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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 Wakehurst blues (and oranges)

By: Philip Smith - 11 Oct 2010
Learn tips and tricks on taking great photos of trees - perfect for the autumnal displays that can be seen at Wakehurst this time of year.
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‘I must hire someone else to do this kind of thing’ I thought as I stood at the side of the road in the pouring rain, unfashionably early for a 7.30 am meet up with Jason and the boys who were to install the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Wakehurst. Everyone else - quite sensibly as it happens - turned up at quarter past eight. As the rain eased I had plenty of time to contemplate the key issues of the day: what is the point of intermittent windscreen wipers? Can you get a half-full English breakfast? But in between musings I looked around at the marvelous trees at Wakehurst and noticed the early transformations in colour as the leaves begin to turn.

In these northern latitudes, photographers are blessed with some of the best visual conditions of the year during autumn. The sun is low and creates drama and depth in any scene. The early morning flowers and leaves are laced with dewy cobwebs – very romantic and the stuff of competition-winning photography.

Many of us go to foliage colour for our inspiration. The yellows, oranges and reds – maybe set against a bright blue autumn sky – the big, bold graphic shapes of leaves – the Acer, Liquidamber, the wonderful Tulip tree. The gardens at Wakehurst have one of the best shows of autumn foliage in the UK. And this year in International Garden Photographer of the Year we have a special  ‘Best Image of Wakehurst’ award.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 28mm lens.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) by Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 28mm lens.

What our eyes see and what our camera sees

One of the problems we have in photographing these trees is that often, they are so big and spectacular in real life, in the little rectangle of our camera image they look a lot more puny - stripped of their grandeur and vivid spectacle. One of the reasons for this is that our brain – thankfully – is a lot more subtle than the camera sensor. When we look at a scene with our eyes, we edit out what we don’t want to see and we fill in visual gaps with our imagination.

Our brain says: “Wow! What a big tree that is and how colourful and wonderful the individual leaves are. I am going to fit the whole thing in the frame and I will get a really spectacular image.”

Our camera says: “Wow, what a perfectly normal-sized tree when compared with the surrounding objects which I am going to give equal importance to in my picture. And what quite ordinary leaves they are since I can only see them from a distance as a disorganised clump. I am going to register everything I see without emphasising any one element and I will get a really ordinary image.”

Where the photographer steps in

We must tell the eyes, to tell the brain, to tell the camera to get its act together and to help us communicate what we are seeing. But before telling the camera what to do, it’s vital that your eyes get involved. They are the leaders, the generalissimos, of this process.

Walk around a tree checking it out from all angles. Some views will be better than others. Look what’s happening in the background. Spend time and thoughtfulness doing this. Walk up to the tree. Look at the bark. Look out from under the leaf canopy. Look up, look down. Look at the leaves close up and from further away. Look at groups of leaves against the sky. Look at the roots along the ground. Do you still want to get the whole tree in the frame? Have you got three or four closer or more unusual views that will help you communicate your enjoyment of this tree?

Euonymous alatus 'compacta'. Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 105mm lens.

Euonymous alatus 'compacta' by Philip Smith. Nikon D2X. 105mm lens.


Now your eyes have told the brain to tell the camera what to do. You know you want a wide angle shot. Or you want shallow depth of field. Or you want a long shutter speed to blur movement. Or you might need a blip of fill-in flash because you want to do a backlit shot, and want to keep detail in the foreground.

Handle colour with care. The colours at this time of year can be so vivid it’s tempting to saturate them even further when you get them onto the computer. If you’re shooting jpeg, there’s a chance your camera will ‘overcook’ (technical term) your images to start off, with much too vivid colour. It is better to shoot RAW and then use RAW processing to control the delicate range of shades and not hit the viewer between the eyes with reds and oranges.

Visit the exhibition

The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition is now up and running at Wakehurst, and will be there until mid-January. If you're visiting, make sure to head for the Mansion House to see it.

You’ll be pleased to know that I did eventually dry out after my day at Wakehurt too. Back at home, the entries for the ‘Trees’ and ‘Autumn Shapes’ category of the competition are rolling in – will you be a winner this year? A trip to Wakehurst before the end of November might set you up well. 

I will also be signing my book at Wakehurst on October 30 and 31 - do come and say hello!

- Philip - 

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What do the International Garden Photographer of the Year judges look for?

By: Philip Smith - 01 Oct 2010
We are now entering the final phase of the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) competition 2010 and many people will be getting their entries ready for the November 30th deadline. So what are the judges looking for?
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This is one of the most frequent questions we are asked. It’s a difficult question to answer in a nutshell but we’re going to give it a go…

Are they are looking for a certain type of image?

