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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

The Earth laughs in flowers*

By: Philip Smith - 23 Jun 2011
Philip Smith talks through his favourite photos from this year's International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, on display at Kew Gardens.
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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.”

IGPOTY exhibition at Kew Gardens  IGPOTY exhibition at Kew Gardens

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:

  1. the 'grabbers’ – the ones that struck me immediately when I watched the judging process
  2. the images that are ‘slow burners’ – ones that I didn’t ‘get’ when the judging was taking place but now I really like
  3. 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

‘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

‘Autumn is Coming’ by Gerard Leeuw

This print is available to buy.

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

‘Martina and Peter’ by Magdalena Strakova

- Philip -

 


 

Related links

*Ralph Waldo Emerson – thanks to Sarah-fiona Helme


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Top professional tips to improve your macro shots

By: Philip Smith - 09 May 2011
Macro photography is one of the most popular techniques in the world of flower and plant imagery. Keeping focused on your subject is the key to successful close-up photography.
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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

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 -

More information

  • 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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Ready for your close-up: getting the most out of macro flower photography

By: Phillip Smith - 15 Apr 2011
We love close-ups of flowers. But they are often a bit out of focus, or not very well lit – just not as exciting as you think they ought to be. How can this be improved?
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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.

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 - 50mm macro lens f2.8 Same subject - 185 macro lens f4.5.

The closest distance to the subject –
50mm macro lens f2.8.

Same subject – 185 macro lens f4.5.
See how little of the subject is in focus.

 

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. 185mm macro lens - f3.5 the largest aperture setting on this lens.

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

Tulip 'Helmar' by Philip Smith

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- Phillip -


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Black and white - the new colour

By: Philip Smith - 18 Mar 2011
Your photography can be wonderfully enhanced by exploring black and white techniques. We share some practical tips and tricks.
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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?

Monochrome

Monochrome 2

 

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.

Monochrome 3
 

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.

 

Monochriome 4

 Once you are in the black and white world there is huge range of tone for you to explore.

Monochrome 5

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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The judges' scores are in

By: Philip Smith - 15 Mar 2011
Ever wondered what happens to your IGPOTY entries once you have pushed the button to send them to us? We offer some tips and tricks to help your photographs get through the early rounds of judging.
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The snow lay thick on the ground and nobody could take off from Heathrow, Egypt still had a president, King George VI was still stammering, and there was a load of Christmas shopping to do.  But the judging of IGPOTY 4 was also just starting, back in December last year.
 

Berberis antoniana by John Barber, Finalist, Plant Portraits

Berberis antoniana by John Barber, Finalist, Plant Portraits 


The process took three months. There has, in the meantime, been lots of talk, lots of discussion, and much tea has been drunk. Everybody who entered has now got an email of congratulation or commiseration. We have been swamped – pleasantly so - with requests for feedback from the judges. The comments people have made have been really good to see:

“I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of taking part in IGPOTY 2010. I have been unsuccessful this time - however, I would love some feedback on the images I entered for the competition"

“Thank you once again for your hard work in arranging this competition. The results again are amazing. Alas the winter daydream of walking away with the winning prize is not to be but I would be very grateful for feedback on the images which I submitted.”

“I know that the competition gets stronger every year and the results are visually excellent, and I take on board all previous feedback that you have been kind enough to offer me in the past. I am really interested in Garden Photography and really want to succeed with this at some point - it is really important to me.”

The judging process

So with more than 14,000 entries, how do the judges work? Do your photographs really get looked at?

Well first of all, two of the judges go through all of the entries. One by one. Opening the file, giving it a ranking, moving to the next one. This takes about three weeks.

At this stage, when 14,000 are whittled down to about 2,000, first impressions count. Here are a couple of things that will enhance your chances of getting through the first selection:

  • Don’t put your image in a computer generated frame. The judges are deciding about photographs, not frames.
  • Don’t put your name or some copyright text inside the photograph. We treat the issue of photographers’ copyrights very seriously. If you put your name inside the frame the judges will look at that and be distracted from the image.
  • Don’t submit a very small file. We ask for low resolution files to be 800 pixels along the longest side – much smaller than that and the image will be pixilated - distorted. It won’t get through the first selection.
  • The judges see an awful lot of repetition at this stage – the same kind of images – close ups of rose petals, for example, crop up time and again – it really is a time for originality to be at the fore.
     

Almond Blossom by James Guilliam, Finalist, Plant Portraits


Almond Blossom by James Guilliam, Finalist, Plant Portraits

 From 'longlist' to 'shortlist'

We then take our 2,000 ‘longlist’ and widen out the selection process to the entire judging panel. In their own time, they review the images one by one and give them a score.

The judges at this stage are easily able to see your captions and the judges will read them carefully at this stage.  We always remember that many entrants do not have English as a first language and so they are not looking for a work of literature; a caption explaining an interesting angle on the photograph however can help and image along. We couldn't  say that a good caption makes up for a poor image – it doesn’t – but a good or interesting caption can push a ‘borderline’ image through to the next level.

There are several rounds of the ‘longlist’ stage. At the end of this stage, the admin team goes through and weeds out those images that have been ranked lowest by the panel. This leaves about 500 images that we have to reduce to around 200.

Come the middle of January, we all meet up for three or four days in Andrew Lawson’s studio in Oxfordshire and review all the images that are left at this stage. Although we concentrate on those images that have scored highest, all of the photographs entered are still available for review, regardless of how they have been scored. So it is always possible for a judge to ‘recall’ an image from the ‘pile’, or simply to have another look through all of them.

Final discussions

Now the intense discussions begin. Sometimes it’s easy – sometimes the finalists just leap out from the screen. But most times there is a long discussion where the various merits of specific images are discussed and, ultimately, voted on.

At the end of this round is when we send out emails to shortlisted photographers asking for high resolution files. People sometimes think the judging is over at this stage but this is not the case. The judges often go back over earlier decisions and can ‘promote’ a photograph that did not make it to the shortlist.

Make sure at this stage you send us the best image you can. If you are not familiar with the world of tiffs and jpegs now is the time to learn – fast!

Once we have received all the high resolution files, the judging panel meets again to review all the choices and to look at the technical quality of the image submitted. Quite a few do not get through this final round. What we are left with is a selection of photographs that the judges feel represent the best of the wide variety of talent on show. Now, and only, now do we send out the final ‘results email'.

Now it’s over to you – have a look at the finalists on the website and let us know what you think! The winners will  be announced just before the exhibition opens at Kew Gardens - the beginning of May.

- Philip -


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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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