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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

And the winner is...

By: Philip Smith - 07 Mar 2013
After three long months of judging the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, the dust is settling and the results are in! Philip Smith considers whether the winning images are 'stunning' - or altogether more interesting than that...
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Way back in December, way before I discovered my daughters had bought me a tartan scarf for Christmas (just what I wanted, girls - and no, I haven't left it on a train yet) , the judging panels for the International Garden Photographer of the Year (IGPOTY) competition convened in chilly Oxfordshire to begin the long deliberations which have brought us to this point - the results of IGPOTY 6!

It's customary at this point to say, in true press release style - 'best ever' - 'stunning images' - (why do images always stun you? I think they should open your eyes - not shut them) but I'm not going to do that. First though, enjoy the winner, Dennis Frates' eye-opening shot of wild penstemon on a rock cliff face in Oregon.

Photo of sunrise over the sea and cliffs

Penstemon Sunrise (Photo: Dennis Frates)

Dennis tells me that he didn't intend to go out that morning. It seemed a long old hike up the mountain. Maybe the sun wouldn't be quite right, anyway. Maybe it would be warmer in bed. Maybe it would be kinder on his 60 year-old knees not to go. I am glad for us that he did make the effort. Along with all his medium-format kit. A wonderful moment, communicated to us all the way from that landscape, that distance, that time, that moment.

No such problems for Paul Debois in the Elephant and Castle in south London. He just had to hop on a 133 bus. But his winning shot in the 'Greening the City' category opens our eyes to the way we need plants and trees in the city - not only for our visual enjoyment, but for our sense of connection with the natural world. 

Black and white photo of city trees seen from below

City Trees (Photo: Paul Debois)

But here is another sunrise, and another big effort of preparation and the technique of being there at the right moment - by Nic Barlow - Sunrise at Ballue.

Photo of sunrise through mist over a formal garden

Sunrise at Ballue (Photo: Nic Barlow)

Commitment, effort, preparation, relationships. All here in this portrait of an inner city farmer in Ohio by Rich Pomerantz - winner of the 'Bountiful Earth' category.

 Photo of a black man in sunglasses holding a crate full of fresh fruit
 Inner City Farmer (Photo: Rich Pomerantz)

And look at this one - specially for the gardeners among us. Our nemesis the common snail, treated as a film star - complete with lights and meticulous composition. A highly complex shot, full of clever techniques, bits of blue gel and a mate with a torch. Searching for Snails by Liam Marsh.

Close up photo of a snail at night

Searching for Snails (Photo: Liam Marsh)

So what do we learn? Are we stunned?

I hope not - I hope your eyes and imaginations are opened up. What we learn is that the winning shots are the result of patience, skill, enthusiasm, energy, and commitment. Nothing more, nothing less. Nothing to do with fancy-dan cameras. Nothing to do with software magic. Nothing to do with stunning innocent people.

That's how it is. I'm so glad we did it all again for another year. Thank you to my fellow judges and to all who supplied us with vital supplies of tea and baked goods! 

You can see the winning photos, along with my commentary, on the IGPOTY slideshow on the BBC website.

You can also see a wider range of winners, finalists, highly commended and commended images on  the IGPOTY website.

IGPOTY has organised a rolling programme of exhibitions of the photos in the UK and around the world. Find out more about the competition exhbitions on the IGPOTY website.

And you can buy the book, International Garden Photographer Of The Year Collection 6, from the Kew online bookshop. 



- Philip -   

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Photographing the winter garden

By: Philip Smith - 13 Feb 2013
IGPOTY director Philip Smith is inspired by the colours and textures in the winter garden and suggests some tips and techniques to help you get the best from your chilly images
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The winter garden – brown, black, grey – maybe a bit of white snow or frost to liven things up a bit. But nothing much happening. For the photographer, looking out of the window at the chilly scene, nothing looks very inviting. A lot of dead things that need cutting back, certainly. But no inspiration.

