Getting Closer - Macro Art

The sun finally came out at the Beth Chatto Gardens. 

Leucojum aestivum at the Beth Chatto Gardens. 180mm Sigma macro lens

Leucojum aestivum at the Beth Chatto Gardens. 180mm Sigma macro lens

We all had a good day; lots of techniques and tips. The garden was looking wonderful. We dedicated the day to 'slow photography' - taking time to enjoy surroundings, chat and absorb the information. 

Checking out reflectors and controlling natural lightin the practical session.

Checking out reflectors and controlling natural lightin the practical session.

But first things first. Why do we like to photograph closeup? These images reveal detail that we don't see with the naked eye; they can make plants look like landscapes, or body parts...or anything. Sometimes macro photographers just revel in colour and texture. Why do you want to do it? Having a clear-headed answer to this can refine your images and really develop your photography. In the workshop we cover exposure, focus, focus staking, light , tripod/no tripod - all of this and more. But at heart it is all about what we want to communicate and developing the ideas and techniques that will enable us to communicate exactly what we want to communicate. So observation on a tiny scale is key. So is considering the whole frame - every section of pixels - since closeup work often demands attention to detail unlike any other kind of photography and it's often the background to the main subject that makes all the difference.

Personally, I think I tread a line between abstract and figurative. I never want to forget that the object is a plant and retains all its plant-ness. But I want to try to communicate something more, perhaps an emotion,  a feeling, an appreciation of the plant that goes beyond the decorative. That often takes me into a territory of texture and colour above all else.

Texture: Heather on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire. Not really a macro shot but this was on a 'day out' with friends so no tripod or reflectors. Everything bar the subject is excluded - often what macro work is about. Panasonic Lumix.

Texture: Heather on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire. Not really a macro shot but this was on a 'day out' with friends so no tripod or reflectors. Everything bar the subject is excluded - often what macro work is about. Panasonic Lumix.

Colour: grape hyacinth. When I shot this, most of my time was spent getting myself in the right position for the background to harmonise texturally with the flower. 180mm Sigma lens.

Colour: grape hyacinth. When I shot this, most of my time was spent getting myself in the right position for the background to harmonise texturally with the flower. 180mm Sigma lens.

Inspiration for macro photography can be found in many places but few are as rich as the Macro Art category of IGPOTY. This category is now open with a deadline of June 30th. Take a look. This is what the IGPOTY guys say about it:

The second photo project of the year is Macro Art. This is a chance to capture the world of plants and gardens on a completely different scale, utilising a unique set of photographic skills. From the life of tiny insects, to the mesmerising shapes and colours of flowers, you are encouraged to explore our green planet in miniature, whilst showcasing the beauty and complexity of nature. Judges will look for the extraordinary. Challenge their understanding of both macro photography and the flora and fauna which inhabit green spaces.

Find out more about Macro Art here

My workshops are coming up in May - in London and Herefordshire - Chelsea Physic Garden and Stockton Bury - both great gardens with lovely atmosphere- have a look here

Tulip 'Helmar'. Tulip time is great for macro shots; get in really close if you want to - but any closeup view is rewarding.

Tulip 'Helmar'. Tulip time is great for macro shots; get in really close if you want to - but any closeup view is rewarding.

Grey Sky Thinking

At the latest workshop at the Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex, the gloomy grey sky and biting wind look unpromising…but…

I went to the gardens the day before to have a look. We were due to focus on photographing snowdrops and I wanted to make sure they were out. I arrived just before the garden closed for the day. Before I got out of the car I put on another layer of fleece, my hat, my gloves, scarf and thickest coat. But the biting wind in from the North Sea still managed to get through. It did take my breath away. I hurried down to the garden to take a look. And this also took my breath away. I hardly had any breath left. The collection of brown and grey tones, mixed with muted dark greens and orange was quite wonderful.

But there was hardly any light. Howcould I run a photography workshop without any light?

The group gathered together the next day and there was barely any improvement in the dull light. As we walked around the garden we noticed the groups of snowdrops looking so very bright against the dark earth, and the subtle pinks of the bergenia leaves. So there is colour here after all.

I chose this clump because so often you can only photograph snowdrops against a background of bare earth. The dead leaf mulch lends the picture much more tona interest. Getting down low is usually a good idea, so gardening kneelers are essential kit!

I chose this clump because so often you can only photograph snowdrops against a background of bare earth. The dead leaf mulch lends the picture much more tona interest. Getting down low is usually a good idea, so gardening kneelers are essential kit!

Some of the guys borrowed my LED light to brighten up their shots a bit. After about an hour I thought it was too cold to stay out – but no, most people wanted to stay longer, especially in the beautiful woods at the end of the garden. Here, the snowdrops sat alongside impossibly vivid yellow winter aconites. The very dull light made us concentrate on texture – tree bark and dead gunnera leaves.