It’s a mistake to think that IGPOTY judges start with the idea that they are looking for a particular kind of photograph. They really do come to it with an open mind – ready to be bowled over by images that don’t necessarily conform to any set pattern or idea. They love being surprised, moved or inspired by individual images.

This entry made the judges smile. 'Acrobatics in my Garden' by Silvia Demetilla. Finalist in competition one.

Isn’t it all subjective?

Well, yes and no. The judges bring with them their experience and taste. But each photograph is assessed by at least four people along the way, so we do aim for a balance of views. All of the judges are experienced professionals, involved in some way with professional photography, publishing, exhibitions or teaching. So they each bring with them a professional objectivity.

All the big names seem to get through – I’m a nobody in photography, so what chance have I got?

All of the photographs are judged anonymously. The administration team reveal the names to the judges right at the very end.

I only have a small cheap camera – I’ve got no chance

It’s true that most successful entries are made with DSLR cameras. But these are by no means ‘high end’ or ‘the latest’ cameras. We do have finalists who use compact cameras, pinhole cameras or other devices, film or digital. What counts is the eye behind the camera.

Fish at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens by Christine Whatley. Nikon Coolpix E4300. Finalist in competition two.

Aren’t the winning images all 'photoshopped'?

We allow the use of image editing in submissions. All of the photographers on the judging panel or admin team grew up with black and white printing in darkrooms. We know that we spent hours burning and dodging our prints to get the best out of our negatives. To be able to do all of that, and much more to get the best from our digital ‘negatives’ is, to us, part and parcel of the photographer’s art.

What we don’t allow are effects which create an artificial image which is ‘passed off’ as real. This particularly affects the wildlife section. We scrutinise any image that we think may not be what the photographer says it is. We don’t mind if you create an artificial image if you tell us in the caption that the image is – for example – a montage or created on the computer in some way. These images are then judged on merit just like any other photograph.The judges are experienced enough to know that however much manipulation is done on the computer, it is artistry and technical ability which always wins through over tricks and gimmicks.

Welsh poppy by Richard Freestone. Third place in competition one.

Are captions important then?

They can be. If there is a story or context to the picture then the judges enjoy knowing that little bit more about the photograph. But nobody would be disqualified for having a bad caption. You can edit any of your captions up to the end of the competition.

What does get disqualified at the outset of judging?

Very little. The vast majority of images are entered correctly in the right format. Our system is very ‘forgiving’ anyway. The judges would disqualify images which are clearly outside the brief. For example in the ‘Wildlife in the Garden’ category – they wouldn't accept a photograph taken at the zoo. The categories are designed to be general enough to encourage a wide variety of interpretations – so your imagination can be let loose. People in the Garden – a garden shed with no people in it? – fine. Trees – a single leaf? – great.

Occasionally, photographs are disqualified from the shortlist because once we get the hires file from the photographer, we find it is not good enough quality to reproduce, or there is some other technical problem with it, or we find it’s a Photoshop trick passed off as a genuine photograph.

So what is it that the judges are looking for?

It’s easier to say what they’re not looking for. They are not interested in the camera used, nor the photographer’s name and, nor, in the early rounds, the technical quality. They look for images that excite, amuse, engage the emotions, satisfy the eye. If that seems very general, it’s because the judges make their assessments exclusively on how they react to what they see on screen- the photos that make them look twice.

What happens if judges disagree about a photograph?

We allow full discussions which can become heated especially in later rounds. It’s the administration teams’ job to hold the coats and make sure each individual question is resolved.

Win or lose, I’d really like to know what the judges thought about my entry

We know that a lot of people find this very useful. You can apply by email after the winners are announced to get some feedback from the team about your entries. You can also come and meet the judges at an event at the International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at Kew Gardens, during the summer.

How should I go about making my final selection for the competition?

Go with your instinct. Be bold. Have a go. If you win, your achievement could be a life-changing event. And even if you don’t win, you will have taken part in a project that can help you develop your appreciation and understanding of not only your photography, but also of gardens, plants and the natural world.

Good luck.


- Philip - 

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Insect Beauties category winners announced

By: Philip Smith - 23 Sep 2010
Ants, bees, bugs and flies all buzzed and crawled into the International Garden Photographer of the Year office as our ‘4Seasons: Insect Beauties’ category inspired photographers from around the world to submit a variety of incredible photographs of our mighty micro friends.
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Phew that was a tough one. We had an amazing collection of insect photographs once the ‘4Seasons: Insect Beauties’ category finished at the end of August. Many of them were unlucky to miss out. There was even very little to choose between the top three photographs, but after long discussion the winner is:

In Flight’ by Lotte Andersen Pedersen from Denmark.