But wrap up warm and take a walk around. Some things come into focus and reveal the fantastic beauty of the garden in winter.

Photo of winter hedges                  Photo of winter hedges in sunlight

Winter shapes and hedges in sunlight at the Old Rectory, Netherbury, Dorset

It's all about shape 

The bare bones of the garden are revealed. The bare bones of the plants are revealed as well. Yes you can get depressed about it if you want to – but it's also a good idea to see these new shapes as inspiration for your photography – maybe an inspiration to kickstart your photography year, maybe a new way of looking at things, and new techniques to try out.

Photo of a dead hydrangea leaf
Winter hydrangea, developed as a Duotone image

And look at the colours!. What looks brown and grey at first, soon reveals itself as a wonderful range of colours we just don't see later in the year.

Yes, there's brown and grey. But the greens are deep and sombre. There are dark blues, wonderful rich purples and maroons, yellow and pale shades of grey and green.

I am doing a series at the moment on a grassy bank near our house (not too far away from the teapot and fire). This is a work in progress – sketches if you like - but they can reveal the range of colours that abound in winter. Just look. 

Photo of twigs and branches                   Close up photo of leaves and twigs

Sticks, twigs and leaves in a grassy bank

For the Galanthophile 

As photographers, we wait for the appearance of the snowdrops – these little beauties create an instant visual hit. But the results are often disappointing. What seem to us to be delicate little drops of fragile beauty can turn out in the picture to be more like white blobs.

Photo of a snowdrop

Close-up of a snowdrop

The issue here is light. The white of the snowdrop petals contrasts hugely with the dark earth. Our cameras, particularly small compacts – struggle to cope with this range of contrast. If you add in the extra brightness of a sunny day – the kind of day when the flowers are open and looking at their best – you will find things get more difficult. The white is that much brighter and increases the contrast range even further – then you are in the fast lane to Blobsville.

Close up photo of two frosty snowdrops

Close-up of snowdrops covered in frost

If you choose a day that is overcast – even dull – then the range of contrast in the tones is much smaller because the white is not so white. So the camera copes better and is able to reveal detail in the petals like the delicate ribs shown in these pictures.

Close up photo of a snowdrop

Close-up of snowdrop flower

If you can't or don't want to choose an overcast day then it's a good idea to make sure that the camera will expose the snowdrop correctly at the expense of the rest of the scene. Many cameras provide the option for different ways of measuring – or metering – the exposure values in the scene. The default setting – or the auto setting - will enable the meter to make a general reading of the scene and then average it out – so most things are exposed correctly.

But it does mean that things at the extremes of the range – like the white petals – are not correctly exposed. If you use a 'spot metering' setting then the camera will only measure what is around the area of focus - so it can be pin-point accurate.

Using this technique you can get the exposure on the snowdrop just right. Other bits of the image will then be 'wrong' – probably too dark – but maybe that won't matter and making these judgements and decisions is one of the things that make you a better photographer.

If the day is really dull you may be tempted to use flash. Or your camera may decide to use it for you. Flash is usually so strong that it will happily get rid of any of the precious detail in the white petals. So avoid it like the plague – that applies to most flower closeups but especially white or pale flowers. If you really have to use flash then put a piece of tissue paper over the flash unit - this will soften and diffuse the light.

Close up photo of a Hellebore flower

Close-up of hellebore flower 

Next time we will look at hellebores and techniques to help you reveal the beauty of these head-hanging beauties. 

- Philip -

Philip Smith runs garden photography workshops at various locations, including Kew Gardens and Wakehurst. Keep an eye on the IGPOTY website for upcoming events. 



The International Garden Photographer of the Year competition 2013 will open on March 1st.

It has a NEW CLOSING DATE - OCTOBER 31 20013.

Go to Igpoty.com for all the details.          


1 comment on 'Photographing the winter garden'

That's not really how it was

By: Philip Smith - 03 Aug 2012
You are at Kew with your camera and snapping away - but when you get home you may be disappointed - we have tips for you!
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It’s the holidays! A slight drizzle, an anorak in the bag ‘just in case’ and a quizzical look at the sky as you step out of the door.