We looked at differential focus and the way that this alters the mood of photographs so dramatically. When the light is so dull, it’s a good idea to look for various ways to liven up the images. Playing with lenses, choosing different viewpoints and angles can all create effective images in unpromising circumstaces.

We looked at differential focus and the way that this alters the mood of photographs so dramatically. When the light is so dull, it’s a good idea to look for various ways to liven up the images. Playing with lenses, choosing different viewpoints and angles can all create effective images in unpromising circumstaces.

Same view...different focus point. 180mm macro lens.

Same view...different focus point. 180mm macro lens.

After an excellent lunch provided by Keith and his team, we looked through the images that everyone had shot. Alot of fun. With help from the plant sales team, we then set up a couple of still lifes under the translucent roof of the seating area. Everybody in the group contributed to the shots with ideas, comments. Could have been horrific- photography by committee – but everyone was so good humoured and positive that it turned out to be a really valuable session for everyone – including me.

Here isone of the ‘group photos’ of hellebores shot on Richard Gregory’s camera.

The next workshop at the Beth Chatto Gardens on March 24th when we will looking at macro photography in particular. Phone the garden – 01206 822007 for details.

 

Congratulations to Tammy Marlar Bascombe for her success in International Garden Photographer of the Year 2016. Tammy attended my workshop at Chelsea Physic Garden last year and found it very inspiring.

Dahlia - New Shoots winner - Tammy Marlar  Bascombe - IGPOTY 10 - 2017.

Under the Surface

It's here I know it is. Under the surface but only just under the surface. Spring.

We looked at the sharp tough grey stems of snowdrops sticking up out of the frozen mud. And there, like a dim clouded moon, our first pearly bud, low to the ground, desperate to survive.

In this shot you can see how the low contrast of a properly dull winter morning has enabled the sensor to capture the delicate ribbing of the snowdrop petal.

In this shot you can see how the low contrast of a properly dull winter morning has enabled the sensor to capture the delicate ribbing of the snowdrop petal.

At the Beth Chatto gardens in Essex in February we will be photographing snowdrops, one of the favourite subjects for a plant photographer. The flowers are luminous against the dark brown winter earth. I look for overcast days to photograph snowdrops so that the delicate white of the petals won't burn out.

The cloud cover will lower contrast and enable the sensor to record subtle variations. I hope for still days as well and this can mean an early start to capture that morning stillness. A macro lens is useful since the huge variation in petal markings, green or sometimes yellow, is one of the snowdrop’s most attractive features.

But we've all seen images of snowdrops. In snow. In frost. Open petals, closed petals. With raindrop. Without raindrop. How to create a more original image? What I try to do is not to look at the snowdrop at all. 

I try to study its surroundings, especially the tones. I know that with a wide open aperture my camera will create a blur of tone that can either work or not work. I tend not to use the word 'bokeh'. I see now that some lenses are sold with the virtue of 'great bokeh'. As if blur is a feature that can be added into an image - like artificial sun rays – that bokeh enhances a photograph just by being there.I’ve seen some horrible bokeh effects – circles of light diffused by the lens making the background look like frog spawn. For me, blur is tone. It's the ground colour of a painting or the continuo of baroque music. It has to communicate a feeling or an atmosphere to make sense of the main subject matter.

So here I am photographing snowdrops without looking at them. This frees me up and I start to notice patterns and colours that start to fascinate, that open my eyes and brain to the world around me and I see all sorts of things with which I can, maybe create my own vision of the winter garden.

Cornus at RHS Rosemoor with snowdrop underplanting.

Cornus at RHS Rosemoor with snowdrop underplanting.

I know that at Beth Chatto gardens there are many many subjects that can make wonderfully imaginative subjects and I’m looking forward to it!

To book a space on the workshop at the Beth Chatto gardens go to

http://www.bethchatto.co.uk/courses/bcet-igpoty-photography-workshop-snowdrops-in-focus.htm

It's cold outside...

…and wet. We have been what we like to call ’tidying up’ in the garden. That makes it sound as if we are doing a little gentle sweeping and tying back a few stray bits of rose.  In reality this year it’s meant  major surgery to several plants and shrubs – a pittosporum that had got too big for its boots just had to go and the rot in the decking had to be stopped. And that’s just for starters.
With all that hard work going on it’s sometimes hard to have the energy and indeed the enthusiasm to photograph plants.  The exuberance of autumn is slipping away and the plants are showing their age. The skeletons of trees are showing through; it is all rough texture and leathery leaves scattered on the ground. 

