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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

RAW memories Part 3: The imaging workflow - raw tiffs and jegs, and making sense of it all

By: Philip Smith - 02 Mar 2011
Philip Smith cuts through the competing claims of image management software and offers a simple workflow structure that you can use and adapt for your own situation.
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It’s a while since I’ve been to New York. Walking around Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon I’m struck by the way it’s possible to hear voices and languages from all continents on the street – including, I’m pleased to say, Welsh. Plus the traffic noise and police sirens. Cacophony is the word.

Ah wah kworfee

In Central Park I stopped at a coffee stall and stood in line behind a very large cop from central casting. He looked around him and then yelled at the top of his voice – seemingly into thin air "Waah ting?". Hmmm, difficult here – do I act cool as if this happens every day, or run away from the mad person with the gun at his hip? Again – a huge shout, even louder, fills the winter air: "Waah ting?" Now I’m nervous. A third one – "Waah ting" - this time another voice – just as loud – from across the street – "Kworfee!" OK so now I fill in the missing vowels and consonants and it all falls into place: "Do you want anything?" our policeman in the queue had shouted to his friend across the way – "Coffee" he replies.

They understand each other and are able to cut through the noise and babble and communicate.

Photoshop bridge

Image management - order out of chaos

A very nice story but what has this got to do with processing RAW images? Tenuous I know but this is about making sense of a noisy and confusing world. Every time we pick up a photography magazine we see adverts and editorials about the best image management software – buy me and you will be transformed overnight from a ‘now where did I put that one of the seed-head?’ to ‘ah number 014768- precisely’. What is often not discussed about digital imagery in general is that there is a big overhead that was much less demanding in the film days – organising your files. We call it ‘workflow'.

The thing is the right system is based on a few simple principles that you yourself understand and that you can use to make your software do what you need – rather than the other way round.

A simple framework

The key things to remember are:

1) Your RAW file is like a negative; treat it as such – leave it in the state it was created in the camera.

2) Key wording is essential for any photographer that uses the internet

3) You need a hires master file for print – and a lores master file for web use. 

Sample Workflow

So here is an example of a workflow- every photographer will have their own variant – but the basic principles will hold good.

1) Bring your files into the computer to organise them – trying to organise them on the flash card is very limited
2) Back up your RAW files in at least three locations on three different bits of media – e.g. hard disc, DVD.
3) Use your software to organise your images into folders with names that you can recognise – e.g. a location, a date, a commissioned shoot.
4) Keyword the files. This is essential if you are looking to sell your images through agencies – it enables your pictures to be found by search engines. Some people do this on the RAW file, some on the master Tiff. You can never have too few keywords.
5) Use Photoshop or similar automated Actions to create a Tiff master file.
6) Do your adjustments to your Tiff files like the ones discussed in the last blog.
7) Use Photoshop or similar automated Actions to create a Jpeg master file.

And that’s it. So long as you understand the underlying structure of your workflow it will always be easy for you to find what you want – don’t leave it to the software to organise it all for you.

Cut through the noise and get your cup of coffee.

- Philip -

NEXT TIME: The IGPOTY finalists and commended will have been announced – read the Blog to get an insight into the judging process – and some tips on how to being your image to the judge’s attention.

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In the shadows - how to improve your photographs with one slick cursor move

By: Philip Smith - 10 Jan 2011
Previously on RAW passions, we left you with the tantalising prospect of exploring the world of RAW files to really push your photography forwards. In this second part - we deliver.
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In the first part of this series we encouraged you to explore the world of RAW image processing.

I studied photography at Bournemouth College of Art in the 1980s which was a vibrant and exciting place to be (erm… the college not Bournemouth). We were all in love with developing our own film. I was expert at the tricky business of loading film into the developing tanks in total darkness – very fast, very nimble – like a ninja weasel – another disappearing craft like dry stone walling. And everyone seemed to have a secret chemical formula or method that got that most sought-after object – ‘a good chunky neg’.  We would spend long long hours in the communal darkroom printing our chunky negs and obsessing about our blacks and our whites and our grain. I loved it.

