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.