This is a real ‘end of autumn shot’. The fallen leaves are a mix of maple and liquidambar. The colour is great of course but for me it’s the green fern in the foreground that sets it off.  The weather has been so wild that I’ve been working indoors and trying to work through some ideas in the dry!

This is a real ‘end of autumn shot’. The fallen leaves are a mix of maple and liquidambar. The colour is great of course but for me it’s the green fern in the foreground that sets it off. 
The weather has been so wild that I’ve been working indoors and trying to work through some ideas in the dry!

I’m not a big fan of plants shot out of black. But this Christmas cactus has been doing its thing for a couple of weeks now and it called to me.

The simplicity of the colour works well against black – the challenge I thought was to simplify the very complex shape of the flowers so that the drama of the background could work for me. I used a long macro lens for this and LED lighting.


Primary colours are in short supply in the garden now, so I have been looking for objects that reveal interesting texture and shape.  

This poppy seedhead was left over from the summer. I took it indoors and used a macro lens to emphasise its texture more than its shape and to create an abstract image.  Black and white really lends itself to revealing texture and the seedhead has becomes something else – a fossil, a landscape – I don’t know. It’s interesting to use photography to reveal things that you didn’t know were there.

My indoor set up is a simple table that I can move about to take advantage of natural light from the side or from above. I use an old, semi-broken tripod and some lighting stands to hold reflectors and clamps to hold things where I want them. Nothing fancy. The fun bit is finding objects around the garden or on country walks that might make interesting textures – some work and some don’t. 
But there’s a never ending supply of material to experiment with until the colour starts to kick in next year. 

How to win even if you don't win IGPOTY

As the deadline for IGPOTY 10 approaches, one of the most frequent of FAQs that we are asked is: "what are the judges looking for?"  The answer to this difficult question is a difficult answer: "they don't know until they see it." But I think we can be more helpful than this. Among the words that come to mind when looking at a successful image are: "fresh", "original", "surprising", "expert", "challenging", "emotional", "atmospheric". So that's easy then, just tick all these boxes and £7,500 pounds will be yours.

Well not so fast. I left a word out of my list - it's something like "inspired" or "magical" or "uplifting" - and those are all qualities which don't come with a tick box attached; they are qualities that come from the heart of the photographer and which reach out to communicate directly to the viewer - in this case the competition judges.

So how will you feel if you don't win? Disappointed of course. Frustrated probably. Angry? Maybe. You thought your photograph contained elements of all of the qualities I've listed above. You love at least some of the images you submitted - I mean really loved, they look perfect to you and you have already derived huge pleasure from working with them from sharing with friends, family and that most friendly and forgiving of judges, the Internet. So are these IGPOTY judges telling me I'm wrong? 

No, they are not saying you are wrong. They could be saying a number of things. What they could be saying is that the most elusive element, that 'X factor' did not communicate to the judges on that day, when they were comparing hundreds of perhaps similar images of similar subjects. 

They could be saying that there is something about your photograph that could have been improved with closer attention to, for example, composition, or image processing, or lighting or any other technical or artistic element of the image.

Or they could may be saying that you need to attend to some basics of the art of photography, how to manipulate light to improve your images, how to work with large and small apertures, and how to get the best out of your camera.

And this is where you can win IGPOTY, even if you win nothing. By asking for feedback I can send you an assessment of your entry which can help you to understand those areas you may want to improve or develop. I can make suggestions of technical aspects you could usefully brush up on, or artistic ideas that can help you communicate your vision of the world of plants more strongly.

And that usually means having more fun with your photography as you develop knowledge and expertise. 

So if you win this year - congratulations and well done!  And if you win nothing - congratulations and well done! You were inspired to have a go, you've learnt something just in the process of editing your entry, and you have the opportunity to get feedback as a way of developing your work and your vision. 

I call that a 'win-win'.

Requests for feedback for Competition 10 main can be made at anytime before November 30 2016 by sending a request to feedback@igpoty.com.  Due to workload, requests made after that date cannot be answered.

Feedback for Competition 10 main competition will be delivered between February and May 2017.

 

 

 

It’s in black and white

As a photographer obsessed with the world of plants, you would think that colour is all important to me.  Well it is. But over the years I’ve come to work in monochrome more and more.  It is a bit of a homecoming. I suppose it takes me back to my photography roots in the darkroom and the smell of acetic acid seems to come back to haunt me.
But we are not in 1979 and, along with all types of photography, monochrome these days offers so much more in terms of creativity and artistic expression, and I really enjoy using the range of software tools we have today.

Poppy by Philip Smith

Poppy by Philip Smith

It is texture and pattern that draws me into monochrome  image-making. Stripped of colour, I can draw attention to delicate forms and surfaces of petals, stems and leaves.