The judges admired the way the photograph was clearly the result of painstaking work, catching the hoverfly at exactly the right moment, and with exactly the right composition of colour and shape. The insect is clearly in its element.

See all entries at the International Garden Photographer of the Year website.

Runners up were Jacky Parker ‘Lady in Red’, and Leena Holmström ‘Small Copper in Sunshine'.


'Lady in red' by Jacky Parker

The category winner receives a £500 cash prize and all the finalists will receive a copy of ‘International Garden Photographer of the Year Collection 03’ published by David and Charles. All the finalists have been awarded points which will be taken through to the judging of the main competition. The final run up to judging the main competition is now on – with the deadline November 30th. There are seven categories to enter from Trees to Wildflowers to People in the Garden.

International Garden Photographer of the Year is run by photographers for photographers. Uniquely, we offer all entrants the opportunity to discuss their entries with judges after the competition closes, and anyone can ask for feedback on their entries by email. Go to www.igpoty.com to get involved.

- Philip - 

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Coming to fruition

By: Philip Smith - 13 Sep 2010
This time of year in Northern Europe provides fresh opportunities for photography. But sometimes it's a good idea not to take any photographs at all!
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I visited an old walled vegetable garden last week looking for likely shots. I find this time of year the absolute best time for atmosphere, colour and above all, light. We have had some wonderful mornings here in the UK in the last few weeks. Dewy spider webs, warm sun filtering through still-leafy trees - lovely. Insects are very busy too, packing away the nectar like there's no tomorrow - which for most of them probably isn't very much.

Sunset apple

Apple 'Sunset' by Philip Smith. Nikon D2X Signma 185mm lens, @f6.3

Vegetable gardens and allotments in the early morning or evening can provide the most gorgeous images – both taking in the atmosphere of the view or focusing in on the shapes and colours of ripe vegetables – which are often among the most exotic in the garden. Last year Mark Bolton won our ‘Edible Garden’ category with his shot of an  allotment at dawn.

But I was out of luck on my visit – well, I hadn’t done my preparation really. I was just a week or two too late. The lovely haze of blue Echinops that had caught my eye over the wall, were just too far gone. The bees that normally swarm around these chubby, friendly plants had gone off to more fruitful regions. The caterpillars had enjoyed many more bites of the cabbages than is ideal for photography, and the onions and leeks had gone to seed too.

Still, there was, as always in a walled garden, a lovely atmosphere of tranquility and cosiness. It was nice just to sit down and soak it all in. As a photographer, I’m a great believer in sitting and soaking it all in. When we get to a good scene, we often reach for the camera and capture the moment. But if you sit and look for a while, you start to see what really makes the scene good and you can begin to work with your environment at a deeper level. This can often inspire a much better, and more rewarding photograph, than you might have captured with your first ‘snap’.

- Philip Smith -

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'People in the Garden'

By: Philip Smith - 11 Aug 2010
What makes the difference between a family snapshot in the garden and an award-winning photograph in the 'People in the Garden' category of International garden Photographer of the Year?
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This month, the People’s Choice winner is Steve Satushek for a photograph of his daughter in Washington, USA. It was striking that Steve’s portrait was way ahead of all the other contenders in this month’s vote – it really struck a chord.

Girl in her Garden
Steve Satushek, Girl in her Garden, Finalist, Competition 3

In the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, 'People in the Garden' is a popular category. So what makes the difference between a family snapshot and an award-winning photographic portrait like Steve’s?

Well, a lot of it is about the relationship between the subject and the photographer. If the subject is not in a mood to be photographed, then the result will look artificial, however skilled the photographer is. As always, light is important; in Steve’s photograph the soft overcast light does not bleach out the child’s delicate features and enables the photographer to render the pastel shades of the flowers with great delicacy.

Then there is that elusive quality called ‘mood’ – the point where subject matter, composition and photographic technique come together and allow an image to ‘speak’ to the viewer without words or explanation. We are fortunate over the years to have seen many good examples; in last year's competition, Gösta Lindbom’s ‘Autumn in the Garden’ is my personal favourite; it’s like a Beethoven quartet – sad and nostalgic but with a heartfelt peace and appreciation of the moment.

Was this luck or judgement? Certainly photographers can capture the ‘decisive moment’ by just pressing the shutter at the right moment; but a great portrait is also the right combination of instinct and skill. Photographing people in the garden is often quite a difficult task since it is so easy for the background to distract attention fro the central subject. Note how Steve Satushek has handled this; he has allowed the foreground flowers to go out of focus so that they become daubs of colour that lead the eye to the subject. The dark foliage in the background does not compete with the light tones in the foreground.


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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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