Now you can re-create that excitement at the computer screen – but without the chemical burns in your jumper, the acidic smells mingled with adolescent hormones, and the strong desire to book the enlarger booth next to Ann Pethers.

Images before (left) and after (right) adjusting the RAW ‘negative’.      Images before (left) and after (right) adjusting the RAW ‘negative’. 

Images before (left) and after (right) adjusting the RAW ‘negative’.
More detail in the shadows areas – look at how the foliage of the bay tree is ‘revealed’.

Getting going with your RAW processor

So you have shot some frames in RAW format and have downloaded them to the computer. They don’t look anything special – usually very dull colours with little contrast. They won’t come alive unless you process them with a RAW processor.

There are many RAW processors out there; some you download and use as standalone applications. Some are integrated into image management software like Photoshop. They all do basically the same thing but some are better than others. Best to look on the internet and forums for opinions about which are best. But Adobe products are the market leaders. I am going to use the processor integrated into Photoshop CS3 as my examples.

We only have room here to deal with a few of the processing tools. But once you have got the basic principle you can explore for yourself. There is loads of information on the web – notably the Adobe learning siteis very good for beginners.

Part of the RAW processing window shows a whole lot of sliders and read-outs.

Part of the RAW processing window shows a whole lot of sliders and read-outs

The coloured graph at the top of the column is the histogram. A histogram shows you a graphic map derived from the brightness values of each pixel (dot of colour) and how these values are distributed across the whole image. Left is dark, right is light.

The histogram

You can see that our graph is weighted to the left; so the image brightness is unbalanced – with too much emphasis on the darks. So the idea is to spread the brightness values out so that the image shows a good range of tones that are easy on the eye.

An easy way to do that is to adjust the exposure which you can do by using the slider bar ‘Exposure’. The exposure now has been brightened by a value of 0.90. That’s a very precise number and that’s the point. Adjustments can be very subtle giving you absolute control over the finished image. Now the histogram is looking healthier with a good, more even tonal range over the whole image. We haven’t eliminated the shadows – that’s what gives the image its depth and richness – we have simply balanced it better.


I have also:

  • added a bit of ‘Recovery’ as some of the highlights had ‘blown’ – that is, they had become so bright that they lost detail. Recovery builds the highlight information back up;
  • adjusted the ‘fill light’ slider. This is like adding an extra lighting source to the image – it boosts the middle tones of the image and can often reveal more detail;
  • added a bit of ‘clarity’ – this is a very subtle ‘sharpening’ tool that helps boost the contrast of the mid-tones – we will deal with sharpening in a future episode.

Now my image looks more like it.

Final touches

But I still don’t like that bay tree. I think it’s still a bit too ‘heavy’ – I would like to see if it would be better lightened. Now in Photoshop I can use ‘Quick mask’ to select the area and to lighten it without touching any of the other parts of the image.

The image with 'Quickmask' in Photoshop, ready to work on the bay tree.
The image with 'Quickmask' in Photoshop, ready to work on the bay tree.

Welcome to world of ‘burning’ and dodging’ just the same as the darkroom but a whole lot more effective. The effects are all very subtle – even tiny – but they make a world of difference especially if the images are to be seen on the printed page or in an exhibition context. See what you think of the differences in the bay tree foliage. 

Purple flowers       Purple flowers

This has been just a brief introduction to the wonderful world of RAW. Next time we will go into more detail on Workflow and some advice on how to organise your files without getting drowned in data and processes.

Would you like us to go into more detail in future articles on processing images – histograms, curves and levels? Why not let us know with a comment on the Blog?

There is more information on many aspects of photographing gardens and plants in our book Better Plant and Garden Photography.

- Philip -

3 comments on 'In the shadows - how to improve your photographs with one slick cursor move'

A story of wistful memories and RAW passion

By: Philip Smith - 17 Dec 2010
In the first of three parts, International Garden Photographer of the Year organiser Philip Smith mourns the passing of film but looks at how shooting RAW files on your digital SLR helps develop creativity and technique.
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I loved film. As a boy my beloved Brownie 127 was in constant use, photographing irises in the garden or our old black dog in the snow. I used to take the film to Knotts the chemists to be developed, nervously returning a week later when Mrs Knott would hand over the big packet.