Hart’s tongue fern by Philip Smith

Hart’s tongue fern by Philip Smith

The original shot didn’t do much for me - dull wintry green and not much tonal variety. But monochrome emphasises the dark patterning so that it really stands out and creates a more interesting image.

As well as the visual qualities of monochrome photography, I think it delivers an experience like no other.  I often think that these images are like a piece of music in a minor key; they are contemplative, a little melancholy even.

Welsh poppy by Philip Smith

Welsh poppy by Philip Smith


 This flower  is a bright yellow and nods its happy head along the side of paths in spring and summer. But a passing shower had not only made it droop but left a delicate spattering of raindrops, turning it into an image that for me is full of nostalgia and longing.

Hydrangea in winter by Philip Smith.

Another melancholy image. This time it has been split-toned to emphasise the skeletal nature of the dead flower. Split toning is built into Lightroom and Photoshop. It can be used for colour images, but the technique was designed for adding colour to monochrome in print, so I think it works best in that context. Used subtly, it can add a hint of low-key colour to highlights and shadows that can lift a monochrome image.

But photographers create monochrome images for all kinds of reasons – not just because they are feeling a bit miz. Have a look at Anne Marie Farley’s winning monochrome image of a rose from competition 6 at igpoty.com – it does lift the spirits wonderfully.  

Not all images of flowers in monochrome are so compelling. In giving feedback to competition entrants I see a large number of entries that have been converted to monochrome seemingly because the original image was not strong enough. I always think this is a shame as monochrome has its own special tonal range and depth that photographers can use to create highly original images – it’s not about giving a poor photograph a makeover.  I think the apps that convert to any number of monochrome effects can fool us into thinking that we are improving the original- just because it looks different. These very simple apps and functions to convert to mono can be handy but there is no point in using them unless you have a clear idea about why and how the image will work in monochrome.

 

When I used to use nothing but black and white film I did begin to ‘see’ in black and white, which really means identifying at the point of capture what will work in monochrome. Ansel Adams knew that the moon rising over the landscape would be amazing in black and white - why would you want to use colour? 
So textures, graphic shapes, bold patterns, contrasts between light and dark – shadows for example, are all subjects that often work better in monochrome than colour. 

Strumpshaw Fen. A simple tree reflection. Without colour to help us interpret this abstract image, it can become something other-worldly that captures the imagination.
This time of year is a great for monochrome subjects in the world of plants. Trees have no leaves to cover their wonderful structures and underlying forms, plants tend to be plain or with subtle patterning – hellebores, snowdrops and celandines. And the low sun can produce wonderfully stark shadows across the landscape.
So brave the cold and enjoy the colourful world of black and white!

International Garden Photographer of the Year is currently holding its annual Monochrome’ photo project competition. Have a look at the website and be inspired by prize winning photography. Inspired enough to have a go yourself? 

 

Photographing Plants in Winter

Photographing the winter garden. We imagine snow ice and frost enlivening our photography. We long for the dramatic juxtaposition of white gardens and blue sky, or frost glinting in early morning sunshine.

I really believe in photographing what’s around you, at whatever time of day or night, and not waiting for the perfect moment. Meeting the challenge of making strong images out of scenes that are generally overlooked can teach us so much about photography – no matter how long we have been doing it.

Fennel in frost, against a backdrop of a beech hedge. An image only made possible by the frost.  Photography by Philip Smith

In this wet, mild winter I have been looking out at murky scenes, whether in the woods or in the garden. Very little sun to liven things up. Very little bright colour to make the heart race.  Venturing out with the full kit of tripod, lenses, everything else I spend the first ten minutes wondering what I am doing there as I squelch around some dismal looking trees. Where’s the colour? Good question. It’s all around me. But it needs to be discovered.

And I have some shiny new lenses to help me. I have been using Sigma lenses for years and they have asked me to use their 180mm lens for a while to see what I think. It’s wonderfully sharp and I am starting to have fun. My eye is beginning to tune up and the colour all around me is starting to get into my brain. The colour is not bright, it does not scream for attention. But it is deep and subtle, smelling of the earth and the season.

 

Leaves after rain. Photography by Philip Smith

Leaves after rain. Photography by Philip Smith

Winter creates shapes and forms that that can open our eyes to new ‘landscapes’.

The ultrasharp focus of my perspective control macro lens makes this kind of winter detail take me to a different universe altogether. Photography by Philip Smith

In winter gardens you can often see the underlying shapes of things more clearly than later in the year. The skeletal forms of hydrangea flowers are among my favourite subjects in winter. Here I have used split toning to add some moody tints. Split toning is available in Lightroom and Photoshop. Although 95% of my processing is done in Lightroom, it is Photoshop I turn to with split toning, since there are more options available and, in my view, it is easier to use.

