Capture the Moment! Improve your garden photography!

By Carole Drake | September 7, 2016
Image by Carole Drake
by Carole Drake
September 7, 2016

From her base in Somerset, England Carole Drake searches out compelling gardens to photograph, both large and small, historic and contemporary. Her features regularly appear in magazines in the UK and Europe and images of hers have been used in many commercial products. After gaining a BA and an MA in Fine Art, she worked for some years as an artist before retraining in horticulture and working as a gardener in public and private gardens. She began photographing and writing about gardens and the people who make them in 2004 and hasn’t stopped since. Earlier this year, she won the Beautiful Gardens Category in the 9th International Garden Photographer of the Year competition for an image shot in the walled garden at Rousham, Oxfordshire. 

Have you ever got your camera out to take a photograph of your garden and been disappointed with the results? Whether you’re using your phone, a compact camera or a fancy bells and whistles digital SLR there are a few simple tips that can help you make a record of your garden, or take an atmospheric picture of it in all its glory.

Light – the word photography means drawing with light, an amalgam of the Greek words, photos (light) and graphein (to draw). Without light there is no photographic image. But there can be too much light, or the wrong sort of light and this is where many amateurs fall at the first hurdle. A bright summer’s day with not a single cloud in the sky is not the ideal time to get your camera out, particularly not in the middle of the day when the sun is directly over head acting like a powerful naked light bulb more suited to interrogating a suspect than revealing the subtle beauty of plants. Strong shadows create random dark shapes across the image, whilst other areas can be blindingly bright looking ‘blown out’, appearing as areas of white with no detail in them. The human eye is much more able to deal with extreme contrasts than a camera is. Shooting in these conditions produces harsh, contrasty images where either the darks or lights are properly exposed, never both.

-placead-Dawn and dusk are the best times of day to photograph outside, when the low sun spreads soft rays across your garden shining light through leaves and flowers, illuminating them like a stained glass window. Working with early morning or evening sun can be thrilling, especially using trees or plants to filter it.

Dawn sunlight breaks through mist and trees above the pond with moored canoe, surrounded by magenta Primula pulverulenta, ferns, irises and bamboo. Windy Hall, Windermere, Cumbria, UK Windy Hall, Windermere, Cumbria, England

Here I used trees and foliage as a screen or filter so I could shoot directly into the sunlight to catch a great light effect. This was at dawn so the sun was coming up over the hill and raking down through the trees and across the small pond. Luckily there was also a mist at the time which further softened the sunlight making it possible to shoot without it blasting the camera with too fierce a light. The sun was moving fast so I took a lot of shots very quickly and then this wonderful effect was gone.

When the sun is high in the sky wait until it has just gone behind a diaphanous cloud, which can filter the sun enough to create a good photograph. An overcast day can work well too. A complete covering of white or pale grey cloud spreads a soft, even light over a garden which can bring out every single detail of a flower. I find such light particularly good for plant close ups using a macro lens.

Composition – another critical thing to think about is composition, the arrangement of the elements of the picture within the frame, usually a rectangle. Don’t always place your main subject slap bang in the middle of the frame, and if you tend to do this because you’re using autofocus think about turning it off and focusing manually or learning how to shift your camera’s focus point. Placing your main subject off centre can create a more dynamic composition than one with its subject centred.

Summer borders in the Millennium Garden designed by Xa Tollemache are edged with Lavandula × intermedia 'Grosso' and feature Phlox paniculata 'White Admiral', Verbena bonariensis and sweet peas growing up hazel wigwams. Castle Hill, Barnstaple, Devon, UK Castle Hill, Devon, England

This image was shot in a soft even light which reveals all the detail in the beautifully designed borders. The line of lavender that travels from the lower right corner of the image leads the eye deep into the picture toward the ochre washed building.

Don’t shoot everything with your camera held horizontally either (landscape format) – turn it vertically to shoot in portrait format too, especially useful for plant portraits. Look for strong leading lines in your composition, perhaps a diagonal path that leads the viewer into the image, or a sequence of repeated verticals.

Depth of field – how much of the image do you want in focus? If you just want to record how your garden looks at any given time you would want as much detail and information in the shot as possible, so use a small aperture (the hole in the lens through which light passes) to maximise depth of field. If you want to photograph your favourite flowers you might want them to stand out from a busy background by making the depth of field narrower by using a large aperture, so blurring the background and isolating the plant from it. Remember small apertures have large numbers like f16, large apertures have small numbers like f5.6.

Allium 'Mount Everest'. Beechenwood Farm, Odiham, Hants, UK Allium ‘Mount Everest’

For this shot I used a narrow depth of field so the allium stands out against a plain background. Again the light is soft, no strong sunlight, so lots of detail is revealed. The allium is placed off centre which I think makes a more interesting composition. I thought about the shapes the spaces make around the allium (negative space) as well as the allium itself.


Point of view – try changing your angle or position for a more interesting shot, or to find a better, less distracting background. Photograph plants from below or your garden from an upstairs window. Get close up to your subject. Be creative and experiment!

Line of clary sage beside purple lettuces. Clovelly Court, Bideford, Devon, UK Lines of lettuce and clary sage, Clovelly Walled Garden, Devon, England

Here I got close up to rows of plants in a kitchen garden, often great places for finding plants making strong patterns. I chose to make the line between the two parts of the picture oblique or slanting rather than vertical because it makes for a more dynamic composition.

And look at images you see in garden magazines and on websites for ideas. Whether you want a simple aide memoir of what your garden looks like at a given time, or you want to capture a gorgeous light effect and the way it makes you feel about your garden or one you’re visiting, consider the elements I’ve mentioned above – light, composition, focus and point of view, and see the difference!

Visit my website and the International Garden Photographer of the Year website at for lots of inspiration










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