I was 10, she was 51. We were so much in love.

Blue irises by P.Smith aged 10.  

Blue irises by P.Smith aged 10. Brownie 127. Kodak Verichrome Pan Film. Hand scratched by brother.

‘Did they all come out?’ I would ask – ‘Oh yes they’re lovely’ she’d say. Yes I know this sounds like a scene from Lark Rise to Candleford but that is how it was – or I think so anyway. Maybe I’ve left out the bit where film costs three weeks pocket money – for 8 frames – the one where I left the camera strap in front of the lens for all 8 frames – and the one where my brother opened the back of the loaded camera ‘to see how it works’ – yeah anyway – whatever.

But I loved the smell of film – in later years as a professional, I loved unwrapping new film cassettes and that celluloid smell – so full of potential and longing – a photographer’s blank canvas. I loved using wonderful transparency film that could transform foliage and colour shot in the dullest light into miniature frames of light and beauty on the lightbox. I loved large format dark slides and the whole paraphernalia of loading film, processing it myself, knowing that each sheet was so precious.

Digital doesn’t smell

Let me be the first to say this. When digital first came along I thought it was like photographing with boxing gloves on – I couldn’t ‘contact’ the image in some way. I learnt about jpegs and tiffs and the dreaded monitor calibration and printer profiling. I could see the advantage of being able to see the shot as soon as you had taken it – there’s only so long you can wait a week for your prints to come back from the chemist- but I couldn’t see what it was about.

Then along came RAW. Now I could control elements of my photographs I had previously been completely unable to. I could add light into dark areas of the shot; I could recover ‘blown’ highlights, I could tweak colour and tone to really make my images ‘sing’. I was back in the darkroom, tweaking and pushing and pulling and dodging and burning. I was learning to love digital.

The control panel for a RAW processor in Photoshop CS3
The control panel for a RAW processor in Photoshop CS3. So many slider bars - so little clue. Come back next month to learn more detail on this.

But for many photographers, RAW is still an unknown quantity.

So what is RAW?

Well an image shot in RAW format is often described as a ‘digital negative’ – a master file which you can manipulate to create all kinds of improvements to the final ‘print’. It is like that – but it is much more powerful than a film negative.

Cameras create RAW files when you take a photograph. A RAW file is very simple and contains one red, green or blue value in each pixel. So if your camera is set to ‘jpeg’ or tiff’ then the camera has to ‘develop’ this RAW file to create the file you want- and it does that at the same time as taking the shot. This is a very complex process and it is also automatic – you have no control over it. So it’s quite likely that your camera could throw away valuable visual information. Your camera makes decisions about colour, contrast and sharpening that you may not want. And what’s worse its an irreversible process.

Much better to keep all the visual data in your file and then use software on your computer to apply the processing that your camera can do for you; but this time you have complete control and what’s more – all the changes are reversible. Re-enter my feeling of ‘contact’ with the image developing process. Hello tweaking my old friend.

There are many bits of software that process raw files that can be bought or downloaded from the internet. The best known and probably the best is that which is included in Adobe Photoshop.

Learning how to use these RAW processors is a whole blogosphere in itself and we will return to this topic next month in the second of these blogs on RAW files.

If you don’t shoot RAW already give it a go – it offers wonderful opportunities for creativity, artistry and the imagination of the photographer. And if it's all a mystery - come back in the new year to find out more.

But digital still doesn’t smell.

- Philip -

2 comments on 'A story of wistful memories and RAW passion'

This year's competition closes on 30 November 2010 - get involved!

By: Philip Smith - 17 Nov 2010
It's your last chance to enter this year's International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. Find out more about the judging and the professional feedback on offer.
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Well not long to go now. Then we will be at the end of this year's International Garden Photographer of the Year competition.