In winter gardens you can often see the underlying shapes of things more clearly than later in the year. The skeletal forms of hydrangea flowers are among my favourite subjects in winter. Here I have used split toning to add some moody tints. Split toning is available in Lightroom and Photoshop. Although 95% of my processing is done in Lightroom, it is Photoshop I turn to with split toning, since there are more options available and, in my view, it is easier to use.

The first flowers of the year are beginning to emerge. These midwinter wonders offer the photographer so much. The dull grey sky lends a subtlety to dark flowers that is specific to this time of year. When bits of brightness appear, they shine out like jewels.

Helleborus ‘Blue Moon’. Photography by Philip Smith

The flowers tell us SPring is just  around the corner. Snowdrops are among the most photogenic of plants, but not always photographed well.

In the winter sun their white petals can trick cameras into over exposing, especially if the scene contains contrasting dark earth. The flowers can be left looking like white blobs.

This shot was taken on a very grey, dark early morning. Dull light, yes, but it does show the veins on the petals nicely because the camera can handle the low contrast very well. Photography by Philip Smith

Try using spot metering to make sure the exposure of the flowerhead is correct. Or alternatively, bracket the exposures and wait until you get back on the computer to choose the best exposure. You will find that it is easier to photograph snowdrops under a grey sky , since the contrast between the flower and its surroundings is much lower, enabling the camera to record detail and true colour more easily.

If you can balance the contrast between the white flower and the background, then your image will have a coherence it might otherwise miss. Here, the background is a mid-toned shrub – handy!

Philip Smith’s workshops for 2016 are now listed on his website –

 go to http://www.philipsmithphoto.com/workshop-schedule

Cultivating the Image

I have recently led an International Garden Photographer of the Year workshop at the Beth Chatto Gardens near Colchester. The workshop was timed to coincide with the opening of an IGPOTY exhibition in the grounds. We were privileged to be able to work in the Water Garden, an area of moisture-loving plants surrounding a series of ponds and streams, as well as borders of mixed planting with a backdrop of mature trees.

It was a beautiful late autumn day and the garden was – as ever – looking wonderful.  A few of the workshop students were a bit worried that they wouldn’t be able to find enough subjects here. After all, most of the herbaceous plants had gone over and there were only pinpoints of strong colour from the few remaining asters and hardy fuchsias.

It struck me as an interesting comment, not least because when I arrived at the garden in the early morning, I was so excited by the amount of colour that I could see. The gardeners have left foliage to decline gracefully, creating wonderful patterns of muted yellows, reds, browns and greens. There is of course a melancholic feel to the garden in this season, but working with these moods can inspire your photography just as much as a vibrant summer border.

Fallen leaves are held in a large leaf of Darmera peltata ‘Nana’. The rich reds of the dying leaves offer a palette of colour that is not available at other times of the year. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Fallen leaves are held in a large leaf of Darmera peltata ‘Nana’. The rich reds of the dying leaves offer a palette of colour that is not available at other times of the year. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Pale tones can glow in the thin light of autumn and winter, offset by the dark shades of dead foliage. These juxtapositions can present a myriad of creative opportunities for abstract and complex compositions, where colour and texture come to centre stage. Photography by Philip Smith

Pale tones can glow in the thin light of autumn and winter, offset by the dark shades of dead foliage. These juxtapositions can present a myriad of creative opportunities for abstract and complex compositions, where colour and texture come to centre stage. Photography by Philip Smith

Photography is about capturing light first, objects second. In the late season garden, the effect of light on flower photography can get overlooked.  But in my view, when colours are muted, light it is an even more important factor than in the summer border. When there is sunlight in the winter garden, look out for opportunities to use it to create depth and richness in the composition.

Here, I have positioned myself carefully so that the dark tree foliage creates a frame for the view beyond, which is lit by the low sun. This creates a sense of depth in the image which can be almost theatrical. The dying hosta foliage, glowing yellow, creates interest in the foreground to further emphasise the viewer’s  engagement with the scene. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens.

This dramatic composition is nothing without the effect of light on the foliage. Here, the sun is in front of the camera. Exposure of this kind of image can be tricky and it is useful to bracket exposure values to see which setting works best.  Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Late in the year, the lack of vibrant colour can lend a tonal coherence to a scene where plants which would look very different from each other in the summer now all have limited palettes of browns and yellows.  With colour muted, it is possible to concentrate on tone and texture, opening our eyes to new dimensions in the garden scene. Here the silhouetted teasels are at their maximum height, and they provide crisp outlines in contrast to the softer shapes of collapsing herbaceous perennials and marginals. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

Similarly here, the Cornus stems provide a textural  contrast to the shimmering foliage beyond. Photography by Philip Smith courtesy Beth Chatto Gardens

 

The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Beth Chatto Gardens continues until 25th January 2016.

