in macro photography cannot be overstated. A hand-held camera cannot be held steady enough, especially with a long macro lens. And monopods are not steady enough either.
If you use a modern compact camera you will get great quality images but your closeups may be problematic - for example, maybe a tripod isn't practical for you; if this is the case then just concentrate on ‘normal’ subjects. In the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition(IGPOTY) , we often long for more shots of plants in context – in sunny borders or in groups with other plants. Here the emphasis is on colour and harmony – the beauty of gardening rather than the beauty of plants. Your little camera will work perfectly well for this kind of scene.
But if you do feel the lure of the 'Big Picture' - have a look at some of the winning macro photographs of IGPOTY winners over the years - be inspired and get out there!
- Philip -
- International Garden Photographer of the Year Exhibition 5 opens on the 14 May 2011 near the Pavilion Restaurant at Kew Gardens. Find out more here.
- Next month: The organisers' perspective on this year's show.
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Every year in the International Garden Photographer of the Year competitionwe get thousands upon thousands of flower close-ups. Petals enlarged so that they are just a blur of colour and texture – stamens so big you could hide a bulldozer in them. The colour, the weird shapes, the feeling of visiting an alien but very beautiful world – all provide a very attractive technique for photographers.
Heavy metal Hibiscus by Michael Lowe.
Finalist in International Garden Photographer of the Year 2010
So what is macro photography?
And what special equipment do you need for it? Macro lenses are made by all the major camera manufacturers. Unless they are made by someone you have never heard of, they will be of superb quality. You can get comparisons of lenses from magazines and websites like our media colleagues, Amateur Photographer and What Digital Camera, who regularly carry out thorough reviews of what’s on offer.
If a lens is designated as ‘Macro’ then it means you can get closer to your subject – therefore the subject can be bigger in the frame than would otherwise be the case. But you can have a standard length macro lens – say 55 mm – and a long macro lens – say 185 mm. With the longer lens you can get your subject big in the frame from further away. This means that, if you are able to get your long lens near to your subject, then the subject will be MUCH bigger in the frame.
The closest distance to the subject –
Same subject – 185 macro lens f4.5.
A good long focal length macro lens is expensive – too expensive for many of us. When I was starting out I couldn’t afford one, so I used cheap extension tubes. These are metal, glassless rings that you fit in between the camera and the lens. They were, and are, brilliant because your lens imaging quality is not affected – though the amount of light hitting the sensor does decrease, so you have to adjust. You may lose some automatic functions especially on older cameras. But they are much much cheaper.
So you’ve got your tripod, your lens, your tubes...
... now you're on your way. But there is a bit of learning to do. There is one photographic concept you are going to need for every shot. And I mean every shot. If you don’t understand depth of field you will never be in control of your macro photography, no matter how clever you think your camera is.
Depth of field is very simple. Like the iris of an eye, your lens aperture opens up to more let light in if it’s needed, and closes up if there is too much light. OK so far. But unlike your eye, the size of the lens aperture determines the amount of the scene that can be in focus. The measure of the amount of the scene that’s in focus is the depth of field.
The wider the aperture, the less of the scene will be sharp.
With a long macro lenses, the depth of field is very shallow because the degree of magnification is much greater than standard lenses- even with the aperture on a small setting such as f22. The depth of field can be very shallow indeed - down to millimetres - making focusing with long macro lenses tricky. The margin of error is very small.
185mm macro lens – f32 the smallest aperture setting on this lens. Note even with this very small aperture some of the image is still not in focus.
185mm macro lens – f3.5 the largest aperture setting on this lens. The amount in sharp focus is now tiny.
Ah! but with auto-focus the camera takes care of all that and I don’t have to worry about it! Not so.
Your camera’s auto-focus ‘roams’ around the scene looking for something to focus on. With macro, the distances between objects on the scene are absolutely tiny – and so it’s very easy for auto-focus to lock onto the wrong bit. Typically, you see photographs where an insignificant part of a stamen is in focus, and with the dominant shapes being slightly ‘soft’. Most pro photographers use only manual focus because they want total control and precision.
So how do you increase your chances of getting more depth of field? And how can you improve the lighting of macro images?
That’s what we’ll be looking at in the next blog. In the meantime, enjoy the spring and enjoy shallow depth of field – you can put this 'limitation' to great creative uses!
Tulip 'Helmar' by Philip Smith
- Phillip -
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“Whispering” Ted Lowe. He was the ‘voice’ of Pot Black, the first televised snooker programme in the UK in the 1970s, and I loved listening to him. The thought of his husky deep voice brings back those winter evenings of spam and ketchup sandwiches with chocolate milk. Ah, those 1970s snacks – now there’s a cookery series waiting to happen.
Anyway, my father was very keen on snooker and I used to watch Pot Black with him. As you know, the concept of snooker is fundamentally based on the variation in the colour of all the balls on the table.
The only thing was, we only had a black and white television.
Somehow, my father was able to differentiate the various shades of grey. “Why didn’t he go for the blue in the middle pocket, Dad?” “Because it’s red” – was an example of how conversations went during the programme. After a while I was able to discern those shades of grey myself. When we eventually got a colour TV several years later it all looked – well – a bit gaudy. It turns out I preferred the subdued grey tones – they went so well with Ted’s voice.
The greyscale rendition of the real world starts with charcoal and pencil drawing and reaches its high point with the development of documentary photography in the twentieth century. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and other giants of photography took monochrome to a new level of artistic achievement, creating rich images full of shape, form, tone and texture.
With digital photography, monochrome images can be achieved with the flick of a virtual button, either on the camera or back home on the computer. Easy isn’t it?
Using a desaturate command will get rid of the colour information. But it’s possible to be much more subtle than this and really explore the world of monochrome.
Rather than a simple desaturation, I created a new adjustment layer. This enables me to revise and review my work without altering the underlying original colour image. In this example I have created a new adjustment ‘channel mixer’ layer, enabling me to control the red green and blue components of the pixels. This is important because each colour channel handles greyscale information differently. You can also use the channel mixer to replicate the effect of lens filters on black and white film.
Ticking the ‘monochrome’ option and adjusting the sliders gives me a huge amount of creative control over the image – much more than just desaturate.
Once you are in the black and white world there is huge range of tone for you to explore.
I converted the image to grayscale in the ‘Image mode’ menu. I then used the ‘duotone’ option to create highlights and shadows with varying colour. There are lots of detailed tutorials for these tools on the web – as well as inside the ‘Help’ functions of the software itself.
Here are some tips for you to get inspired by a world without colour.
- Learn about creating adjustment layers – you can change your image without affecting the original. Very good when you want to leave an image for a few days and come back to it.
- Don’t think that making a picture black and white is going to make a boring image interesting – it won’t.
- Concentrate on form and texture. After a while and with greater experience you will develop the ability to ‘see’ whether a subject will look good in monochrome.
- Toning an image is much more than just sepia ‘olde-worlde’ look – it can create warmth of tone that puts your photograph to another level.
- Simple subjects often work well in monochrome – portraits of people in the garden work as well.
- Look at the work of Karl Blossfeldt to understand how black and white can take your photography to places that colour can’t.
- If you want to watch snooker, buy a colour TV.
International Garden Photographer of the Year 4Seasons theme ‘MONOCHROME’ is open until 31 March 2011 - a chance to win the category and a £500 prize. And you can get feedback on your entries – win or lose.
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About Philip Smith
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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