Destination? Your favourite garden – whether it be Kew, a National Trust garden, the New York Botanical Garden, or one of the huge number of fantastic public gardens there are around the world.

What else do you take with you? Ah yes, your camera of course – to capture the day, the colour, the wonderful flowers, the sunshine and just the sheer happiness of it all.

But when you get home and get the images on the computer? – Well, maybe it's a bit disappointing.

That’s not really how it was!.

How do you get closer to the spirit of the place in your images?


The spirit of place - Sun-drenched borders by Andrea Jones - IGPOTY 2010. The path leads us in, the light beguiles us.

Here are a few tips and tricks

The trouble with gardens is that there is such a lot to see all at one glance - herbaceous plants blooming left, right and centre. When we look at a wonderful border, our brains edit out all the bits we are not concentrating on – the drainpipe on the wall behind – the plastic watering can left behind by one of the volunteer gardeners - the sprigs of dead wood that haven’t been pruned back yet.

But the problem is our cameras are not as intelligent as our brains and they treat everything in the frame as equal to everything else - so we let things into the frame that ought not to be there - that distract the viewer from the very thing we want them to look at.

So here are some tips:

  • Don’t just snap your favourite flower and then move on to the next shot. Check out what it looks like on the viewing screen – but really look. If there’s something intruding on the composition then shift your position – kneel down – or change the angle – to eliminate that drainpipe from the shot.
  • Avoid ‘general views’. Look carefully at the scene in front of you and pick out the dominant feature. Use that as a visual ‘anchor’ and place it to the left or right of the middle of the frame – avoid placing a key element in the dead centre.

IGPOTY JUly 1- Worsdell
Stourhead by Anthony Worsdell - IGPOTY 2010. Notice the relationship between the urn and the 'temple' in the distance; the urn leads you into the scene and 'points' to the building which is the focal point of the image. Courtesy of the National Trust.

  • Look at what the garden designer has done with the hard landscaping. Designers will create sightlines and vistas to concentrate the eye on specific features – whether particular plants, trees or hard features like benches or statues. You can ‘borrow’ their artistic eye to do the same with your images. Let their paths and steps help you lead the viewer of your photograph around the garden.

California garden by Jason Liske - IGPOTY 2009. This photograph is about the light and the path. Together, they create atmosphere and involve the viewer in the scene.

  • In Northern latitudes the light changes all the time and it’s light that makes the difference in photography. If you have taken a good shot in a location while it’s spotting with rain, go back after a while and see if the light has improved.
  • If you are photographing individual blooms, avoid harsh sunlight in the middle of the day – either go back towards the end of your visit when the sun is lower, or use a piece of card or hat to shade the flower – you will avoid hard black shadows on the flower that disrupt the natural shape of the plant.
  • Notice where the sun is; look across the garden and then turn round 360 degrees – watch what happens to the foliage and colour and the difference between the sun shining onto the view (sun behind the camera) and the sun behind the view (sun in front of the camera). Normally, ‘back-lighting’ will add drama and energy to the dullest view as the sun gives a wonderfully atmospheric illumination to foliage - especially when it’s lower in the sky.

Poppies by Marianne Majerus - IGPOTY 2010. The backlighting gives an atmospheric luminosity to the scene which would be lost if the poppies were photographed with the sun behind the camera.

When you get home take a look at your images on the computer. Play around with them and try different cropping – see if they could have been improved when you took them. In this way you will develop a wider visual ‘vocabulary’ and this will remain with you when you go out again – so you will get more variety and personality into your images.

And when all else fails – go to the tea room and have a very large slice of cake. Actually, that’s really good advice for any situation in life.

Have fun on your holidays.