Beth Chatto gardens and IGPOTY share the objective to make the gardens a centre of excellence for photography and a place where people can experience the best of horticulture and photography in equal measure.

Dates for future workshops are:

March 30 2016
May 23 2016
July 5 2016
October 8 2016

 

 

 

 

Winner takes all?

October 31st is the deadline for entering International Garden Photographer of the Year 2015 – Competition 9.

My involvement in IGPOTY dates from the very first conversations about the viability of the idea back in the 'noughties'. In that time I reckon I’ve looked at and helped judge upwards of 150,000 photographs of flowers and plants. I’ve organised eight judging panels and been intimately involved for about a year in total  as decisions and comments are made about those 150,000 images. I've watched and participated as they are pored over, pulled apart, praised, and, in a few  cases, investigated!

Our first winner - Kenrokuen Gardens by Claire Takacs

Our first winner - Kenrokuen Gardens by Claire Takacs

So I feel I am in a good position to offer some insights into the process and offer some general tips about your entries. So here you go:

·         Get the basics right. Some people enter their images in the wrong orientation, or upside down, expecting the judges to put it right. Judging is done on what is entered, not what the judges think the photographer should have entered. You can check your entries on your ‘My Images’ page – if it looks wrong you can delete and do it again. But not if you are less than seven days away from the deadline.

·         Think carefully about the category. Fungi are always a difficult subject from that point of view. It is difficult to have a specific fungi category as there would not be enough entries; so you have to include them in one of the existing categories. Is the fungus in a wood or forest? Then trees woods and forests is right. Is it lying on a kitchen table? Then ‘Bountiful Earth’ should be OK.

·         Don’t ask  ‘what are the judges looking for?’ They don’t set out with prejudices about the type of image that should win. They simply make judgements about what they see, whether the image moves or inspires them.

·         There is always room for the off the wall image, so long as the basics of photography technology are respected.

·         Amusing images always go down well in judging. They attract attention, and bear in mind  there have been winners whose main attribute has been that the image is a clever visual laugh.

·         If you feel that you are interested to get feedback on your entries, make sure that you pay attention to the instructions. In particular, the deadlines for asking for feedback.

·         Try to avoid uploading your entries at the last minute. The deadline is midnight on October 31st.  Different time zones are catered for. if you have a problem the team can help you, but this can be tricky if you are up against the deadline.

Last year's winner - Ballerinas by Magdalena Wasiczek

Last year's winner - Ballerinas by Magdalena Wasiczek

So what's in it for me? Well, £7500 is the top prize of course. But you would be able to take a great deal of pleasure from the enjoyment you will give to people who visit IGPOTY exhibitions in the UK and around the world. The award you can win will make a big difference to how you view your photography. Professional photographers have told us that it has had a big and positive influence, in some cases it has set them on a road to commercial success they could not have envisaged without an IGPOTY award.

And even if you don't win any prize, you can get a lot out of our feedback. Last year we were swamped with requests. Now we have upgraded our systems and methods to respond to the demand. In particular we want to get the feedback out more quickly than previous years. People who asked for feedback from their Photo Project entries have already benefitted from this. I do most of the feedback now. 

So if you're thinking about it - have a go. It's not only the winners who get the prizes. And you will be contributing to a project that supports the work of botanic gardens around the world. We can't survive without plants - let's celebrate them together.

As William Tell said once: "something to aim for"

Apple 'Sunset' by Philip Smith

Apple 'Sunset' by Philip Smith







That's not really how it was...

On my garden photography workshops somebody will tell me of a visit to a grand garden, where they used their compact camera or phone, took loads of pictures,  and then when they saw the images on the computer at home they were disappointed – “that’s not really how it was.”

As a pro garden photographer, going to a garden just for pleasure is a bit weird. Normally, we get access to gardens at odd times of the day – often very early morning with nobody around. We keep an eagle eye on the forecasts so the weather and light are as good as they can be.

But if I am just visiting a garden for pleasure with the family I am only able to visit when it’s open to the public and I very often don’t have a choice of when to visit – so I have to take my chance with the conditions.

But of course I always take the camera as so many of us do – to capture the day, the colour, the wonderful flowers, the sunshine and just sheer happiness of it all. I can’t take my huge bag of equipment, let alone my tripod and reflectors since they tend to be impractical lumbering about in the tea room. I like to carry my little Panasonic Lumix GX1 with a 14-42mm zoom lens - this has a good lens and a reasonable sensor – but it’s by no means an advanced, or even semi-pro camera.