The entries are flowing in from all over the world – Iran, Canada, Thailand, Brazil – as well as our main fanbase in the UK, USA and Australia. It’s a really exciting time for us - and busy too as we are flat out organising the entries 'behind the scenes' and preparing them for the judging in January.


Exhibition at Kew, summer 2009.

Exhibition at Kew, summer 2009.

Dreaming of success

In this dark northern European November it's lovely to think forward to Kew Gardens in May 2011, with the next exhibition freshly minted, to the people and photographers all milling round, to the winning photographers proud as punch having their photographs taken next to their winning picture. Good times.

Yet then there are the people who will be disappointed not to have won anything. Having entered photo competitions myself and not won anything, I know exactly how that feels.

What if I haven't won anything?

  • ‘I bet they didn’t even look at mine’
  • ‘with so many entries I had no chance’
  • or even ‘mine was better than some of the winners’.

Now, having been on the other side of the fence, we see things very differently. It seems to us that coping with failure is one of the most important things to learn. If you can use failure as a spur to move forward, to improve, to learn more about your art, to feel better about yourself, then you will be on an upward curve.

Professional feedback for every entry

That’s why we offer people feedback on their entries after the winners have been announced. We invite people to Kew to meet the judges and run workshops and courses. The hope is that these experiences can help to turn disappointment into a rich learning experience.  They can change your view of the competition judges so that they can become people with something to offer you personally in the development of your photography.

At this late stage if you’re reading this you have probably already decided what you are entering this year. But if you don’t plan to enter anything – have a think – you just never know where the journey may end.

Enter your photo | Competition details

- Philip -

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Countdown to the photography competition deadline – your questions answered

By: Philip Smith - 25 Oct 2010
We have been answering competitors’ questions over the last few weeks as everyone prepares their entries for International Garden Photographer of the Year Competition 2010/11. The deadline for competition entries is 30 November 2010. Here we share those answers!
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Kenrokuen Gardens, by Claire Takacs
Winner of the first International Garden Photographer of the Year competition. Kenrokuen Gardens, by Claire Takacs.

Q: How can I find out about the competition?

A: The International Garden Photographer of the Year website has all the information you need.

Q: Is there a limit on the number of photographs I can enter?

A: No there isn’t.

Q: If I enter lots of photographs will that increase my chance of winning?

A: It stands to reason that the more photographs you enter the higher your chance of winning. But each image is judged on its own merit, without reference to other photographs that have been entered.

Q: I haven’t got any points awarded to me from the 4Seasons category from earlier this year – so does that mean I have no chance of winning anything?

A: No certainly not. The points system will determine the overall title of International Garden Photographer of the Year and the top prize. All the other awards and prizes are decided by the judge’s opinions alone. Winning or being a finalist in any of the categories puts you in a good position to win the top prize. 

Q: Will my 4Seasons entries from earlier this year be judged again?

A: Yes - all of these will be reviewed and allocated to the other categories if shortlisted.

Q: How do I qualify for the ‘Best Image of Kew’ and ‘Best Images of Wakehurst’ prizes?

A: Just put Kew or Wakehurst in your caption information – we will do the rest.

Q: I’m a complete amateur and I don’t have much money – why don’t you make the entry free for amateurs?

A: You have to pay a fee to enter the competition as this enables us to put on the exhibition and all of the associated activities through the year which a lot of people enjoy. We do offer discounts through partners such as Amateur Photographer who have published a voucher code in their magazine. The current one is AP71 which gives you a £5 discount on any one transaction.

Q: When will the results be announced?

A: It takes us 3 months to do the judging; we will expect to announce finalists and commended in February 2011; winners will be announced in April or May, just before the lunch of the next exhibition at Kew Gardens.

Q: Can you give me some tips on how to win?

A: Have a look at our blog post – ‘What the judges look for’.

Deadline is 30 November 2010, midnight. Good luck!

- Philip -

Come and meet me at Wakehurst on October 30 and 31 where I will be signing my book ‘Better Plant and Garden Photography’ – I’ll be ready to answer any other questions you have!

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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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