Related links

  • Breathing Spaces is a category in International Garden Photographer of the Year which is supported by the National Trsut in the UK. You can enter photographs taken in Trust properties for the competition. For full details go to the IGPOTY website.
  • Better Plant and Garden Photography by Philip Smith is now on sale at the Kew bookshop, Victoria Plaza, or online at igpoty.com

4 comments on 'That's not really how it was'

Taking your time

By: Philip Smith - 06 Jun 2012
Philip Smith considers his recent workshops and lectures on the theme of ‘Better Plant and Garden Photography’ and notes that photography, like coffee, is better if it's not instant.
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If I were to see a bandwagon rolling down the street I would be very tempted to jump up on it. Actually, I’ve been thinking of changing my name to Phil.i.ip. But then Ralph the village postman would doubtless make a rude joke about it – he is already in stitches every time I have to sign for a parcel for ‘IGPOTY’ – well, whatever gets you through the day.

Then I wondered if I could make the theme of this month’s blog the Jubilee and Olympics. You know – ‘Going for Gold’ with IGPOTY – or ‘we salute your 5 glorious years, your IGPOTY-ness’. But then everyone’s doing that.....  So I think I’m better off sharing some thoughts on garden photography.

A recent shoot in Dorset - Rodgersia by a pond . Time of shoot - 5.20 am.

Recent workshops

During the last couple of months, I have been doing quite a few workshops and lectures on the subject, and love every minute of it.

One thing I think about all the time is the fact that people come to these events with a very wide range of experience and expectation. On the one hand, there may be somebody in the group who knows more technical stuff than me – while at the same time there may be someone just starting out on photography as a hobby.

Surprisingly, there is always someone – at least one person – who does not know how to operate their camera. I don’t mean how to adjust the settings – I mean doesn’t even know how to turn it on. So it’s quite a stretch catering for both ends of that spectrum.

In response to this challenge, I try to look for the common ground and talk about aspects of photography that don’t have anything to do with what kind of camera you own, or your level of experience.

1881    1881_2

In a lecture we look at these two shots (above). On the left is an entry into the competition and on the right my simulation of what would happen if the photographer had filled the frame with the subject - taking maybe half a pace towards it and turning the camera round. Which do you prefer - and why?

Inspired in Devon

This all came to mind this week. My wife and I found ourselves on the edge of Dartmoor for a meeting. It was a lovely day so afterwards we decided to visit The Garden House near Yelverton. It is a garden I have photographed in the past – mainly in winter for the snowdrop collection that Matt Bishop has developed there. But today couldn’t have been more different – fiercely hot on the hilltop – bright midday sunshine. The garden was packed out and the plant sales were doing a roaring trade.

My wife was happy to add to that roar, and so I wandered off to sit on a bench and do some people watching. Lots of people taking photographs – on tiny cameras, on phones, on big DSLR jobs – the whole range.

In haste

I reckoned that on average people were spending about 8 seconds on each frame they shot. What that implies is that the photographers were thinking that the camera would transform the 3D view in front of them, experienced by the incredible technology of our brains and eyes, into a 2D rectangle without losing any of the atmosphere or visual impact of the outstanding planting at the Garden House.

And the time spent on the shot was the same regardless of whether the camera was big or small. Very few people looked at the image after they had clicked the shutter – and if they did – it was a cursory glance – as if to see whether it had ‘come out’ or not.

So in the workshops and lectures we talk about spending more time considering the shot, we look at composition, light, your position relative to your subject (99.5% of photographs at the Garden House that day were taken at eye level – standing up with the camera held out in front, or up to the eye – why?). We talk about the way the brain can edit out the irrelevant stuff when looking at a flower border, but the camera can’t - unless you work at it and develop your techniques.

We talk about things you can do to ensure that – within that 2D rectangle – you can bring home some of the feeling, the atmosphere, the colour and vibrancy of your day at the garden.

And all of that applies whether you have spent £2000 or £200 on your camera gear.

Time, consideration, some simple techniques, looking at the light – the simple truth about all photography regardless of equipment.