Well then. how do you get closer to the spirit of the place in your images where your options  are limited? 

A hot car journey on a July afternoon and an impromptu visit to John Brookes’ wonderful garden at Denmans in Sussex. Terrible light for photography, but images can be enhanced by looking at the designer’s ideas of creating transitions from one ‘room’ to another, and using planting and features to draw the eye into the space beyond. This can be done whatever camera you use. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

The trouble and the joy of gardens is that there is such a lot to see, herbaceous plants blooming left right and centre, roses arching over pergolas, and bees and butterflies everywhere. Faced with such a multitude of subjects the temptation is to click click click and keep on clicking, in the hope that somewhere, somehow, in the mass of images the magic of the garden will transmit itself to the screen.

Whatever camera you are using, and whatever the circumstances, the most important way to improve your photography is to spend a little longer in thought about what you are trying to achieve.

On a visit to a garden centre last summer I sat on a wall while my wife bought plants. The centre had a show garden and I idly watched the visitors wandering around the beds. There were cameras of all sorts – phones, DSLRs – some with tripods – and smaller CSC cameras. And there were photographers of all sorts too - the ones snapping to record planting ideas, to the ones looking to make an artistic response to the scene in front of them. After a while I started to note the time that people were spending on their shots – stop, look, camera up, click, look at image on the screen, move on. I reckoned over a fifteen minute period the average time for that process was eight seconds.

Well it wasn’t scientific but the point is that photography is so accessible now that we need only spend a few seconds creating an image. But if we want to create images that speak to us and to others on an emotional level, we have to spend a bit more time in contemplation both of the scene and the images we are capturing.

Photograph your favourite flower by all means, but every now and then stop and think before you move on to the next shot. Check out what it looks like on the viewing screen – not just a glance to see if it’s ‘come out’, but really look. If there’s something intruding on the composition then shift your position – kneel down – or change the angle – to eliminate that intrusive element from the shot. Compare these two shots:

Moving position just half a pace has edited out the bench behind the flower and created a more considered image. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

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 dead centre.  Compare these two shots:

These spring borders at Sissinghurst in Kent take the breath away when you are there; in a two dimensional rectangle defined by your camera lens the effect is diminished. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

These spring borders at Sissinghurst in Kent take the breath away when you are there; in a two dimensional rectangle defined by your camera lens the effect is diminished. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

By picking out a feature - in this case the urn -  and organising the composition around it, a much ‘truer’ impression of the abundance of planting is communicated. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

The visual anchor doesn’t have to be a feature. When faced with a big group of flowers in a border the temptation is to try to include everything. I like to ‘promote a flower to captain’ so that it becomes the focal point around which the other blooms are grouped.

Captain Echinacea. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

Captain Echinacea. Panasonic Lumix GX1, 14-42mm lens, unprocessed.

Look at what the garden designer has done with the hard landscaping. Designers will create sightlines and vistas to concentrate the focus on specific features, whether that is 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 vistas help you lead the viewer of your photograph around the garden.

When you get home take a look at your images on the computer. Play around with them and try different crops – see if they could have been improved. 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 good advice for any situation in life.

Have fun on your days out.

The Raw Truth

When I start my workshops I always like to find out how the guys attending the course are used to working with photography. I've found that asking 'do you shoot in raw?'  to be a good way to find out quickly where that person is on their photography journey – better than 'how many lenses do you have?' or even 'what kind of camera do you use?'

First – let me get this out of the way – I love film. I grew up with film and it was my friend and helpmate through many professional years.  In those days we shot on colour transparency film so you did your shoot and then sent it off to a lab on an industrial estate somewhere, with a wait to see the results of your work that could run into days – or even weeks. So when digital came along I realised– that– great! I could do all the processing myself on the computer and, at the same time – damn! I had to do all the processing myself on the computer.

I had to learn a new workflow, a new process, a whole new technology. It was a bit of a struggle and it was only when Adobe came up with a way of processing the raw data contained in an image file that I really got excited.

Cameras capture a lot of data on their sensors, and when you create a jpeg file the formatting throws a lot of that raw data that away. If the camera doesn’t do that you end up with big file sizes that are not practical for storing on small cameras, sending by email, displaying on websites and all of that.

Jpeg formatting leaves us with images that are perfectly acceptable to look at – our brains and eyes have limits on the visual information  that we can process - so we don't miss what the jpeg throws away.