So please come and join the IGPOTY bandwagon. Our next lecture is at Rheged Discovery Centre, Cumbria, June 24th.We are also at Wakehurst for a one day workshop on the 18 October.

- Philip -


Find out more

The 2012 IGPOTY competition  is now open with over £10,000 worth of cash prizes on offer. Go the website to learn how you can enter – or just benefit from being on the IGPOTY bandwagon!

Tags: creative

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IGPOTY winners announced!

By: Philip Smith - 01 Mar 2012
Philip Smith reflects on a very successful fifth International Garden Photographer of the Year at Kew, and how wonderful it is to see photographers develop their skills and do really well in the competition.
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Well, the judging is over, the exhibition is up, the book is printed, and the winners are announced. Time for a sit-down, a cup of camomile tea, a fluffy blanket and a catch up on what’s happening on Countdown. Maybe even a small slice of fruit cake.

It’s been an epic year. We have had about two months less than usual to get ready for the annual exhibition and so we are really, really and, yes, really, exhausted!. 

Butterfly balancing on a flower

This year's winner - Upside Down by Magdalena Wasizcek

Bigger and better

We have had more entries than ever before and a whole swathe of new people taking part in the competition. We have had exhibitions in New York, Sydney, Wakehurst - Kew of course - Hereford and Portugal.

And what a set of winners and finalists we have! This year we are celebrating the fifth year of IGPOTY at Kew with a wonderful exhibition in the Nash Conservatory and you can see them all there.

Sometimes people say – why have an exhibition when you can see the photographs on the website, or in the book? To me it’s like watching a film on DVD compared with at the cinema. It’s a very different experience. You see the photographs much bigger and at their best. You mingle with people. You talk to your friend about the images, point things out and go back again to have another look. Going round an exhibition can be a life-changing experience for some people. It sticks in the mind.

View of garden from inside a boat house

Boat-house by Dace Umblija. Winner in the 'Breathing Spaces' category

Persistence pays off

This year we have seen some great achievements from people who have been trying to succeed in the competition right from year one. Dace Umblija has won the ‘Breathing Spaces’ category with her photograph of Winkworth Arboretum. Dace has come on a number  of our workshops and has always entered a variety of images – but has never been successful until now. And her photograph has been admired not only by the judges but by everyone who has seen it.

Our overall winner, Magdalena Wasiczek, has entered for the last four years and been a finalist before but never won a big award – this year she has won not only the overall winner award but also one of the categories –‘The Beauty of Plants’. Her photography has always been eye-catching but this year it has hit new heights.

So it’s time to reflect on a job well done by a large number of photographers. But what about the unsuccessful ones? Many of them have asked for feedback on their unsuccessful entries and they are waiting for replies which we are happy to give. We hope in the future, as this year, to unearth new talents as well as giving a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.

Apparently Carol Vorderman’s not on Countdown any more. And I’ve got crumbs all over my fluffy blanket. Yes we could start on the feedback emails right now. The next competition is already open and I’d love to see the early entries that people have begun to send in…and next year’s exhibition needs preparing…

Time to get up and at it!

- Philip -


More information


Buy the book

The book of IGPOTY 5 is now available at the Victoria Plaza shop, from Kew books, or from International Garden Photographer of the Year

Here’s what one person thinks of it:

"My copy arrived yesterday and after the day's grind I thought to flick through Collection 5 to quickly get an impression and take a moment between other tasks. It's Friday evening the twilight hour and a drink in my hand. I thought it would be a brief, relaxing - almost meditational moment between the real work - if you understand what I'm saying

Far from it, this collection is energising and inspiring. Each turned page is a new thrill. No doubt it's a strenuous annual challenge for you but what a result!! So goodbye three quarters of an hour and hello lift off!

What I love is the incredible permutation of the accidental, the carefully planned - the technological mastery, the eye for composition. And caring enough to return at dawn or some other improbable hour when the light will be right.

This is a long winded way of saying congratulations, what a privilege to be part of this fantastic programme."

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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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