But all of that stuff that's thrown away is good stuff – it's cooking ingredients, wool before it's woven, tubes of colour before Van Gogh gets hold of it. And raw processing enables us to get our hands on all of that  Every tiny bit of tone and colour in our image can be accessed and used to enhance and improve our photography. Yes, the file sizes are bigger than jpeg. No, you can't use raw files without processing them. But if you can get to explore the power of raw processing your photography will never be the same.

Now, once you get your hands on the cooking ingredients you can either play around with them on the kitchen table and make a gloopy mess, or you can have a clear idea of what you are aiming for, and how much of each ingredient you need to make a nice dish. In the case of photography, the aim – most of the time – is to pull out as much detail from the image as possible and to create images with real visual impact.

  Lightoom CC control panel - the unprocessed file on the left - the image on the right is beginning to be worked on.

 

Lightoom CC control panel - the unprocessed file on the left - the image on the right is beginning to be worked on.

The software that enables you to process raw file is Adobe Camera Raw - part of Photoshop, Lightroom and Elements.

It is generally thought these days that the raw processor in Lightroom is the most intuitive and powerful processor around and it is certainly my software of choice- currently Lightroom CC.In future posts I will look at Lightroom in detail – but for now it’s enough to point a couple of the major tools.

 

Exposure correction

Note how the exposure correction has recovered the highlight detail - shown in red in Lightroom - on the verbena bonariensis. There are limits to the extent to which you can alter exposure as you can easily introduce nasty camera noise to the dark areas.

 

Tone-mapping

A tricky exposure can be handled post–capture in Lightroom. It is possible to select specific areas of the image and transform them by re-arranging the colour values of each pixel. It means you can make the most of dramatic lighting that cameras will struggle with without post-capture processing.

The downside of shooting in raw is that processing them before using them is mandatory so it will add a lot of time to your workflow. It will strain your computer’s processing power and you will no doubt need more storage. But it does open up all kinds of creative opportunities to improve your photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IGPOTY workshop in the Dordogne

Well it was an adventure. Set up by Wilf of World Photo Adventure it was an early start but worth the fluster of stuffing a croissant in the camera bag to have later on. At dawn we were driving through an avenue of oak trees at the entrance to the wonderful Jardins du Manoir d'Eyrignac deep in the heart of Dordogne-Perigord.  The secret sign that Wilf had organised to gain access to the garden turned out to be a gentle nod of the head to the gardener walking through the gate carrying his topiary shears, lunch and smiling to himself - and us.

The first set up of the day. photo Philip Smith

The garden is very formal and very French. Topiary topiary everywhere - the task of keeping everything clipped and tidy must be a massive one - but only six gardeners we were told???

The workshop students were a jolly lot. We had discovered the previous evening over a glass or three that tripods are, well, an issue. Cumbersome, heavy, get in the way, 'yes I've got one but I don't use it' - one woman had rushed out to buy one the day before the workshop.

Yes, tripods are fun really photo Wilf James

Yes, tripods are fun really photo Wilf James

The thing about tripods is that they do extend your creative range. Low light, long exposures, low ISO numbers, all come within your scope. And with plants, especially closeup work, you line up the shot very precisely. You often/always need to adjust the framing after the first shot. If you're on a tripod you have a lot more control, as you are adjusting from a fixed position, rather than having to re-establish the composition after each shutter press.

 

The honey coloured stone of the Manoir. photo by Philip Smith

OK nice pic - - but there is a dirty great 'keep off the grass' sign at the front of the lawn. I can't get down any lower so I'll have to rely on Lightroom to help me take this out. I wish I had brought my steps to get up higher - that may have helped reveal the pattern of the hedging as well.
I am going round the students as well as doing my own shots. Everyone seems very happy. C. really gets enthused about the water pools around the garden and spends hours on that - getting some great stuff.
R. is thoughtful and methodical. We discuss the issues about 'getting your head round' a formal garden like this where everything is designed to be seen as a complete pattern  - there aren't many 'nooks and crannies' that we often like. She perseveres and after an hour or so the garden slowly reveals its patterns to her and she begins to get 'in the zone'.

AS the sun gets stronger exposures become more tricky with pale woodwork and deepening shadows in the topiary. Yet another good reason to photograph at the ends of the day in summer with the sun lower in the sky.  photo Philip Smith.

With so much topiary around - already monochrome - it was an invitation fo black and white. Here is the original raw file...

...and one I made later. For me, the greys take it into a more imaginative feel - you decide. photo Philip Smith.

Hey...more topiary...photo by Philip Smith

So we stayed until lunchtime - exhausted after nearly five hours of hugely enjoyable photography, chat, and more chat. Can't wait for a return visit to Eyrignac but I guess we got this garden at exactly the right moment, plenty of sun to create interesting shapes with the hedges, and lots of white roses to lift the spirits.

Next time...the gardens at Cadiot